Nobody Quite Knew What to do With Yaakov
Published in Mishpacah Magazine, July 24, 2013
By: Barbara Bensoussan
Already in his early 20s, he could easily fall through the cracks: developmentally delayed but high functioning, with emotional issues that impeded his integration into constructive activities.
"We couldn't pull him out of bed," says Suri Englard, director of Day Services at HASC. "He'd sleep till three in the afternoon, then wake up with tons of energy that he often used to bother other people. We'd tried putting him in day programs, but nothing worked out." Yaakov had shown interest in computers, so HASC staff decided to enroll him in a six week computer course offered by COJO (the Council of Jewish Organizations). To their surprise, he went religiously and even did all the homework. "One day the teacher had to leave class early, and he put Yaakov in charge!" exclaims Suri. "We wanted to keep the momentumâ€ť she continues" So we invented a job for him at the agency, asking him to create a sort of computer inventory of our supplies. It worked so well that now he's been employed for eight months by a hospital at one of their offsite offices, doing filing and office work on the computer. He's usually on time, he dresses himself, and best of all, he's happy. He feels fulfilled- he feels that he's like everyone else."
Many of us derive satisfaction, self-esteem, and a sense of identity through the work we do, whether it's inside or outside the home (or both). People with developmental and/or emotional disabilities are no different; they also want to contribute to society and enjoy the social milieu a job often provides. "A job changes everything for them," Suri says. "It produces a ripple effect that makes other aspects of their lives better."
These days, just about every agency for individuals with disabilities runs programs to help clients find and hold gainful employment. Most follow similar procedures. First, clients receive pre-employment training, not just in job skills but in areas like appropriate job behavior, transportation coaching, and money management. Once on the job, counselors and coaches initially shadow the clients, gradually withdrawing until only spot checks are necessary, and continuing to serve as the go-between between employers and their special employees.
Seeach Sod, the largest frum agency in Eretz Yisrael for the developmentally disabled, has an extensive job program in place. Their approximately 500 clients learn until age 21, after which some continue in a son of kollel two hours a day; the rest enter on or off-site job programs. For example, on Seeach Sod's premises, teams of clients put together products in supervised assembly lines, such as pekelach for bar mitzvahs and weddings, or mikveh bags containing sponges, shampoo, and soap. The agency even has some workers assembling delicate, complicated plastic pieces for baby cribs. Workers assigned jobs off site are initially accompanied by counselors who gradually withdraw and do weekly follow-ups.
In the frum community, many employers are willing to take a chance on employees who might need a little extra help. The newsletter from Kinor Dovid -the division of Harmony Services that oversees employment of the disabled - reads like a list of iconic Boro Park stores, with upbeat photos of smiling young men packing boxes in bakeries, bagging groceries, even cleaning ambulances in official company shirts and badges. Program director Yechiel Hirth notes that job sites are chosen to incorporate at least one of the life goals clients are being trained for: "Individuality, inclusion, independence, and productivity. The ideal job site is one that encompasses all four." New York State's Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities supports Jewish agencies via its Employment First program. When all goes well, employers gain workers who are loyal and enthusiastic. "They're the first ones to show up when there's a blizzard," says Suri Greenberg, the area coordinator for the Kadimah Clubhouse and employment program at OHEL Children's Home and Family Services.
MAKE ME A MATCH
Matching disabled employees with employers is like any shidduch: you have to carefully consider the suitability and readiness of both parties, arrange meetings, and once the shidduch is finalized, keep an eye on the relationship to make sure no major issues arise that could damage it. Even after the partners have settled into the relationship, you have to be ready to tweak when necessary. Those who have little experience with people challenged by disabilities often assume they're cut from roughly the same mold. But while the disabled may share cognitive, physical, and sometimes emotional difficulties, their personalities and talents vary widely.
