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Small successes

This summer I took a new job in a new profession. The whole process of applying for, transitioning to, and now learning the job has gone really well, but leaves me with little “bandwidth” to create blog posts! From here on out, posts will most likely be less frequent, or written by guest writers, or reposted from other blogs, or written by me but with less research behind them.

The subtitle of Climbing the Cinder Cone is “Resources for atypical young people.” At present, I don’t have anything to share about programs, therapies, or approaches to try; today, I can only offer small stories of the progress we’ve seen in our older son Nathan. In a way, these kinds of stories are a resource, since they may provide you with Hope – and that can be a Very Important Resource indeed.

Over the last year or so, I’ve shared that Nathan (now in his mid-20s) has been ready to find part-time work. That in itself is huge!

This past spring, he went on his first-ever job interview. After submitting many applications with no result, he was excited about finally getting to the next step.

The opening, at a big home improvement store, included stocking shelves (which is the type of job he wanted) but also customer service (not a good idea). We hoped that during the interview he could talk about his unique character traits and see if, for him, they might adjust the duties to primarily stocking shelves.

We offered to rehearse job interview questions with Nathan, but he declined. He did accept our advice on what to wear. Unfortunately, since he had just cut his own hair, he was sporting a couple of bald patches.

Another concern was making sure he knew how to get to the store. We would be out of town at a funeral on the day of the interview, but Nathan didn’t mind walking the two miles to the store.

On Interview Day, Nathan called us several times; luckily, the calls occurred between events at the funeral. Most critically, right before the interview itself the store had him re-enter almost all of the information from his application. Nathan hadn’t brought the piece of paper where he’s got those kind of details written down, so Mom and Dad had to dictate the answers to him (including spelling).

He called us one last time (between the interment and the reception) to tell us the interview had gone poorly. They’d spoken with him and another candidate at the same time, asking a lot of hypothetical questions about problems with customers and coworkers. He realized at the time he wasn’t answering the questions well.

While Nathan was disappointed to have missed out on that job, he didn’t go into a downward spiral. We told him it was great that he had followed through and had given it his best, despite the difficulties.

A few months and a couple of applications later, Nathan got called to interview for stocking shelves after hours at a large toy store: a good fit for him!

Several things went better this time:

  • He put aside his sensory issues and, for the first time in years, allowed his dad to cut his hair (and afterwards said the process doesn’t bother him any more!)
  • Unbeknownst to us, Nathan had been practicing interview questions and answers on his own.
  • The interview started with a group of applicants being instructed to cooperate in work-like tasks while the HR people observed. Three red flags: it was a surprise to Nathan; he’s never liked group work; and he doesn’t do well with strangers. Despite all that, afterward he reported being surprised with how well he handled himself.
  • He felt good about his performance in the interview.

The last time we can remember Nathan saying he felt good about something he’d done? Maybe at the start of middle school, but probably elementary school – and it was rare even then.

Nathan didn’t get the toy store job either. I’m not sure he’ll be able to land a job without the support of an agency that helps people with disabilities. He runs hot and cold on signing up for help, but is OK with submitting more applications, at his own pace.

He isn’t frustrated, and neither are we. Anyone who has a loved one with a history like Nathan’s will know what it means to see improvements in persistence, grooming, people skills, frustration tolerance, handling unwelcome surprises, and positive self-appraisal.

Five years ago we certainly wouldn’t have believed it possible, but now we dare to have hope for his future.

SSI Continuing Disability Review: our experience

Have you read the post from 2013 titled “When SSI benefits might be terminated“? Not surprising if you haven’t – it hasn’t gotten many views. Heck, I scarcely remembered it, and I wrote the dang thing! But this year I sure reread it a few times after the Social Security Administration (SSA) put Nathan’s case under review.

The old post was written from research and talked in generalities. Which is fine, but it lacked the details of a first-person account. Now, you’ll get to read what happened at each step in the Continuing Disability Review for Nathan’s SSI.

For the last few years we’d been sailing along without much interaction with SSA. In early December a notice would come about the increase in SSI benefits (or not) in the upcoming year. In the spring of every year I’d file the requested Representative Payee Report.

In mid-January this year, out of the blue (unless it was because Nathan had been receiving SSI benefits for exactly five years), we got a Notice of Continuing Disability Review. The letter gave an appointment date and time in mid-February to come in and discuss Nathan’s situation: his health, ability to work, work history, medications, and treatment history in the previous 12 months. The meeting wasn’t going to be at the SSA office where Nathan’s SSI case manager works; a contact person was not specified.

We also received a 13-page form, titled “Continuing Disability Review Report.” Luckily, several parts didn’t apply to Nathan, so the task of completing it wasn’t as daunting as it first appeared. If the SSI recipient isn’t capable of filling out the form, someone who knows the recipient well is allowed to do so. In our case, I filled it out on Nathan’s behalf.

