Parents of young adults with disabilities–from Maine to California—use the term “falling off the cliff” to describe the situation their children often face upon graduation from high school. They speak about the lack of adequate training programs and job opportunities for their children. Without job training and employment, they potentially face fifty or more years of unemployment or underemployment, inadequate opportunities to form friendships and a sadly sedentary life of movies, video games and unhealthy eating.
While the unemployment rate in the population of people with disabilities is worrisome, there is reason for hope. My recent travels across the country, generously supported by the Covenant Foundation, offer many examples of creative job training programs and work opportunities for people with disabilities—many started by their parents.
First the bad news: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, 18.7 percent of persons with a disability were employed. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.7 percent. The unemployment rate for persons with a disability was 9.2 percent in 2017, more than twice that of those with no disability (4.2 percent). (Unemployed persons are those who did not have a job, were available for work, and were actively looking for a job in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.).
The unemployment rate has improved slightly in 2018 across all populations. According to the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) December 2018 Disability statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 7.9% compared to 3.5% for people without disabilities. Labor force participation for people ages 16 and over with disabilities was 20.7% compared to 68.4% for people without disabilities. Employed persons with a disability were more likely to be self-employed than those with no disability.
Many parents of young adults with disabilities are taking action and creating job training programs and creating work opportunities. They are starting dog biscuit, sock and t-shirt companies. They are running boutique laundry services, running bakeries and cafes, making and selling granola—to Whole Foods! They are running car washes, messenger services, book stores, and even hotels in Germany and India! Some are even reading mammograms and doing sound engineering. These businesses serve anywhere from one to dozens of workers.
I visited 13 such businesses between June and December 2018 and learned of many more from these business owners, parents, colleagues and the Facebook group, Autism Entrepreneurship. Business owners were happy to share lessons learned and challenges faced, including:
-Take the lead from your child’s interests [i.e. dolls, in the case Yes She Can (job skills program) and GirlAgain (a resale boutique for American Girl dolls], but also have a careful business plan and start a business likely to be successful;
-Don’t start a business when you are feeling desperate; start a business after careful research (consult with professionals who know this type of business);
-Strive to keep costs down (investigate cheapest ways to ship, purchase ingredients, package the product, etc.);
-Be aware of such unanticipated costs as legal fees, websites (which are expensive), trash removal, local green taxes, etc.;
-Decide if plan is to be for profit, not for profit or both;
-Remember that running a business takes a lot of time and money;
-Transportation is an issue for many workers. Those who don’t drive are dependent on an often unreliable public transportation system or on Access-A-Ride (which may come very early or late);
-Business owners in this space have a lot to offer each other. Some would like to be part of a trade group. Some would like to share advice and consider selling products of other disability run businesses;
There are so many wonderful examples of businesses providing vocational training and work opportunities for people with disabilities. Several are highlighted here:
Purely Patrick in Stowe, VT is a one-person business run by Patrick Lewis, 27, (with the help of his mother and two job coaches) from his room in his parent’s Brass Lantern Inn. Patrick is a young man with disabilities and many abilities who assembles and sells various products including kits for soups, cookies and dog biscuits through the use of assistive technology. He uses a pouring device that is activated by a switch that he controls. The company sells products online, at various local fairs and at the inn.
John’s Crazy Socks in Melville, NY was established two years ago when John, a young man with Down Syndrome, was nearing graduation from high school. He and his dad were brainstorming business ideas and John suggested a sock company! Father reports, “We are evangelists on what people with different abilities can do! The best we can do is make our business a success. Johns Crazy Socks is a social enterprise/business with 18 people of differing abilities making up the 35 person work force. The work place is unified with all working side by side.”
Spectrum Design in Port Washington, NY is two separate 501c3 programs started by two mothers of children with autism. Nicholas Center is the support agency and Spectrum Designs is the business component. Spectrum Designs currently consists of three enterprises—Spectrum Designs, which produces customized apparel (3000-8000 shirts/day); Spectrum Bakes (bakery) and Suds, a boutique laundry service. The apparel design employs 20+ people with autism and there are currently 60 people involved with Spectrum Designs and Nicholas Center—some are salaried workers and some are trainees. They also have a work out room, go on nature walks and teach health and nutrition.
Rising Tide Car Wash in both Parkland and Margate, FL employs 72 people with disabilities out of a total of 92 workers. The company was started by the brother of a person with autism, with the expert guidance of their father, a life-long entrepreneur. Through Rising Tide U, an online course which provides road maps for entrepreneurs who wish to start businesses that empower individuals with autism through gainful employment, they are helping others get started.
Beyond the dozens of businesses on my growing list which provide creative job opportunities to people with disabilities, foundations like the Poses Family Foundation Workplace Initiative are working with industry to improve training and hiring of people with disabilities.
I keep coming across a very hopeful term in my travels—”Autism Advantage.” Employers are slowly learning that hiring people with autism and other disabilities has a real business advantage. This is not “chesed” or charity. This is good business! People with autism, for example, are often attentive to detail, follow rules and are loyal workers. People with disabilities often don’t mind repetitive tasks, and they are likely to stay at a job without looking to move up or out. The smaller business owners and large corporations continue to appreciate the unique skills and qualities of people with disabilities, the sooner the unemployment rate will go down, and the epidemic of falling off the cliff will come to an end once and for all!