"We place individuals according to their levels, trying to maximize their potential," says Derek Saker, director of communications at OHEL. He explains that different strengths accompany specific diagnoses. "People with Asperger's or other autism can be hard to manage, but they integrate into a work situation better than a person with severe Down syndrome who can barely communicate,'' he says. "But Down's has a very large range. A high-functioning individual with Down's will be more personable on the job than an Asperger's client." Yael Schochat, a job developer with the Orthodox Union's Yachad program, concurs: "Sometimes our clients with autism are great in positions that require focusing on one task for a long time. We place them in jobs like data entry, copying, shredding, or organizing, and they often have more patience than non-disabled people." But disabled clients can also get bored, warns Perele Mayer of Women's League Community Residences. "We had an employer with an agency where a lot of shredding had to be done," she says. "They used to hire high school graduates, but after a few months the girls couldn't stand it anymore. Our clients are chalishing for office work, so we sent them there to shred, but after a while they'd get bored, too. Now we have a system where they shred for a few months, then we have them learn some light filing."
Yael Schochat also finds that clients' interests may change; they may need more stimulation after several months at a repetitive job. "But that's a good sign," she says. ''It means he or she is growing and developing skills. It's always trial and error until we find the right fit, and even then things can evolve." There's-surprising variety in the types of jobs available. Yael, who canvasses businesses for possibilities, deals with all types of employment situations from large retailers like Target, CVS, and T.J.Maxx (where clients are hired for stocking shelves, organizing, and maintenance) to restaurants (where they help in the kitchen or make deliveries), to offices (for filing, copying, scanning, and some computer work).
Employers may qualify for tax credits when they hire the disabled, who don't cost any more (and sometimes less) than traditional employees. "Yachad put on its own job fair this past March," Yael relates, "and we're planning another one, probably for late August, to offer opportunities for the entire tri-state area." Nissim Burnham, an employment counselor for Seeach Sod; says he learned from his supervisor to think out of the box when making placements. "He has ideas for jobs that sounded insane to me!" Nissim says. "For example, he suggested a kitchen job for a guy who can't walk. But this young man would sit and help an old lady peel vegetables and stuff peppers, and got along well with everyone - even the Arab workers were very nice to him. Later he moved on to a job at a wedding hall where he removes water stains from glasses that come out of the dishwasher, and he's doing a great job." A client with a paralyzed arm amazingly manages to work in the laundry of a mikveh, folding towels one-handed. The moral; Nissim says, is that you never know- the seemingly impossible is often possible. In fact, those are the cases that give him the greatest sense of satisfaction.
BEYOND THE JOB DESCRIPTION
Often the day-to-day execution of a particular job isn't the most demanding issue. The fear of getting started can be so crippling that some never manage the transition. Sara Levy's son, who lives in a New York residence, is impaired with cognitive delays compounded by emotional disabilities. He's capable of simple jobs, but he's terrified of change and responsibility. "His paranoia kicks in, and he's unable to functionâ€ť Sara says. "It's a shame, because he could use the money -he's a man now, in his late 30s." Sara's son's situation is not uncommon according to Matvey Khaimov, OHEIâ€™s employment specialist. ''A lot of our clients are afraid to work. They're worried they might not succeed. We reassure them - we'll tell them, 'Let's just try it out.' We'll even go with them and give encouragement as needed." "Many clients are socially isolated, afraid of new situations," Nissim Burnham concurs. "We have to give lots of chizuk and pep talks to encourage them at the beginning." At HASC, clients are offered incentives when they begin a job, to help overcome the inertia.
Once a client has jumped the initial hurdle, Suri Englard warns, ''it's often not the job itself that's the issue. Instead, it's the 'soft skills' that need work." Clients require coaching in areas like proper dress, grooming, and hygiene (the latter especially important for those who work around food). They also need to hone their social skills. "Our clients need to learn how to deal with bosses and customers,'' says Suri, "like knowing not to tell them all about their fight with their housemate last night." Nissim shares the example of Shmuel, hired to deliver boxes for a local grocery store. "He knows that most people around here tip the delivery guy five or ten shekels," Nissim says. "He also knows it's supposed to be optional, but if someone didnâ€™t tip him, he'd let them know his displeasure. He had to be taught not to give people a hard time. The funny thing is that while some of our clients donâ€™t know the difference between a 20-shekel bill and a 1,000-shekel bill, others are very savvy about money - a few don't stop asking their bosses for raises!"
Then there was the time Shmuel didn't want to work on Chol HaMoed, but his boss had decided the store would be open. "Shmuel went around informing the customers the store would be closed!" Nissim laughs. It was less of a laughing matter for the boss, however, and Nissim had to intercede to correct Shmuel's behavior. Another of Nissim's clients had to be toned down because he makes no secret about his wish to get married- to the point of annoying others. He also gets frustrated easily and falls into an emotional funk when upset. A more high-functioning and spiritually oriented young man who ties tzitzis as a job has to be reminded to soften his mursar-preaching and accept his less than- perfect fellows who occasionally talk in shul. Another client who has ('golden hands" always wants to leave his jobs after one month, despite his ability to perform- which is frustrating for the staff and employers.