The notice suggested that I telephone soon if I had a conflict. Not responding and not showing up could trigger a loss of benefits. The notice didn’t say whether Nathan himself had to go to the appointment. I opted to go without him.

Report in hand and rehearsing my arguments for keeping the benefits coming, I arrived at the SSA office ten minutes before the appointment – and saw a long, barely-moving line outside the door. No way I’d be sitting inside at the designated time!

When I mentioned this to others at the end of the line, one of them was sure that people with an appointment could bypass the line. Yes!

Even after jumping to the front, I had to get through the metal detector and purse search (where the youthful security guard made fun of my old-school iPod) and then stand in a long line just to get to the check-in kiosk.

Although I finally sat down in the waiting area several minutes after the scheduled time, I needn’t have worried: it was another hour before I was called to a desk.

The gal flipped through the report and said, “Normally, I’d have you answer follow-up questions while I input the information on this form. But since we’re so backlogged today, I’ll just take the report and input it later. Thanks for coming in.”

All that waiting just to submit a document! Would it be enough to convince them?

No. A few weeks later Nathan received a packet from the California Dept. of Social Services. SSA had forwarded the claim to them for review, and they had decided more information was needed.

The packet was sent and addressed only to Nathan, and contained an eight-page “Function Report – Adult – Third Party,” to be submitted in ten days. The cover letter included the following paragraph:

“When we evaluate a claim for disability, we must determine how the claimant’s impairment(s) affects his/her ability to function in normal daily activities. Your name was provided by the claimant as a source of this type of information. Therefore, your assistance in completing the enclosed daily activities form is requested.”

But … wasn’t Nathan the claimant? How could he complete a third-party report when he is the first party?

I called the analyst who sent the packet for clarification. She cheerfully explained that Nathan was supposed to give the report to someone who knows him well.

“So … that could be me?” I asked.

“Oh, absolutely!” she replied. “We’d prefer that, actually. You probably know him better than anyone.”

“Okaaay,” I said, wondering why they hadn’t sent it to me in the first place! Or why the letter didn’t tell the recipient to give the form to someone else.

Almost all sections of this form consisted of multipart essay questions. Topics include: the claimant’s mental/physical condition, daily activities, personal care, meals, house and yard work, getting around, shopping, money, hobbies and interests, social activities, and general abilities.

Remembering the advice we’d heard when submitting/appealing Nathan’s SSI application – “bombard them with documentation!” – I gave detailed answers to every question, using the “Remarks” section to complete earlier answers where I’d run out of room. It took several hours over several days to finish.

“This better be enough to convince them!” I thought as I faxed the report on Day 10.

It wasn’t. In mid-April Nathan received a notice that he needed to be examined by a mental health professional chosen by the Dept. of Social Services.

The appointment, at no cost to us, was scheduled for mid-May. Again, failure to show up might result in SSI benefits being terminated. Nathan had to sign and mail or fax a short form confirming the appointment and authorizing the results to be shared with his doctor.

By this time, Nathan was getting concerned that his benefits might be cut off. Although his willingness to try employment has improved, none of us believe he could tolerate working enough hours to support himself. His depression, ADHD, and Aspergers and/or Schizoid Personality Disorder still present large obstacles to holding a job.

On the day of the appointment, Nathan mentioned that his mind was foggy. We got there a few minutes early, and he was given a form to fill out.

He’s never been speedy at writing answers to questions, but on this day he labored over each word. “How do you spell ‘suicidal depression’?”  “Who was my last doctor?” And so forth.

He was called back before finishing. The exam only took ten minutes; then he came back out to the waiting room and slowly completed the rest of the form. Afterwards, Nathan lamented that he hadn’t explained himself clearly to the examiner. “I just couldn’t come up with the right words. I think I blew it.”

Silently, I reflected that not expressing himself well may have helped the cause.

In the days and weeks that followed we braced for the decision, or for the next request for information. Reviewing the 2013 blog post, I saw that SSI benefits are hardly ever terminated due to the recipient no longer qualifying as “disabled.” Was this still true?

The letter came to Nathan in mid-June, stating that “…you will continue to receive Supplemental Security Income payments if you still meet all the other eligibility requirements. This is because you are still disabled under our rules.”

Whew!

The letter also included this paragraph:

“The doctors and other trained staff who decided that you are still disabled believe that your health may improve. Therefore, we will review your case again in about 3 years. We will send you a letter before we start the review.”

What can other atypical young adults on SSI take away from our experience?

  • The likelihood of the case being reviewed might increase at the five-year mark.
  • The SSA and its cooperating agencies may be more persistent in their review than you anticipate.
  • The review process can take months from start to finish.
  • When information is requested, do not be a slacker!

