Members of the Island Disability Coalition (IDC) held an employer breakfast in the culinary arts room at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Wednesday.
The breakfast brainstorming session was an opportunity for businesses all around the Island to hear about employing those with disabilities in a way that benefits both the employee and the employer.
In the audience were town officials, bakers, construction workers, schoolteachers and administration, and representatives from several other industries. Each one sought to gain information on hiring people with disabilities on the Island, and how best to accommodate those individuals in the workplace.
“Our vision is an inclusive Martha’s Vineyard,” said Beth Wike, program director for disability services at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS). “This is a vision that I think the Island is more than capable of achieving, but it doesn’t happen unless you have support spread throughout the community.”
According to Wike, the IDC wants those with disabilities to have the opportunity to work at a job that they are passionate about and can gain valuable life skills from. “We want people to work where they are working because they are interested in the job, and not because they have no other choice to make money,” Wike said.
The IDC recently did a needs assessment of the entire community on-Island, and several central needs were identified in the report surrounding the importance of recreation and leisure, employment transition, and the desire for more information about disability services.
Wike said scientific studies around youth and adolescent development have proven the benefit of consistent employment at an early age, and have indicated that it combats social isolation, especially during the quiet winter months.
Transitioning from school to work is another period during a young person’s life that requires a network of support systems in order for them to be successful. For those with disabilities, these services are particularly essential.
Oftentimes, Wike said, someone may qualify for a disability service, but have no idea how to access that service, or that it’s even available. “We have to get the word out there that these support systems are available. The big question is, How can we connect people and form mutually beneficial relationships between businesses and employees?” Wike said.
According to Wike, the IDC is sponsoring 13 different Island organizations so they can go through an experience and instruction course, and receive individualized lessons on how to work with Island disability services to employ those with disabilities.
Wike said MVCS went from receiving a few referrals for disability services every year to up to three referrals every month. She said Community Services has expanded its outreach program, and prioritize informing the community of these programs. “We are looking for those who fall between the cracks. Who doesn’t know about these services, and who doesn’t have access to them?” Wike said.
All these elements of IDC’s ultimate goal were laid out in a strategic plan that seeks to leave no one on-Island who is willing to work without a job. Before the plan was created, Associate Commissioner for Disabilities in Dukes County Dick Cohen said, a comprehensive survey was conducted to gain information about how many people with disabilities there are on-Island, and how many of them are ready to move into a steady job. Cohen said that, according to the survey, 90 percent of people with disabilities have the drive to work.
In order to incentivize employers to hire people with disabilities, Cohen said a system needs to be established to pair qualified individuals with the organization or business of their preference. “We ask where it is these individuals want to work, then we see what the necessary qualifications are for that particular position,” Cohen said. “We aren’t looking to employ people for charity. We believe this program should benefit employees hugely.”
When you look at someone with a disability, Cohen said, you must look past the disability and see the myriad of other skills that person has to offer.
Cohen gave some historical background on how the systematic rehabilitation of veterans coming back to the U.S. after World War II eventually morphed into the vocational rehab programs we see today.
He said caring for injured veterans or veterans dealing with mental health issues has altered the core values of American health and wellness. “We began to see the people first, and started viewing disabilities as a natural part of life. Not only does equal employment boost self-worth and confidence, but it fundamentally changes the way we look at disabilities,” Cohen said.
Given the proper support and guidance, Cohen said, people with disabilities have been proven to be very effective workers.
Along with psychiatric intervention, Cohen explained that employment in a comfortable and productive work environment is “one of the most therapeutic interventions for people with disabilities.”
Although there are many valuable supports available for those with disabilities, Cohen said, “We need to do more.”
“There are lots of spaces that need to be filled in, and it’s going to take hard work from the community to meet those needs,” Cohen said.
Mary Beth Grady, former co-owner of Chilmark Chocolates, was involved in employing many people with disabilities on the Island, but she said these support systems don’t need to replicate their method. “We worried about loneliness, especially during the winter months. Having people work together is so important,” Grady said. “There are so many ways to accomplish this goal, and there are so many others on-Island who are employing people with disabilities.”
Grady said it’s helpful to have the history of disability support services in America, but suggested that the coalition think about next steps.
Robert Lionette of Morning Glory Farm said housing, benefits programs, and transportation are all issues he believes need to be addressed in the disabled community.
“What specific resources are available to us as employers to make these jobs possible for people?” Lionette asked.
He said people coming out of school with a network of support already built around them have an advantage, when there are many older disabled people that have never had those benefits.
“I am talking about people in their 40s and 50s who aren’t coming out of programs, and have never had access to them. How do we reach those folks?” Lionette asked.