Disabilities in the Workplace: How a Local Organization in Philadelphia Is Training a Generation of Workers


Editor’s note: The names mentioned in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the organization’s participants.

The first evaluation of Ms. Jane’s work with SpArc Philadelphia begins in the afternoon at a volunteer organization in northeast Philadelphia, about an hour and a half from downtown. They prepare meals for people in need, and although it is a small operation, the organization welcomes a large number of volunteers.

Aaron, one of SpArc’s few job developers, first meets Danielle, the volunteer organization’s partner for job assessments, who then directs Ms. Jane to an office where she will be assigned administrative responsibilities. and determine if the job is suitable for him. Ms. Jane is accompanied by Aaron throughout the day, who will assist you as needed.

That day, she is responsible for stamping a large stack of index cards with the name of the organization.

Mrs. Jane suffered an accident which left her with permanent brain damage, causing epilepsy and intellectual disabilities. She also lost the use of her left hand.

She has a positive attitude and was convinced that the job would be easy, as she had already done administrative work. After half an hour, Mrs. Jane had worked out an efficient stamping system to go through the pile faster.

Within an hour, she was quite comfortable in her role as secretary, directing other volunteers to the front desk while she employed her buffer and stack strategy. She also told jokes and made small talk with the surrounding workers.

Aaron barely stepped in and allowed Ms. Jane to do her best, offering encouragement along the way.

“It’s definitely important for me to be here just because we need to know how a person works in a community environment. We have to be there to help them if they have support needs at work,” Aaron said while emphasizing the importance of the assessment period. “You also have to be there to assess (…) skills, strengths. But also, I don’t like to say the word weaknesses but I like to say things that they might need help to improve on.

When the assessment was made, Ms. Jane was a chipper. She loved the role and was ready for her next mission.

Ms. Jane’s site visit is one of hundreds of stories at SpArc Philadelphia, the parent organization that also contains advocacy arms. Ms. Jane’s assessment filters through SpArc’s overall workforce development program.

SpArc Philadelphia is nestled in the industrial northwest of the city, one stop from the final destination of the 33 bus before returning downtown. A short walk through a junkyard and salvage store leads you to a brick structure lined with colorful banners and a low-key entrance that would be fairly easy to miss with the banners alone.

SpArc assists, trains and develops incoming clients with intellectual and mobility challenges through a three-phase program that begins in a community setting. They partner with local volunteer-run organizations where participants can engage in small tasks and develop a set of skills transferable to regular employment. ]

Through a series of partnerships, largely achieved through heavy legwork and door-to-door sales, SpArc has created relationships with volunteer organizations across Philadelphia. Lamees Jiménez, Associate Director of Workforce Development, told AL DÍA what a typical Scouting day would look like.

“One of the first meetings could be a general introduction, like getting to know each other (…) We learn what the participants’ interests are, what they are looking to work on,” Jiménez said.

“The employer can just have a regular conversation with the participants to further acclimatize them, because sometimes the environment can be really nerve-wracking,” she continued.

Jiménez and his team also work directly with each program participant to gather employment history and create resumes for employers. The team can find a job that suits the candidate’s wants and needs through this process.

While productive, Jiménez’s team faces thorny obstacles, like hostile employers who aren’t necessarily open to partnerships.

She said some employers, who will remain anonymous, turn away job developers when they are on hand to offer employment services during a severe labor shortage.

“There are so many obstacles when [it] comes to us to reach employers. Some tell us no. We don’t want to hire “your employees”. They tell us that and it’s so unfortunate because they don’t have that education,” added Jiménez.

Another hurdle on the long list of hurdles Jiménez faces is funding, as coaching through the assessment and hiring process is both expensive and time-consuming.

“The cost to support a person of any disability has increased exponentially,” said Nofre Vaquer, chief operating officer at SpArc.

Organizations like SpArc are funded by the Department of Social Services, and according to the 2022-23 operational budgetintellectual disabilities represent only 11.25% of overall funding.

“We are an important item in the budget. Usually, social services are one of the largest items that any state will spend from its budget. But the money was never enough,” Vaquer said.

He told AL DÍA that, while seemingly generous, funding is usually 12 years behind what is required from year to year.

“We are seeing an influx of dollars into the budget process, but we still need to provide more resources because we are underfunding it,” said council member Derek Green, who chairs the disability committee. .

Green previously crafted legislation to allocate half of 1% of the general budget as a trust fund to direct dollars toward housing services. One is available from the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation. adaptive modification programwho installs improvements to homes to make them more accessible.

But services like SpArc’s workforce development program continue even after a participant has successfully completed the assessment period and landed a position. Since many workplace operations do not consider intellectual or mobility challenges, participants rely on job developers to fill these gaps.

Vaquer noted that some interventions start with integrating the business.

“We have to help the employer change his [Human Resources] process to include neurodivergent people. They’re smart and brilliant, but they just can’t go through that traditional HR process that [we] have experience and no ongoing issues,” Vaquer said.

For participants like Hakimah, SpArc’s services were essential to getting a job she loved and was able to do comfortably.

“I work hard. I socialize with my colleagues and do my job. I get a 15-minute break and do my job. I don’t bother anyone,” Hakimah said.

SpArc Philadelphia is located in Northwest Philadelphia.

Through SpArc, Hakimah took on a community job where she wrapped cakes at a well-known dessert company and a supermarket role that she still has. She told AL DÍA that she didn’t spend as much time at SpArc because she wanted to focus on her current job, which she also got through the program.

Often, Vaquer said, the organization hits its overruns to continue onsite assistance when DHS funding doesn’t cut it.

For Green, achieving an adequate figure that meets the challenge of the disabled community is an uphill battle due to the traditional Commonwealth approach of providing static federal funding deemed sufficient.

“The way the public sector and more specifically Philadelphia has viewed funding, especially for those with learning or physical differences, is that whatever money we get at the federal level or state level states, that’s all the money we’re going to provide in those areas,” Green noted.

New funding has made its way into the overall state budget, such as Sen. Nikil Saval’s Whole Homes Act, which aims to tackle the housing scourge in Philadelphia. But there’s still a lot to see in terms of manpower, with very few safeguards in place.

Green noted that many programs have a long way to go to reach the disability community because their scope is limited to one dimension of the disabled person’s life and general needs.

“They may have other issues in their home outside of where these programs can be funded (…) So not just a roof or a heater or adaptive modifications, but how can we continue to do this work, not just a piecemeal approach?” he said.

“We have people who have intellectual learning differences who might be eligible for many different programs, but don’t know how or may not have the wherewithal to navigate those different programs,” Green continued.

Although Saval did not specify the logistics, he said in an interview with AL DÍA that he would set up teams to reach people who may not have immediate access to an application portal.

But the disability community faces other challenges, such as the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision shrinking ballot boxes and limiting a person with a disability’s ability to vote without a support system in place.

In these cases, local advocacy groups and organizations become critical to a person with a disability’s ability to participate equitably within social structures.


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