 

 

A sampling of work training programs

The information in this post comes to you courtesy of Jackie Martin of Vocational Steps. She’s always on the lookout for ways to provide atypical young people with job training and opportunities, and had sent me a list of several programs already in place around the US.

As Jackie told me in an email, “…the different programs/companies [in the list] actually came from different people who would email and say, ‘I found this link and it sounds interesting’ and then I researched each one to get their information.  I wanted to be able to show people here in CA that there are programs for our young people – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to duplicate it! …[T]he more people know about successful employment models, the quicker we can start duplicating them in our own cities and be able to have more of our young people employed.”

Jackie is now “working with a new company called ‘CoNNect’ (connectproductsandpeople.com).  It is based in Murrieta CA with the main warehouse there, a small one in Colton and now one in Corona.  The oversimplified description is that the CEO–Jonathon Mills–wants to help people with disabilities (and veterans) get some work experience and then help them find a job out in the community.” The jobs have included things like office work and sorting recycled plastics, with more possibilities on the horizon.

What follows is the list of particular programs in California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. If you live near one of them, you might want to check it out. For the rest of us, learning about these programs may help us figure out what can be done in our own communities.

EXCEPTIONAL MINDS – Sherman Oaks, CA

A non-profit vocational center, animation and working studio for young adults on the Autism Spectrum.

  • Accredited certificate from Adobe Flash Systems (Programs taught: Flash, Photoshop, Dream Weaver or Mocha Pro)
  • 3 year Program (10 months per year, 5 days per week)
  • Vocational center and working studio
  • Visually-gifted ASD individuals
  • Graphic Arts
  • Animation
  • Web Design
  • Visual Effects
  • Rotoscoping

Offer:

  • Full-Time Program: 3 yrs., 5 days per week, 10 months per year
  • Private Lessons: To prepare individuals for the Accredited Program
  • Summer Workshops: 6 weeks, 3 sessions available:
  • Animator
  • Video Game Creation
  • Movie Magic-Visual Effects

Exceptional Minds  – 13400 Riverside Drive, Suite 211, Sherman Oaks, CA  91423

(818) 387-8811

exceptionalmindsstudio.org

 

EXTRAORDINARY VENTURES – Chapel Hill, NC

Non-profit organization that creates and nurtures self-sustaining small businesses designed around the skills of the young adults with autism and developmental disabilities that serve as its workforce.  They currently employ 40 people.  Some work 2 hours per, 2 days per week and others work 30—40 hours per week.   “EV” operates six (6) ‘ventures’:

  • A full laundry service (laundry and dry cleaning)
  • Office services (collating, stapling, stuffing envelopes, etc.)
  • Candles and gifts, sold in their gift shop (they make their own candles and scents)
  • Cleaning and maintenance service for city buses
  • An event center that rents space for meetings and conferences, and they staff the event
  • Parking at football games for the University of North Carolina

 Extraordinary Ventures  – 200 South Elliot Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Phone: 919-967-1100                            

extraordinaryventures.org

 

PATHFINDER REGIONAL  VOCATIONAL—TECHNICAL   HIGH   SCHOOL – Palmer, MA

Vocationally-based, hands-on high school offering academics and vocational training to students who qualify.

  • Serves students in grades 9-12 who, if they qualify, attend from nine surrounding cities
  • Information night for potential candidates is offered to 5th—8th graders at their respective schools
  • Offer 14 “shops”:
  • Collision Repair
  • Automotive Technician
  • Carpentry
  • Machine
  • Electronics
  • Electrician
  • Horticulture
  • Health Assisting
  • Food Management
  • Cosmetology
  • Business Technology
  • Programming & Web Design
  • HVAC-R (Heat, Vent, A/C & Refr)
  • CAD (Computer-Aided Drafting)
  • Each “shop” is a total hands-on learning experience (e.g. Students build a house every year)
  • Co-op program: Second semester of junior and senior years, students alternate working at a business for one week and studying at school the next week.  They are paid by the employer.
  • Very strict selection criteria
  • They provide for students with special needs and have had Life Skills students in their program

Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School  – 240 Sykes Street Palmer, MA 01069
1-413-283-9701

pathfindertech.org  

 

MINDSPARK – Santa Monica, CA

Socially Responsible Outsourcing

Many U.S. companies outsource their software testing to offshore companies in India or China, which has many drawbacks due to the time zone and cultural differences. This leads to communication inefficiencies that may increase the effective cost of these services. The software industry is already entrenched in a model where the software testing services are not performed at the customer’s location. In effect, MindSpark will also be an outsourced IT company, but instead of customers outsourcing to companies in India or China, they can outsource to a socially conscious company in America offering high quality services at competitive rates. Any company that chooses to outsource their software testing work to MindSpark can feel satisfaction that they are employing people in America and providing opportunities for individuals with specialized abilities to be gainfully employed.

