Lauren Ferguson checks all the boxes of a quality employee. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, she loves helping people and is never above learning new things.
However, Ferguson’s various developmental disabilities mean finding stability in the workplace is often a struggle for the 19-year-old Colorado Springs resident. As a child, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit disorder and auditory processing disorder, which makes it difficult to understand and interpret information she hears.
Before her current stint at The Independence Center, Ferguson “just really didn’t feel I fit” at previous jobs, she said.
“The longest I’ve ever kept a paid job was probably a couple months,” Ferguson said. “I never really got past that newbie stage.”
Since coming aboard at The Independence Center in December, Ferguson has learned not only computer and data entry skills, but also how to advocate for her own needs in the workplace — often one of the greatest barriers people with disabilities face when seeking employment, said Jaime Harrell, the center’s independent living program manager.
“A lot of times it’s difficult to ask for those accommodations when you need it, because disclosing that you have a disability is a scary thing to do,” Harrell said.
Although people with disabilities make up about 25 percent of the population, they are often severely underrepresented in the employment arena, Harrell said.
The unemployment rate among adults with disabilities is nearly 12 times the national average, according to Easterseals, a national nonprofit that provides disability services.
More than 300,000 working-age Coloradans live with some form of disability — including both visible conditions, such as spinal cord injuries, as well as learning disabilities, mental health or autism — according to RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization that advances opportunities for people with disabilities.
Making an effort to hire and train individuals with disabilities is imperative for any business owner, Harrell said. The federal government offers three types of tax credits — Disabled Access Credit, Architectural Barrier Removal Tax Deduction and Work Opportunity Tax Credit — to small businesses that both hire and make their companies accessible to people with disabilities, according to the Small Business Trends website.
Accommodations for employees with disabilities cost about $50 on average, Harrell said. She added that the benefits of hiring people with disabilities are not strictly monetary.
“People with disabilities are an essential addition to a business, and most individuals are very loyal because when they get a job, they want to keep it,” Harrell said. “You get that one-on-one connection of knowing that you’re bringing in a whole group of people because of those personal connects that you didn’t have before.
“You’re opening up your business to a whole new population because now your business is more accessible because you’ve now hired an individual — hopefully many — with disabilities. As an organization, when you hire people with disabilities, there’s just no negative in doing that.”
Ivette Fernandez, manager of the Blank Canvas Café on Wahsatch Avenue, knows this firsthand. Each of the nine employees serving coffee, baking pastries and washing dishes has an intellectual or developmental disability. They are referred to her through nonprofit organization Ariel Clinical Services.
“They pretty much run my kitchen,” Fernandez said. “This gives them the culinary experience they need to go out in the community and find jobs in the restaurant industry, or any other industry.”
The kitchen is open to patrons, and Fernandez encourages all customers to walk in and see her employees in action. That visibility is crucial to erasing the misperceptions that still surround the disabled population, Fernandez said.
“There is such a stigma on this population — they need to be babied, they need to be taken care of,” she said. “It’s important for people to see a well-maintained, clean kitchen, and that they have the capability just like anyone else with a little guidance and help. They have the ability to work. They want to do a good job just like everybody else.”
The café also supplies job coaches to provide any additional support employees may need, Fernandez said. She added she would like to see this become common practice at more businesses.
“They go to school until they’re 21 and then what do they do after that if there’s nothing like that for them?” Fernandez said. “Everybody else gets a chance to continue learning about life. This gives them an opportunity to continue learning also.”
Blank Canvas employees are paid minimum wage, Fernandez said, which is $11.10 per hour in Colorado as of Jan. 1. But much like accommodations, wages for employees with disabilities can vary based on the employee, Harrell said.
“It’s really a process individually, so there’s a lot that goes into that,” Harrell said. “It’s very dependent on individual factors — individual pay, individual hours. Work incentive counseling happens individually with the employer and employee to make sure they can maximize those benefits.”
“Diversity” is a buzzword commonly tossed around in the labor industry, said Anthony Perez, vice president of sales for Infinity F&B Staffing Solutions on North Tejon Street.
“One area of focus that is always left off that table is folks with disabilities,” Perez said. “We could do a lot better.”
The staffing agency, which provides employees for the food service and hospitality industries in the Colorado Springs area, is reaching out to clientele in an effort to improve outreach to prospective employees with disabilities, Perez said.
“We’re all working toward having that independence to be able to stand on our own two feet,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re people. All they want is a fair shot. When you hire someone that’s trying to gain some independence, it works out not only for them, but for the company, because you’re creating a loyal employee.”
The Pikes Peak Workforce Center last year secured a Disability Employment Initiative grant from the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Programs Manager Debbie Shackelford hopes the $615,000 grant will lay the groundwork for more local companies to follow Perez’s lead by the end of the grant’s funding cycle in December 2020.
“We are using this grant to set up the systems and supports in our community to serve individuals with different abilities to achieve their goals,” Shackelford said. “My goal is that this initiative is sustained long after the grant sunsets at the end of 2020.”
The grant allows the workforce center to pool community resources to ensure people with disabilities have the same employment opportunities as their peers — both by centralizing employee services and educating employers, Shackelford said.
“In the past, if we had an individual with a disability, we would refer them to our partners who are the experts in that domain,” she said. “Now, my goal is that instead of giving them a cold referral, we pick up the phone and get someone from our community and partner to work together to identify their needs, and braid the funds and our services.”
Education is another component, Shackelford said — making sure employers are aware of the often minimal costs associated with accommodations, as well as tax incentives available to them.
“A lot of employers don’t realize how little accommodations might cost, if anything,” Shackelford said. “[People with disabilities] just want to work. And they will have amazing work ethics and loyal employees.”