Sometimes what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay in Vegas. Levi Harlig’s extraordinary bar mitzvah is one of them.
Levi gave a flawless reading of Parshat Naso, the longest Torah portion of the year, and delivered a Chassidic discourse in Yiddish and Hebrew last Shabbat morning at Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson in Las Vegas. The following evening, the 13-year-old sang and drummed for three hours with entertainer Avraham Fried at a community-wide celebration at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
That would be an exciting experience for any bar mitzvah boy. But for members of the community who have known Levi since birth, the accomplishment was nearly miraculous.
When Levi was 15 months old, his mother, Chaya Harlig, co-director with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Harlig, of Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson, realized that something was not quite right about their son. “He wasn’t making eye contact or following directions. We got him into all kinds of therapies right away—occupational therapy, speech therapy and more.” Three months later, the Harligs learned that Levi had autism. He has difficulties with personal space and reading social cues, and he often focuses on topics of interest to him but not necessarily to other people.
“My husband took it a lot harder than I did,” said Chaya. “I think women have more bitachon [faith]. We set out to make Levi the best Levi he can be!”
In response to her husband’s concerns about where Levi would go to school, whether he would have a bar mitzvah and other issues related to Levi’s future, Chaya reassured him. “He will have a bar mitzvah, he will get married, and he will use his talents. He is really special!”
Harlig quickly realized that his wife was right. Levi has extraordinary talents, including perfect pitch and what his parents refer to as “audiographic memory.” Levi is able to remember essentially anything he hears, including songs, speeches, conversations he has heard in synagogue or around the Shabbat table.
Rabbi Harlig began including Levi in the life of the synagogue from an early age. “Each Yom Kippur, I would give my talk and then find a song in English connected to the sermon for Levi to sing. There was not a dry eye in the shul!” Levi regularly leads the congregation in prayer, and he greets congregants by name, upon arrival—often in a loud voice from up on the bimah!
Levi’s important role in the synagogue has allowed members of the community to become comfortable with a person with disabilities. “Levi is bringing people into the Henderson Chabad. He has a warm smile and welcomes everyone!” reports his father.
Wayne Krygier, a member of the Las Vegas Chabad community since relocating from Canada in 1989, concurs. “Levi is the heart and soul of the synagogue. The shul is his life—he feels so at home here!” Krygier jokes that Levi’s greeting everyone in a loud voice as they enter serves as an incentive to arrive on time.
Dr. George Harouni, a local dentist and regular Chabad of Henderson attendee, observes, “People are now accustomed to seeing someone like Levi. He has been part of the community since birth; no one thinks of him as being different.”
When Levi’s bar mitzvah approached, his grandfather, Rabbi Kalman Shor, who also serves as a rabbi for the Chabad of Henderson community, taught him Torah cantillation and sat with him for regular practice sessions. He notes that Levi’s musical talents made his job “much, much easier—once he learns it, he remembers it.” The congregation was clearly moved at the bar mitzvah. “They thought it was beautiful and emotional. And they were impressed that he made no mistakes.”
Jeff Berkow, a retired South African-born businessman and longtime active volunteer in Chabad of Henderson reports: “Levi was flawless! He sang the trope [cantillation] like a chazzan with 30 years of experience. People were amazed!”
High Praise From a Noted Singer
Levi’s bar mitzvah celebration continued with an Avraham Fried concert, attended by 300 people, a natural choice given Fried’s musical talents and personal qualities. Harlig explains, “He is a beautiful singer, a caring person, and he always showed love for Levi. I figured people would see them sing together, love it and get inspired. They were on a high.”
Fried reflects on the special Shabbat and evening noting, “I knew this bar mitzvah would be very special and memorable but, boy, this was out of the park! Levi loves music. He sings beautifully, and has a great ear and rhythm. He knows all my songs exactly as they appear on the CD. Every musical line and harmony, every place where the song modulates, and the intros and endings, not to mention every special inflection that I sing! We sang so many songs together—Hebrew and English. Levi was conducting the orchestra and was totally in charge. I am lucky to have met Levi years ago. I’m lucky he invited me to his special celebration. I’m very happy he has such good taste in music!”
The community’s embrace of Levi and inclusion of people with disabilities extends beyond one special Shabbat. The Harligs and the community dream of making Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson the “central address” in Las Vegas for including people with disabilities. “Going forward, we hope to continue showing the importance of inclusion, which Chabad has been doing for many years—unconditional love for all humans,” says Harlig.
Harouni is excited about Chabad’s potential to become even more welcoming to people with disabilities. “Inclusion will be a great addition to our shul. We could be a real center to offer people with disabilities a sense of belonging and an opportunity to be a part of the community.”
Berkow, who assists Harlig in running Chabad, proudly notes, “I want our Chabad to be theshul of inclusion, the place that caters to people with special needs and where inclusion is the centerpiece.” He also hopes Chabad of Green Valley/Henderson will serve as a satellite to the already successful Friendship Circle 15 miles to the north.