Core Commitment to Social Purpose

Consistent with its socially responsible mission, MindSpark Inc. was incorporated as a benefit corporation in the state of California in May 2013. A benefit corporation, legal in California since January 1, 2012, allows entrepreneurs and investors to organize corporations that can pursue economic and social objectives simultaneously. The benefit corporation has a core commitment to social purpose embedded in its organizational structure, with an additional commitment to full transparency and accurate assessment and reporting of its social, environmental, and financial performance and impact.

The MindSpark Training Academy (MTA) was incorporated as a non-profit organization in June 2013.  In late 2014, MTA will attain 501(c)(3) status and will become eligible for funding from foundations that support organizations with tax-exempt status. A higher level of funding will allow MTA to offer more deserving young adults the opportunity to obtain the training required for employment as software testers.

The principal owners of MindSpark Inc. are working without compensation to launch and manage the enterprise. Growing the business will enable MindSpark to train and hire increasing numbers of qualified and deserving employees. As a vital and socially conscious benefit corporation, MindSpark will provide profits to be distributed to its employees in the future.

MindSpark Training Academy

The MindSpark Training Academy was created to provide vocational training to talented and qualified individuals with specialized abilities, particularly young adults on the autism spectrum. The customized training will enable these individuals to use their interest in technology, keen eye for detail, and sustained focus to earn a living. Attention to detail and sustained focus are highly valued in the field of software testing, which can be enjoyable for people with an aptitude for finding patterns and irregularities, and highly satisfying when problems are identified in the software that is being tested.

Candidates who are interested in the training program will be asked to fill out an application form and an assessment checklist prior to being invited for an interview and further assessment. Only those candidates with a high likelihood of completing the program will be accepted for training.

The MindSpark Training Academy plans to offer four 11-week training sessions per year, and may also offer accelerated 6-week training sessions. Training is offered free of charge. After completing a training session, qualified trainees will be offered a 3-month paid apprenticeship with MindSpark Inc., which subsequently leads to employment as a paid software testing analyst. In collaboration with Square One and MindSpark, we have a team of trainers and experienced test leads who will provide a supportive, safe and respectful environment.

Our MTA Manager of Training and Development, Judy Metz, has a doctorate in Psychology, a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology, and twenty years of experience developing and implementing software solutions. Our trainees will have an understanding teacher with real-world experience to guide them towards their new careers.

Process

Application

Interview and Assessment

11-Week Classroom Training with Certificate of Completion

3-Month Paid Apprenticeship

MindSpark  – 2525 Main Street Ste. 214, Santa Monica, CA 90405

310-396-9292

http://www.mindsparktech.com/

 

GREEN BRIDGE GROWERS – South Bend, IN

What We Do

We provide skill-matched employment to underserved young adults on the autism spectrum using an innovative highly-productive agricultural method, aquaponics.

Skill-Matched Employment for the Autism Spectrum

Green Bridge Growers is a venture with a strong social mission, and sustainable practices are at our core.  With 90% of adults with autism experiencing unemployment, Green Bridges leverages new jobs for those with autism in our community – using aquaponics to grow vegetables productively throughout the year.

The Other 90% Problem

Unbelievably, 90% of the food we eat in Indiana is grown out-of-state, despite the skyrocketing demand for locally grown food.  We thought, why not connect this 90% problem with the lack of employment for those on the autism spectrum and develop a solution that also contributes to our local community?  Green Bridge Growers was created from this solution-oriented way of thinking.

Our growing practices are the very best.  We use organic growing methods and materials, grow year-round, and employ the innovative new farming method, aquaponics, into our system.  Within this system, fish and plants grow in harmony, producing faster growing rates and much less waste.  Our customers include high-end restaurants and grocery stores, and we’ve begun exploring a future relationship with Notre Dame Food Services.

As part of our professional development goals, we’ll further engage our workforce through leadership training, active participation, and team building, allowing our autistic employees to accumulate integral new skills and competencies.

 How We Do It

The innovative aquaponic method of farming that we use in our venture has the unique ability to grow fish and vegetables in tandem.  Fish grow in tanks in a closed-loop ecosystem, where fish effluent is filtered and fertilizes the plants we grow.  The plants then cleanse the water for the fish.  Aquaponics uses 90% less water than conventional farming, and has the additional benefit of reducing time to harvest by one-third.  Plant growth is greatly accelerated by aquaponics!

When we learned of aquaponics several years ago, we began attending intensive training sessions to learn hands-on practical skills and concepts.  Aquaponics is such a phenomenal outlet for our own interests and skill sets, but it also is an outstanding match for the skills of those with autism.  We’ve learned from the best in the field, and maintain membership to the US Aquaponics Association.

