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Job opportunities opening up for people with disabilities

Emilie Kraemer always arrives early for her Wednesday shift at Amy’s Hallmark Shop at the Palmer Park Mall in Palmer Township.

Emilie Kraemer, right, with her supervisor, Antonio Lugo, at Amy’s Hallmark Shop in Palmer.

Emilie is a part-time sales associate at the store. Wearing a trademark red apron, she makes sure each card is facing the right way, sitting in the right envelope and looking its best.

Emily also has an intellectual disability. But she is a dedicated worker, valued for her abilities by her boss, Antonio Lugo, the manager at Amy’s Hallmark.

People with disabilities are often overlooked by employers. As of 2013, about 33 percent of the 1.5 million working age people with disabilities in Pennsylvania were working full time, according to a report by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Working age was defined as between 21 and 64.

These workers with disabilities had an annual median earnings of about $40,000, short of the current medium income for a non-disabled individual, which is $53,000, according to the U.S Census Bureau.

Emilie is supported in her work by SPIN, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Philadelphia, with a local office in Bethlehem. It provides residential, community and employment services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The team at SPIN has noticed rising interest among local employers in hiring people with disabilities, according to Jennifer Schaadt, lead assisting director of adult services for SPIN.

Low unemployment rates and difficulty in finding workers could be contributing to the new openness. But Schaadt said a growth in awareness of the capabilities of people with disabilities may also play a part.

SPIN places people in jobs throughout the Lehigh Valley. Currently there are over 100 SPIN-supported employees working at Valley workplaces, including Wawa convenience stores, Lehigh University and Perry Law Firm, among others.

Karma Strydesky, lead employment specialist for SPIN, worked with Emily to assess her talents and then reached out to local employers that she thought would make a good fit for Emilie’s skill set.

Antonio Lugo, manager at Amy’s Hallmark, was intrigued by Karma’s pitch and took a chance on hiring Emilie. He is glad he did. Emilie has been working at the store for almost two years.

“I didn’t even have to train her to greet customers and offer help,” Lugo said. “She is great to work with. Keeping the cards organized is a lot for our busy employees to manage, so to hand that off to one person is helpful.  And she can spot a misprint on a card better than anyone else.”

Emilie has an assistant, a SPIN employee to support her during her shifts, and that person is compensated by SPIN. There is no cost to the employer if a SPIN-supported employee requires the help of an aide.

Lugo has discovered what many employers who hire employees with disabilities are quick to find: They can make the best employees.

“Disabled employees are typically overlooked by employers,” said Karen Shoemaker, executive director of ARC of the Lehigh Valley, an advocacy organization for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. “The world should be aware of the gifts and talents of those with disabilities. They typically want to work, and are fiercely committed to their jobs.”

Shoemaker explained that Pennsylvania is what is called an “employment first state.” The policy, established by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016, requires all state and county entities to first consider employment, rather than volunteerism or other community services, as the outcome of publicly funded education for individuals with disabilities.

The policy states that employment is a centerpiece of adulthood and must be available for every person.

“Disabled people should be able to find integrated employment,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a matter of matching the person to the right position for their skill set.”

The staff at SPIN puts in a lot of time doing just that.

“We find out what their life goals are, what they can and can’t do. We then go through a whole process of meeting with possible employers, showcasing their talents and take it from there,” said SPIN’s Schaadt.

Sometimes the SPIN team offers a potential employer a “video resume” in which an individual can be seen working on specific tasks.

“Some of our most challenging individuals have gotten jobs and succeeded because we took the time to make sure the job was the right fit,” said Jennifer Hughes, corporate officer of public relations for SPIN. “There is a calmness that comes over them when they are in the right place.”

SPIN offers employment assistance to those with many types of intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, autism spectrum disorders and mental health disorders.

SPIN-supported employees work both full and part time, depending on the needs of the employer and individual, and are paid at least minimum wage.

“Most make well over minimum,” said Hughes, countering an oft-held misconception that people with disabilities usually do not earn much.

It is not the only misconception.

Employers often think they will need to make a lot of accommodations to hire someone with a disability. “That simply isn’t true,” said Schaadt. “In fact, the most commonly asked for accommodation is a flexible schedule, and that costs an employer nothing.”

Another common misconception is that a disabled employee poses a liability risk; however, disabled individuals actually have a lower rate of liability claims like workplace injury, according to Schaadt.

“I understand why employers might be skeptical,” said Hallmark store manager Lugo. “They might worry that customers would feel uncomfortable with a disabled individual. I’ve seen just the opposite. I’ve never had a negative comment from customers, only positive.”

The SPIN organization keeps in close touch with Lugo, making sure his needs are being met.

For the SPIN-supported employee, the opportunity to work and be of value is not taken for granted.

“These are dedicated and caring employees,” Hughes said. “They are very happy to work and thankful for their job. That’s hard to find.”

Lugo, meanwhile, sees the match between Emilie and Amy’s Hallmark Shop as a winning combination.

“She makes our cards look perfect,” he said. “And we sell more cards because of that.”

As for Emilie, she looks forward to going to work each week.

“I like it,” she said. “I get to put things in stock and organize things and help customers. I like to help.”







Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is a career journalist who believes that good journalism can change the world. As the health care reporter, she covers everything from small town medicine to big pharma. You can also find her chasing a good business story in Berks County. She can be reached at [email protected]. or 610-807-9619, extension 4118.

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