Deborah Lechner working at her desk at Park East. Photo: Michael Rock
Finding a job is hard. If you have a disability, it’s even harder. Despite anti-discrimination laws, the vast majority of Americans with disabilities are unemployed, underemployed or struggle to hold down their jobs.
The inequity isn’t due to incompetence on the part of the disabled, but the result of stigma and a traditional understanding of work culture that conflicts with many of their deficits. Fortunately, there are programs designed to help close the gap.
The Jack and Shirley Silver Center for Special Needs at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan offers the ”Just One Job” program for participants of its Adaptations support group. The community center’s website describes Adaptations as “a community of adults in their 20s and 30s with developmental and/or learning disabilities and a high level of independence.”
“There was a shortage of job services and a great demand for opportunities for bright young adults to contribute to the workforce,” said Allison Kleinman, director of the Center for Special Needs. “Through training and a partnership for many years with JobPath [an organization devoted to people with developmental disabilities] and a grant from UJA-Federation of New York and ACCES-VR [New York State education and work program for disabled adults], JCC Manhattan established the ... program.”
To join, participants must be Adaptations members for at least several months. Next, they must “work with us on assessing their skills and on developing social skills necessary to be successful in the workplace,” said Andrea Goodman, the director of Just One Job.
Upon being accepted into Just One Job, members regularly attend group sessions discussing such varied topics as writing cover letters and managing deficits and and anxiety.
They also occasionally attend networking events at companies and organizations throughout the city, assist part-time in projects around the JCC, learn how to promote themselves and their professional accomplishments and prepare for interviews.
Particularly successful members may also take part in the Community Work Experience program, a six-month internship at one of several companies and organizations with whom the Center for Special Needs has partnered.
Those who complete the internship can put it on their resume and utilize their new colleagues as references. Sometimes, the companies may even offer community interns full-time employment.
The program not only helps its participants find work, but keep positions as well by offering them job coaches who act as liaisons between them and their supervisors. “Success in job placement is measured in job satisfaction and in job retention,” said Goodman. “For most of our participants, this is their first job and/or their first supported job placement. Keeping the job is a great accomplishment.”
According to Kleinman, Just One Job has successfully employed over 50 Adaptations participants. Deborah Lechner, one of them, joined Adaptations eight years ago at the recommendation of an ex-boyfriend.
Lechner first realized that she would need extra help in finding work “when less qualified and dedicated friends got hired at similar jobs that were not interested in hiring me,” she told The Spirit. “I stayed two extra years in a job where I was not treated well knowing how difficult it would be to attain another job.”
She now understands that her social deficits undermined her efforts to thrive in the workplace. In addition, her sensory issues have made many work environments unappealing to her.
With the help of the Just One Job program, Lechner now works full-time in the administrative office of Park East Synagogue. A higher-level colleague answers any questions about work she may have while on the job. When loud office machinery is in use, she wears headphones to prevent the noise from overwhelming her.
Despite the efforts of Just One Job’s work, stigma still makes it harder for employers to hire disabled candidates. It may also challenge those with disabilities to actively seek out the help they need. “I am especially proud of all of our participants who place their trust in us to help them be their professional ‘best selves’,” Goodman said. “I am also very proud of the relationships we have formed with employers and with community partners who help advance our program.”