We manage other installations, such as the Century Center Skywalk in Sound Bend, that feature year-round growing using soil enriched by organic materials like worm castings and coconut coir.  Incorporating great organic nutrients into our soil and our aquaponic system helps us raise plants that are productive, healthy, and of the highest taste and quality for our customers.  We take tremendous pride in providing jobs for the underserved of our community, while keeping our products fresh, organic, and as close to the customers as possible!

Green Bridge Growers

Innovation Park Notre Dame  – 1400 E. Angela Blvd. #148, South Bend, IN  46617

574-310-8190

greenbridgegrowers.org

 

A long streak of that bad luck

Young people finishing school and entering adulthood need a source of income. Unless they’ve inherited a fortune or have turned to a life of crime, that means getting a job. Looking for employment is often a slog, but the seeker has to be persistent. Beyond that, the processes of landing a job and holding onto it can also have unpleasant challenges – especially for someone with hidden or obvious disabilities.

As I shared in the previous post, our son Nathan has submitted a half dozen online applications to supermarkets over the last several months, with no response so far. Disappointing, but not too surprising given his lack of experience. However, the job-seeking experiences of our son Alan over the last year really have us struggling to remain undaunted. He’s had training in a few fields and gotten certifications; he’s been getting help from two government-sponsored employment assistance agencies; and has applied to many, many places. The result? The loss of one job, another job eight months later that lasted one day, and several close calls for employment.

Probably other atypical young job seekers have these kind of setbacks – but do they have this many? Here’s the rollercoaster we’ve been on:

  • The security guard firm he was working for (they had just given him a raise!) transferred him to a different slot that, it turned out, was already promised to a different employee. The firm said they would try to find another placement for him – but never got back to him and wouldn’t return his calls.
  • An acquaintance of his wanted Alan to help with his start-up supply business. It was sure to be lucrative because demand was high and the fellow already had signed contracts with clients. But after weeks of waiting for pieces of machinery to arrive so they could get production rolling, the acquaintance used Alan’s help sporadically, then found someone else who already had experience with the product. Suddenly Alan was frozen out, and never got paid for the times he had helped with set up and production.
  • Alan passed the written and physical tests for becoming a deputy sheriff, but decided not to pursue the application further once he learned a successful applicant needs to have at least one year of steady job experience.
  • A staffing agency found a position for him in a warehouse. On his first day, a pile of boxes fell on him (not his fault). The agency required him to get checked out by a physician the following day. Alan was ready to go back to work on the third day, but the agency said they don’t usually send workers back to the same place after an incident like that. They were going to try to place him in another warehouse, but that never happened.
  • Alan interviewed well for a door-to-door solar energy sales job, but didn’t get an offer.
  • He next attended a company-sponsored trucking school where he learned to drive big rigs – and he found to his surprise that he liked it! He got his CDL A permit and was doing well, until: the day before he was to test for his license, the company decided that his solo motorcycle accident 3 1/2 years ago was a dealbreaker. (By the way, Alan had disclosed the accident the first day he enrolled.)
  • He jumped through all the hoops for becoming a ride-share driver. The only problem was, the company doesn’t allow drivers to have licenses that are a mismatch with the official record at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, and Alan’s physical license card didn’t reflect the CDL A permit (which he wanted to keep active until he could manage to get his license).
  • Alan tried another company-sponsored trucking school, where the accident was not a factor. Again he did well – the company even sent him to orientation before he tested for his CDL license. Unfortunately, when it was time for the road test, Alan developed a bad case of test anxiety. He was allowed three tries, each on a different day, but was so jittery that he failed each time.
  • While regrouping from that letdown, he was contacted by a company he’d been trying to get in with for years. (A friend of ours who works for the company had a copy of Alan’s application and would pass it to the appropriate manager when entry-level positions became open.) The stars aligned; Alan was interviewed and offered the job right then! All he’d have to do is pass the background check, physical, and drug test. What could possibly go wrong this time?

 Well, the physical exam included a grip strength test. Alan says the clinic staff member handed him a device and said “squeeze this.” Alan squeezed pretty hard, but not with 100% maximum effort. The staff member saw the first reading and said “next two times, squeeze with all your might,” which Alan did. You guessed it: the low first reading skewed the average of all three readings to below the acceptable measure of grip strength. He was not allowed to retake the physical. No job after all.

Is it really possible for someone to have this much bad luck?

Maybe. Or, maybe underlying fear of becoming an adult is leading to self-sabotage whenever he comes close to landing a job. Or maybe the hiccups in his brain’s executive function and information processing are contributing to these near-misses.

Whatever the reason, the disappointment after each fizzled opportunity is hard to bear, for him as well as his trying-to-be-patient parents. We bounce back as best we can and look forward to the “good fortune” that follows bad luck, as mentioned in the proverb. Meanwhile, we gotta give Alan lots of credit for trying different things, for seeking help from counselors, and for just plain hanging in there!