Chaya Harlig notes that Chabad recently purchased land, and future plans include Levi’s Place, where people can come for homework help, tutoring, programming and friendship. “We will have a community center serving many families. We will be inclusive and work together with all children on all levels.” She continues to hear of the impact that Levi has had on the Las Vegas Jewish community. “Because of him, people are becoming more religious, closer to the synagogue and Hashem.” She notes that she knows other shluchimfamilies with children with disabilities, and that Chabad offers resources and support.
Inclusion Initiative a Welcome Partner
Rabbi Harlig has found a natural partner in his mission towards greater inclusion the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII), directed by Dr. Sarah Kranz-Ciment. RCII is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of resources to create a culture of inclusion so that all Jews feel welcomed, supported and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.
RCII is producing a song, a music video and an inclusive mural that shows that everyone belongs. It has also developed an an online bar and bat mitzvah guide, titled “Practical Ideas for Inclusive Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.”
Kranz-Ciment is proud of the work of the Harligs, their community and of Levi’s bar mitzvah, which she notes was “an opportunity to publicly show and make a statement about his many talents.” She continues, “Every Jewish soul is meaningful, and is obligated to be Jewish in the best way he or she can. The Rebbe said, ‘Your birthday is the day Hashem decided the world can’t exist without you. Inclusion is a chance to bring this to the forefront and show that what each person can do is valuable.’ All of us have a place in Judaism.”
The “Pushing the Boundaries: Disabilities, Inclusion and Jewish Community” conference, April 15-17th in Toronto, truly pushed the boundaries. A severe ice storm and brief power outage may have been minor inconveniences, but they were not going to stop a diverse group of 175 people from such places as Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, Minneapolis, New York and various cities and towns in Israel, from attending the first conference of its kind in Canada. The conference has been in the planning stages for three years!
The extraordinary people attending and presenting, the wide range of relevant and timely content, the excitement and enthusiasm in the main conference room, and the always supportive and nurturing feel helped make this conference very special. Attendees included people with disabilities, family members, advocates, community members, foundation representatives, professionals from schools, camps, agencies and a wide range of Jewish organizations–even a Canadian member of Parliament.
The conference, scheduled to begin on Sunday evening April 15th was delayed in starting due to extremely icy and snowy road conditions. Starting the conference Monday morning allowed for more attendees and presenters to arrive—and for the all-star tech staff to make provisions for presenters stuck in Washington, New York and beyond to join and present by video conferencing. All sessions were consolidated in to two action packed days—everyone left exhausted and happy, armed with notes, handouts and inspiring quotes to guide them in their ongoing work.
Connie Putterman, a parent, advocate and chairperson of Itanu, UJA Federation’s Inclusion Committee, introduced Monday morning’s keynote speaker, renowned disability rights activist Diane Richler, and participated on Tuesday’s advocacy panel. Attendees will always remember Putterman’s brilliant insight: “Advocacy is telling your story in a way that other people can hear you!”
Diane Richler, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr Foundation International Fellow, past chair of International Disability Alliance, a leader in the negotiation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and a member of the the Ruderman Family Foundation advisory board, delivered a talk, “Inclusion Without Limits: What Has to Change.” Richler was impressed with the Canadian Jewish community which she observed, “has made much progress in the last few years in promoting inclusion…With creative energy, we can leapfrog over the traditional ways of supporting people with disabilities and make the Canadian Jewish community a model for others.”
All conference attendees learned from panels on such topics as housing, employment, innovations from Israel (including Alut,Krembo Wings, and Israel Unlimited/JDC) and from case to cause—the power of advocacy. They also attended specialized breakout sessions, taking place throughout the very impressive campus of the Lipa Green Centre for Jewish Community Services at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Topics included recreation, aging education, person-centered models, education case studies, dating and relationships, camping and creating inclusive shul communities.
Keynote speaker, Ari Ne’eman spoke on “Disability Inclusion: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going,” comedian and inclusion and inclusion advocate, Pamela Schuller entertained Monday evening with her routine, “What Makes Me Tic,” and Tuesday speaker, Maayan Ziv, wowed the audience in a session on innovation and inclusion. Maayan Ziv, a photographer & entrepreneur who also has muscular dystrophy, shared how she has continued to turn obstacles into opportunities. “I have accomplished what I have WITH my disability, not DESPITE it.” She has developed her Access Now app; she and her team are working to document what is accessible in the world. Two of Ziv’s insightful, inspiring quotes will surely travel home with the conference participants. “Accessibility is a mindset that can lead to inclusion;” “People are not disabled- environments are disabling.”
Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to meet colleagues and to share resources. Many extended their already long Monday day session in to night by visiting a program entitled DANI (Developing and Nurturing Independence) for a tour and dinner.
As the conference drew to a close Tuesday after lunch, and participants continued to comment on the unusual weather (it was snowing again!), many exchanged business cards, hugged new friends, and affirmed commitments to ongoing collaboration as we all continue to push boundaries even further!