Uriel Levitt and Jacob Werbin, the company’s co-founders, are best friends. They live in Washington and enjoy their summers together in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England.
In my work with young adults with disabilities and their families, I constantly hear the expression “falling off the cliff” to describe the lack of adequate job opportunities for people with disabilities once they complete high school.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities – both during the pandemic and in general – is higher than for the general population. As of March 2019, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities had been dismissed from employment, compared with 1 in 7 in the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the United Nations, in developing countries, 80% to 90% of persons with disabilities of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries the figure is between 50% and 70%. Further, in most developed countries the official unemployment rate for persons with disabilities of working age is at least twice that for those who have no disability.
Addressing this problem will take years of legislation, education and awareness – a real sea change. But there is a trend that gives me hope: community support of small businesses that are owned and operated by people with disabilities. During this month of Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion, the Jewish community can and should make a stronger commitment to supporting disability owned and run and disability-friendly businesses.
There are many Jewish individuals with disabilities around the country who are starting and running such businesses. Jacob Werbin and Uriel Levitt, two Washington, DC-area young men with Down Syndrome recently started Shred Support, a shredding business in Silver Spring, MD. Alexa Chalup runs Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, custom chocolate covered cookies, right out of her home on Long Island, NY. The Sunflower Bakery and Bake Shop of Rockville, MD provides skilled job training and employment opportunities in the baking and hospitality industries.
In my work, I have traveled the country and searched the Internet for similar businesses and have already identified more than 200. They include hydroponic farming, car washes, bakeries, computer recycling, cybersecurity, mammogram reading, dog treat companies and more. You can find many of these types of business listed here.
Businesses like Shred Support, Truly Scrumptous By Alexa and Sunflower Bakery all provide unprecedented opportunities for the Jewish community to be supportive while attaining what Maimonides would consider to be the highest level of tzedakah (which I prefer to translate as “righteous action” and not “charity”). The Rambam writes, “the highest form of tzedakah is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished … by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.”
Many Jewish organizations have already begun to undertake this righteous action. Synagogues and Jewish schools in the DC-area regularly order from Sunflower Bakery. Camp Ramah Darom recently ordered “early registration gifts” from John’s Crazy Socks – a sock company owned by a father and his son with Down Syndrome. When FAISR (Friends of Access Israel) organized a Kilimanjaro climb which included four people with paraplegia, it made perfect sense to order sweatshirts from Spectrum Designs in Port Washington, NY, a custom apparel and promotional items business, which, along with their Spectrum Bakes and Spectrum Suds (laundry business) has a social mission – to help individuals with autism obtain employment.
When a person with or without a disability works, there are obvious financial rewards. But there are also social, physical and mental health benefits. Employment provides a sense of accomplishment, pride and self-confidence. When a Jewish organization supports businesses which value people with disabilities, we are acknowledging that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s Image.
During JDAIM, ask yourself two questions: Could I order those t-shirts, cookies or gift boxes from a business run by people with disabilities? And might my place of employment benefit from the often unique skills of a person with disabilities? If the answer is yes to either question and you take action, you are supporting a disability-run business while also attaining the highest level of tzedakah.
It has been said that “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The COVID pandemic has certainly posed tremendous vocational challenges for people with disabilities, who, despite already experiencing an employment rate less than half of people without disabilities, experienced 40% greater job loss with minimal recovery. It has also provided unprecedented opportunities—to develop skills, to continue working from home and in person (for those who currently have jobs) and to think creatively about new opportunities.
Many people with disabilities and organizations working with them have responded swiftly and creatively. Participants and families in our National Ramah Tikvah Network vocational training programs, located in our 10 Ramah camps in the US and Canada, expressed concerns about social isolation and job skills. In response, we swiftly created TikvahNET, a vocational training and socialization program.
We recently completed our second 8-week program and will soon begin our third. We offer facilitated socialization time and work in small breakout rooms, using PowerPoint slides and discussions, to address such topics as physical and mental wellness, money and budgeting, laundry and booking skills, resumes and interviews and social media skills and etiquette. In our third cycle, we will bring employers with impressive records of hiring people with disabilities to share what they are looking for in potential employees, and we will use our breakout room time to work on those skills.
Alumni of our programs—some in their 40s and 50s—have shared their journeys from camp and high school graduation to the present, focusing on their employment, social lives and level of inclusion and participation in the Jewish community. There have been heartwarming moments. Austin, who works in a hospital in St. Louis, and Tiffany, who works in a grocery store in Los Angeles, spoke of being essential workers. They and other Tikvah alum feel valued when thanked for performing these essential duties.
Other members of the Tikvah community have productively used their time at home during the pandemic to focus on start-up businesses. Uriel and Jacob, two young Washington, DC-area men with Down Syndrome, have created Shred Support, a shredding business. Alexa, a Long Island, NY-based young woman, also with Down Syndrome, has created Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, selling custom chocolate-covered cookies. Yum!
Beyond our program, Chapel Haven Schleifer Center, a residential school and independent living program in New Haven, CT, runs a program called CareerAbility, founded to meet the need for meaningful employment among its participants. During this time, CareerAbility focused all of their energy on keeping job seekers and working adults engaged in the workforce. They immediately launched virtual offerings while simultaneously providing safe community-based work experiences for adults to perform their career explorations, internships, and jobs. This resulted in clients engaged in 67 community-based job skill development experiences.
It is hard to conceptualize what this will mean post Covid-19. But these tough times demand out-of-the-box thinking, creativity, flexibility and taking calculated risks. There may be an ongoing need for more cleaning and sanitizing at businesses or hospitals. If people remain reluctant to travel to stores, it could be useful to start a delivery or courier business modeled after Good Foot Delivery in Toronto, Canada, which provides personalized point-to-point delivery on foot and public transit, creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
As we emerge from the pandemic, what is clear is that we NEED a range of employment options for people with disabilities including small businesses and big companies, on-site and remote options, flexible and varying hours each week–5 hours, 15 hours, 40 hours or more. And these jobs need to exist across a wide range of industries. I have been working to map the landscape of creative places of employment for people with disabilities. I have discovered magicians, IKEA furniture assemblers, bike mechanics, car restorers, high-end cabinet makers, vertical farmers, coders, cybersecurity specialists, mammogram readers and more.
Our tradition tells us that we may sow in tears and reap in joy. Let us not waste the crisis of this pandemic, but reap creative gains in the post-pandemic employment for people with disabilities!