A chat with a Walgreens store manager

In his own way and at his own pace, our 24-year-old son Nathan has been applying online for part-time jobs. The search has been all his idea, which is a huge step forward from his previous attitude about working.

He is seeking after-hours or behind-the-scenes jobs where there’s no customer interaction. He’s probably completed five or six applications over the last few months. While they all seem to have been submitted successfully, no one has contacted Nathan for an interview. So far, he hasn’t become discouraged – but if he continues to get zero results, it’ll be no surprise if he gives up.

I’ve been pondering how we might improve his odds for getting an interview. I suggested it might help if he’d introduce himself to the store manager shortly after submitting an application. Nathan (who doesn’t like people) is against that idea. “I don’t want to talk to anyone unless I know they’re interested in hiring me.”

Having heard that Walgreens has a good reputation for hiring people with disabilities, not long ago I stopped in one of their stores early on a weekday morning and asked to speak to the manager. I was hoping he wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes to tell me how a young fellow like Nathan might increase his chances of getting hired.

The manager didn’t mind. In fact, once I explained our general situation, Joe spoke with great empathy and conviction about Walgreens employees with disabilities.

First, here’s what he said about the nuts-and-bolts of applying. Although I’d heard that online applications are often screened (and maybe eliminated) by an Applicant Tracking System, Joe said he sees all the ones for his store. On the applications he looks for basic things, like correct spelling and capitalization, that indicate the applicant made an effort. He realizes some candidates don’t have much of a work history, and doesn’t necessarily hold that against them.

Applicants who seem promising are asked to come in for a computer-based skills assessment in a back room. He’ll interview applicants who get a decent score (although on occasion he has hired bright people who didn’t do well on the assessment). For the interview, it helps when the candidate has made an effort to look presentable. At the same time, Joe prefers not being misled about an applicant’s everyday appearance. For instance, taking out all visible piercings for the interview but expecting to wear them on the job? Not good.

As for Nathan’s particular circumstances, Walgreens stores don’t have entry level behind-the-scenes jobs. Employees work in the store during store hours, and are expected to staff the cash register and otherwise assist customers as part of the job. We then talked about other types of stores, like Walmarts and supermarkets, that usually have positions more suitable for someone like Nathan.

With that said, Joe suggested Nathan could fill out an application, then come in to take the skills assessment – just to gain the experience of doing that. I’d be allowed to accompany him and help clarify any questions he didn’t understand. (One question that many applicants answer incorrectly talks about establishing rapport with a customer; most of them don’t know what “rapport” means.) The manager went a step further and said he’d even interview Nathan, to give him some real-world interview experience. How great is that?

Joe mentioned that he has visited the closest Walgreens distribution center, where people with disabilities comprise 15% of the workforce. He says overall they are a definite asset to the company, with good work habits and an upbeat attitude. A setting like that would be a better fit for Nathan than a Walgreens store; unfortunately, it’s at least a half-hour drive and not accessible by bus from where we live.

Finally, Joe told me about a corporate event a few years ago where all the store managers were gathered. A highly placed executive addressed the crowd about his determination to find a way for including people with disabilities in the Walgreens workforce. The executive’s motive?  He has a son with autism, and was concerned about the lack of work opportunities for people like him.

Joe said the speech received a standing ovation, with many of the managers wiping away tears. And so a corporate commitment was born.

It was time to get on with my day. I thanked Joe for talking with me, and he offered his sincere best wishes for Nathan and our family.

When I later told Nathan about the manager’s offer for interview experience, he declined. But my chat with Joe was not a waste. I came away with insight into hiring practices, appreciation for one corporation’s commitment – and material for this blog post! Oh, and gratitude for the kind people of this world. Not a bad haul for fifteen minutes.

 

Wanted: more training and employment opportunities

This post from last month shared some practical tips for job searching I learned from Jackie Martin, president of Vocational Steps. When we met, Jackie and I also discussed the broader picture of employment for our neurodiverse young people. If you’d like to learn about that, read on!

In Jackie’s experience, when most employers consider whether to hire people with disabilities, they have no trouble curbing their enthusiasm – because they’d really rather not. Jackie says that when she meets with executives and asks them about hiring our young people, even if their mouths say “we’re interested,” their body language often says “not gonna happen.”

Perhaps these employers aren’t aware of the evidence showing that businesses come out ahead when they include the disabled on their staff. Low absenteeism and loyal, hard workers are among the advantages gained.

You might think that the tax incentives the government offers for hiring the disabled would make businesses more receptive. Unfortunately, obtaining those incentives means a lot of extra paperwork for the employer, whose response to the hassle is frequently  “Meh – I’ll pass.”

