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More Than A Job: The Struggles Of Finding Employment For People With Disabilities

Jennie McKeon

To the outsider, a dishwasher job is just a job.

But for Parker Sington, it’s a way to connect with the world.

Parker is a client of the Arc Gateway, a nonprofit organization that works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In April, he got a job washing dishes at Sky’s Pizza through their employment services program.

Jeffrey Weikert is the employment services director for Arc Gateway. It’s his job to help clients find jobs. But sometimes, it’s not easy.

"There are still stigmas out there," he said. "That’s where I come in — I explain to employers that if you give one of our people a chance you’re probably going to find (they) can do an even better job in terms of their reliability, the enthusiasm, the energy, and the commitment they put in to a job."

Many employers have reservations about making accommodations for those who are differently-abled, but Arc Gateway Executive Director Missy Rogers said most accommodations cost less than $50.

“Someone who’s visually impaired might need a special screen to read a computer monitor — that’s under $20,” she said. “We had an individual who applied for janitorial work and had ability issues being in a wheelchair. All we had to do was cut the top of the broom to make it shorter.”

Parker, who is legally blind, has mostly memorized his surroundings— and the lunch menu. And he’ll happily give you recommendations. “Get the Queen B Stromboli…Tuesdays our strombolis are half-off,” he said. “They’re really good.”

Weikert said he has a "30-second elevator speech" ready for employers when he goes job hunting. But it’s the people — his clients — that end up convincing employers.

Parker had almost landed a job at a local lumber company until a manager had second thoughts about liability issues. Weikert drove him “up and down” Davis Highway looking for jobs when they walked into Sky’s.

“It was no question that I was going to hire him automatically,” said Owner Sarah Noble. “Because of his spirit and how excited he was to work and have a job...it was perfect timing. He’s a great person to have around, he’s so positive.”

And it’s not just Parker that benefits from the job. Noble said she believed he could boost morale for coworkers.

“It’s good to have my employers also helping others. It’s good for them to see people like him can have a job. He’s always on time and always helpful. Why would you not want to help someone have a better life?”

Credit Arc Gateway
Arc Gateway client, Emily, smiles while working at YMCA.

Benefits and barriers

There are state programs that fund job training — in some cases clients’ wages could even be reimbursed. Rogers said businesses may also be eligible for tax breaks by hiring a person with disabilities. And Arc Gateway job coaches work closely with clients to help them transition into new jobs to ensure success.

Still, Arc Gateway has about 25 clients seeking work. And job opportunities have slowed as the economy has changed, said Rogers.

"Restaurants used to have a silverware roller, well, that doesn’t exist anymore — wait staff do it at the end of their shift," she explained. "Or at pizza places, someone would fold the boxes, but that job doesn’t exist any longer."

One major barrier for Arc Gateway clients is transportation. Weikert said Escambia County is lucky to have public transportation, but it’s not always reliable.

“Anytime I find a job for someone who relies on public transportation, I have to have that conversation with employers and have them be OK with the fact that it is unreliable sometimes,” he said.

For Santa Rosa clients, like Parker, there is no public transportation.

Arc Gateway was able to secure a contract with Department of Transportation to allow clients to do landscape maintenance and janitorial work at the Florida Welcome Center on Interstate 10, but it’s difficult to find transportation that far away.

“We’ve got the jobs, but we can’t get them to work,” said Rogers.

Earlier this year, Walmart changed the job requirements for front-door greeters. The new requirements including being able to lift 25 pounds, clean up spills, collect carts and stand for long periods of time.

“The Walmart situation was absolutely disheartening,” said Rogers. “We know at least one individual who was affected (by the changes). And he is well-missed at his Walmart. It’s very frustrating that our community can’t figure out a way — and the corporate community can’t figure out a way — to include all types of people.”

The traditional greeter role transitioned into the new role of “customer host” in late April in about 1,000 Walmart stores, said spokesperson Kory Lundberg. The new position is full-time and comes with higher pay.

“In those stores, greeters with a physical disability who said they wanted to continue working at Walmart, were offered another job with the company,” Lundberg said. “We have people with disabilities working in nearly every job we have in a store including store manager.”

Credit Arc Gateway
Arc Gateway client, John, started his job at Maria's Seafood in April.

The ‘three Fs’

For years, people with disabilities were limited to jobs in the “three Fs,” Rogers said.

“Food, filth, and flowers.”

“Really, over the past decade, we’ve been trying to get out of the ‘three Fs’ and come up with other opportunities,” Rogers added. “We have people working in offices, front desk at hotels, some even come to us with college degrees and need help getting the interview.”

Parker said he’d like to one day have a job outside of the service industry. For now, he’d be satisfied with shifts longer than his usual three-hours.

“I’m blessed with the hours I have now, I just want more,” he said.

Job seekers like Parker don’t always need the extra funds. They just like the camaraderie of their coworkers. They like the sense of purpose.

“(People with disabilities) have the same wants and needs and desires — and one of those is to be a valuable member of society and of our community,” said Rogers. “We wake up every single morning and find worth in ourselves because we have a place to go to. We have a place to spend the next eight hours of the day. People with disabilities have that same desire."  

When Parker’s not at work, he wishes he was at work. He likes joking with his coworkers and talking to customers.

“I feel like I’m one of them,” he said.

To learn more about Arc Gateway and its programs, visit www.arc-gateway.org

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.