More than one in five adults in Nevada live with a disability. Yet, most of them looking for work are unable to find a job.
Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick explores the barriers to employment for people with special needs and what’s being done to help.
Checking emails, collaborating with coworkers. It’s really just another day in the office for Stormy Lattimer. She’s an intern for the Nevada Department of Veterans Services in Reno. This summer she’s also been creating spreadsheets and redesigning one of the agency’s brochures.
“I just try to use different images, or try to place them to where the composition is a bit more interesting,” she says.
She’s a recent University of Nevada, Reno graduate and part of a new crop of interns working at state agencies this summer: young people with disabilities.
“I was diagnosed with Autism. Now it’s more Asperger’s or high-functioning,” she says. “I think when people think, whatever disability, in some ways that kind of gives me motivation to show them, ‘OK no. I can do this. I know I have this disability, but again, let me try and see for yourself.’”
The state of Nevada recently launched a pilot program to help young people with disabilities, like Lattimer, land government internships and get job experience.
Grae Matheus is a rehabilitation counselor for the department of employment, training and rehabilitation, the agency running the program. She says it offers more than just a line on a resume.
“They’re also learning the small things that you don’t think about,” Matheus says, “like dress codes, how to adhere to them, taking supervisor feedback.”
Matheus’ role is to play matchmaker between employers and potential workers. So far, she’s placed 43 interns into positions at state agencies.
But Helena Berger says there’s still a stigma around people with special needs that hinder employers from giving them a chance. She’s the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
“There’s sometimes a fear that that person, like any other individual, doesn’t work out, that maybe you’ll get sued based on the disability,” she says. “Maybe the accommodation is too costly.”
According to a survey of nearly 1,200 employers conducted by the Job Accommodation Network, nearly 60 percent of accommodations cost employers nothing, while the rest cost around $500. And most employers say providing them increased employee retention, productivity and overall morale.
But Berger says there’s another issue. When people with disabilities earn above a certain threshold, they lose social security disability income and Medicaid eligibility.
“So as a result, many people with disabilities do not want to go to work, or they’ll turn down promotions or additional hours that increase their pay, because they fear they will lose their social security disability income,” she says. “So that benefit becomes a disincentive.”
Berger says the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is roughly 20 percent, versus 69 percent for those without disabilities.
Aside from the state’s efforts, some local organizations are also working to turn the tide. One of them is High Sierra Industries, a not-for-profit organization in Reno that offers hands-on training and job placement services for people with special needs.
They get more than half of their funding through Medicaid, and operate a manufacturing and logistics business that helps cover the rest. President LaVonne Brooks says their mission is to teach, support and advocate for people with disabilities.
“How do we create an opportunity for people to fulfill what they want to do with their lives and how do we get out of the way?” she asks. “And then how we do remove obstacles for them so that they can achieve those things?”
She says one key challenge comes from a lack of understanding about people with special needs.
“People with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities and so on are really still that part of our population in this culture who continue to be marginalized, who we continue to know very little about, who we continue to only understand through a stereotypical lens,” she says.
There does seem to be some forward momentum in this movement. Starbucks is hiring people with disabilities at their roasting facility in Minden. And the state of Nevada celebrated the tenth year of its CRAVE camp, a week-long event that helps recent high school graduates with special needs prepare to attend college or enter the workforce.
But Brooks and others say for things to change for people with disabilities, it’s up to more employers to give them an opportunity.