Our family has had first-hand experience with businesses reluctant to hire atypical job-seekers. When our son Alan was getting help from the Dept. of Rehabilitation, he’d tell his employment specialist where he had applied, and she would phone the hiring manager as a follow-up to Alan’s application. The caseworker later told Alan (who had an ADHD diagnosis) that a lot of times when she’d call, the employer would ask whether his disability was physical or mental. When she’d start by saying “it falls more in the mental category,” before she could explain further they’d cut her off with, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any openings.”

There are some companies who are more proactive about hiring the disabled – and hooray for them! Some are really big; others are more local. I’ve heard from different sources that Home Depot, Walgreen’s, CVS and WalMart are among the businesses that are more inclusive of the disabled in their workforce. This link from DiversifyInc lists the top ten companies they find to be the best employers for the disabled.

The Vocational Steps website includes a link to Think Beyond the Label, which “creates opportunities for businesses and job-seekers with disabilities to connect.” The job-seeker can search for particular types of jobs in his or her area. To try it out, I searched for “sales associate” within 15 miles of my ZIP code and got 5 results: all at local Staples stores. We have many, many stores of all types in a 15-mile radius that are hiring in general; most of them must not be registered with TBTL.

An Internet search led me to a similar site called Getting Hired. In my brief test it didn’t locate too many opportunities where I live, but if you live in or near a major city, this might be another good place to start looking.

It occurs to me that businesses whose top executives are atypical (for instance, JetBlue founder David Neeleman has ADHD; Charles Schwab has dyslexia; many entrepreneurs have Asperger’s traits) might be more inclusive of atypical workers. The same would go for smaller businesses where the owner has a family member with challenges similar to those of our kiddos.

What if an employer is willing to hired the differently abled but isn’t sure how to make it work on a practical, efficient level? Consulting firms (such as Griffin-Hammis Associates) and some vocational rehabilitation counselors might be able to offer guidance. One strategy they might suggest is called “job carving.” First, the range of tasks performed in a company is reviewed. If an atypical worker could handle some of the tasks, those duties might be carved away from the workload of current employees and given to the eager new hire. This has the benefit of freeing up the existing employees to focus more of their time on higher-end tasks. Meanwhile the lower-end tasks are still getting done, without the employer paying higher-wage staff members to do them. It’s a win-win-win.

To become a successful employee, a job-seeker needs to either possess some useful skills or be trainable to acquire needed skills. For atypical young people who are wobbly on stamina and perseverance, making the time and monetary commitment for community college, trade school, or a four-year college may be out of reach. There just aren’t many low-cost, low-risk places where they can try their hand at a vocational skill to see if they like it, then get more training and practice with something they do like.

One such place Jackie told me about is Vocademy in Riverside, CA. It’s a “makerspace,” where anybody – teenager to senior citizen, neurodiverse or neurotypical – can come in and learn real-world, hands-on skills. The introductory classes are free, after which the participant might pay $45 – $130 for a 4-hour class plus the cost of materials. There are no grades, tests, or semesters; it’s possible to switch to another skill at any time. The participant can decide how much skill he or she wants to acquire in doing things like (among others) 3D Printing, Laser Engraving, Welding, Woodshop, Sewing, Home and Construction, Costumes and Prop Making, and Programming and Coding. Those wanting to practice what they’ve learned in class can buy a membership, which allows them to use the tools and space at the Vocademy facility in the afternoon and evening. Memberships generally run from $100 to $150 per month.

One of Jackie’s goals is to create another program, based on the Vocademy model, that would provide training and access to skills that commonly fall in the atypical young person’s wheelhouse, including culinary arts, video game design, and software testing.

Brainstorming further, I’m wondering whether some programs for at-risk youth could be adapted to our kiddos. For instance, I read about one program in Los Angeles for teens with a criminal record where they are trained to direct and monitor webcams recording activities of wildlife in Alaska. Something like that might appeal to lots of our young people who think differently!

It’s clear we need innovative thinking (and doing) to increase the opportunities for our young people. Their current job-seeking climate is mostly dismal. We need alternative ways to improve the skills sets of our young people, and we need more employers to get on board with giving them a chance. With that, we can change the dynamic for a growing atypical population that, because of limited opportunity, experiences repeated rejection when attempting to earn a paycheck and do something useful.

“Get a job!” – but how?

We all want our atypical young people to be productive members of society. Many of them are capable of holding part-time or full-time jobs, but aren’t getting hired because they have difficulties with the process of applying for work. They might struggle with recognizing appropriate job openings, filling out applications, showing they have the needed skills and experience, presenting themselves well to potential employers, and staying organized throughout the search.

I recently met with Jackie Martin. She’s President of Vocational Steps, a nonprofit organization that guides and supports adults with mild special needs in obtaining and maintaining employment. I learned so much from her that it’ll take two blog posts to convey it all!

This post will focus on the practical tips Jackie shared regarding applications, resumes, and meeting potential employers.