In addition to social skills, disabled workers need to manage time and productivity, mentions Yael Schochat. "Clients have to learn to be on time and to handle responsibilities, what to do when they finish a task and aren't sure what to do next." Sometimes clients even need daily wake" up calls for their first few weeks on the job. Ironically, the more high-functioning clients may have a harder time integrating into a work setting because they have a stronger desire to be like everyone else. "They tend to be more demanding," says Devora Thau of Human Care Services, a division of Women's. League Community Residences. "But often the high-functioning clients have a dual diagnosis with an emotional disability as well. One can pull down the other." Nissim relates that a client of his amazed his employers with his ability to perform in a yeshivah kitchen - after a day or so, he could slice vegetables better than the old-timers. The bochurim took a shine to him as well, but working six hours a day was overwhelming him; he didn't have the maturity to stick to a schedule for so many hours. "We pulled him back to twice a week, and that's working better," Nissim says. ''And there's still the possibility we'll be able to increase his hours in the future.'' But it's equally true that emotional issues can mask cognitive abilities. Laurie Corlin of Mishkon assumed a young woman in one of the programs was developmentally disabled; she was confined to a wheelchair and, although she went through the school system, she did poorly. But once she began working as a receptionist in an office, her self-esteem soared, and she began functioning at normal levels. "Now we see a happy, fulfilled person!" Laurie enthuses. "The depression and physical handicap had masked her true abilities. But now she even does computer work as well." As Derek Saker points out, an employee's value encompasses more than his intellectual abilities. "Many of the disabled offer other kinds of value, such as loyalty," he says. Area coordinator Suri Greenberg couldmâ€™t agree more. "They never call in sick," she says. "When they get sick, we have to tell them to stay home." "Chesed will get them through the door of a workplace," Suri continues, "but it won't keep them there. Ideally, they should remain employed because they're doing a valuable job, and doing it right."
THE THRILL OF A PAYCHECK
The desire to be a productive member of society is universal, regardless of one's skill set, but it's that paycheck at the end of the month that really gratifies and offers a true sense of power and possibility. As pan of their pre-employment training, clients are taught about budgeting, saving, using ATM machines, and other financial responsibilities. "When our clients come home with a paycheck, they feel great," Suri Greenberg says. "One told me, 'This is the best thing in my life! I'm just like my brother and sister!' Another girl was so happy she could buy a baby gift for her sister just like her siblings." A man with Down syndrome, whom Nissim Burnham's worked with, was so excited when he received his first paycheck that he ran around showing it to everybody he met. "He was literally shaking with excitement," Nissim recalls. ''But there are also those who have no understanding of money and just hand their checks over to their parents."
One of his clients is a very productive worker in a bakery, and since his father lives in Russia and his brother lives in Spain, he saves his money to visit them both once a year. Other clients are happy to be able to buy their own cell phones or music CDs and DVDs. "It gives them a sense of independence and self-esteem," Nissim says. "One guy took himself very seriously; he complained to me about the long hours he was purring in, but then he gave a resigned sort of sigh and told me, 'Well, what do you want? I have to support myself.'" More exciting perhaps than a paycheck is the sense of social integration a job brings for people who might otherwise fall into isolation. "Our employees get invited to coworkers' birthday parties; they often receive simchah and Shabbos invitations," Suri Englard says. "They frequently tell us, 'My best friends are at work.' One of our girls was into baseball, and since her boss coached a team, he made her his assistant coach." Her colleague, clinical director Dr. Chaim Waltslak, recalls one client who worked in a large cell phone warehouse, a young man with Down syndrome who was a passionate fan of Lipa Schmeltzer. On his birthday, his frum employer arranged to have Lipa come sing for ten minutes at the warehouse, with over a hundred Mexican and Polish workers joining the party to sing along. The young man was thrilled and touched by the elaborate gesture. "A job makes all the difference," Suri Englard says, adding simply: "It gives these individuals focus, purpose . . . it gives them a life."