The Search

Job seekers can find advertised openings by doing targeted searches on websites like Indeed or Monster. It’s also worth looking for Help Wanted signs in the windows of local businesses.

For young people who don’t drive, one tricky part of the job search is finding potential workplaces they can reach. Adult guidance may be needed to figure this out. Would the applicant be able to get to work on foot or bike? Or, could he or she dependably get rides? If the work site is reachable by bus or local rail, the job seeker may need practice boarding the right vehicle, making transfers, and knowing where to get off.

Another obstacle in the search is lack of work experience. Even listings for what we’d consider entry-level jobs often say that months of previous experience are required. While the employer may prefer candidates who have an employment history, it’s still worth applying for a position if the job seeker’s at-home chores, volunteer work, or school experiences can be framed as skills that meet the requirements.

Applications

Applications can be straightforward, but in my experience many of them cause confusion even in high-functioning adults. Patience and persistence are good qualities to have, since some applications can take well over an hour to finish. I suspect that by making the application process an ordeal, employers weed out job seekers who aren’t all that committed.

If the application is on paper, it may be wise to practice filling out a copy before completing the actual form. The application that’s turned in should be as neat and error-free as possible.

For online applications, realize that the majority are “reviewed” by automated applicant tracking systems (ATS). If an application doesn’t have enough of the keywords the ATS has been programmed to look for, or has even one mistake, it can get sorted into the discard pile and never reach a real human being. Sad, but true. So when filling in the blanks try to use the same words and phrases seen in the job description.

Here are other tips related to online applications:

  • Be ready to create a password and to record it somewhere.
  • Make sure all required fields are completed accurately. It’s advisable to fill in all optional fields as well.
  • If you get stuck in a loop, or kicked out of the system before finishing – you’re not alone! Take a deep breath and start over once you’ve calmed down.
  • Some online applications include a section of multiple-choice social questions in which the applicant is asked to “strongly agree,” “somewhat agree,” … “strongly disagree” about the best way to handle a hypothetical situation on the job.
    • Jackie’s advice is to mostly choose the extreme answers, and minimize selecting the ones in the middle range of choices. There seems to be a preference for applicants with strong opinions!
    • Some atypical applicants can be brutally honest about what they’d do in a confrontation with a customer – but this is not the time to be 100% honest! The adult who’s helping them complete the application should glance over their answer selection and steer them toward more socially appropriate responses if necessary.

Resumes

While some employers don’t ask for a resume, at times it may be necessary to upload one in an online application. Other employers may prefer getting a paper copy. It’s best to have a resume prepared in case one is requested.

Start by creating a basic resume on the computer. This can and should be tweaked for each application, matching the language used in the job description as closely as possible. In other words, the smart job seeker will end up creating several versions of his or her basic resume. Save each one as a separate file, because the resume created for the Burger Boy job two weeks ago may be the best starting point for the resume tailored to today’s job opening at Beef & Bun.

Many resume templates can be found online. Following the header, which features contact information, most resumes now start off with a summary statement instead of the “Objective” we old-timers used to put at the top. However it’s identified, Jackie says the summary can be thought of as a branding statement: what are the skills and qualities the job seeker is bringing to the table?

Because our atypical job seekers really need to make a positive impression in order to have a chance, Jackie suggests that they take the extra step of making mini-resumes printed on card stock. The mini-resume, sized so that four of them can be cut from an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet, provides the applicant’s contact information and highlights what s/he’s got to offer. Like a business card, the mini-resumes can be given to the manager when the job-seeker follows up after an application (see below) as a tangible reminder of who this person is.

The application process

According to Jackie, it’s important that the job seeker keep a record of when and where they’ve applied. Big calendars (on a whiteboard or a desk blotter, for example) are a good way to keep track.

The applicant should plan a drop-in visit to the hiring manager one week after submitting the application. The script could go something like “Hello, I’m [Hiram Eenow] and I applied for the ____ position last week. Do you recall whether you’ve reviewed my application?” [The manager gives a reply] “Well, I’m very interested in being interviewed if the position is still open. Here’s a summary of what I can offer [applicant hands the manager his/her mini-resume]. May I have your business card?” [The manager replies] “Thanks for your time; I hope to see you again soon.”

An encounter like that will probably stand out in the manager’s mind!

Afterwards, the applicant should drop by every two weeks to make polite inquiries. That seems to be a good frequency for reminding the manager of one’s interest without being a pest. The applicant may need help after each encounter to interpret the cues in the manager’s body language and tone.

Summary

There’s lots more to the job search process than what is mentioned above. I’ve merely tried to share some insights that may not be well known.

Without having an “in” at a company, the odds can be slim for anyone to get an interview, let alone get hired. Using knowledge of what may help or hinder the application process makes the odds that much better – and our atypical young people need as much of a boost as we can possibly give them.

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