Ruderman Inclusion Summit touts Employment as Next Frontier on Disabilities

By Jacob Kamaras

By Jacob Kamaras/

Milestones were in the air at the Ruderman Inclusion Summit, which drew 500 people from Nov. 1-2 in Boston. Not only was it the first conference of its kind, but it came amid this year’s 25th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

But the Ruderman Family Foundation, the summit’s organizer, made it clear that it doesn’t consider the anniversary a time for disability rights advocates to rest on their laurels.

“Twenty-five years later, even as we mark this anniversary, we are now called upon to finish the work of disability rights and inclusion,” said Jay Ruderman – president of the foundation, which is headquartered in both Boston and Israel and besides working on disability inclusion prioritizes the issue of Israel-Diaspora relations – at the summit’s opening plenary.

In the next 25 years, Ruderman called on the crowd to help build a “social movement” that will “usher in a fully inclusive society.”

Ruderman and Tom Harkin, the former Democratic U.S. senator from Iowa and chief Senate sponsor of the ADA, co-authored an Oct. 30 Boston Globe op-ed headlined “Twenty-five years since the ADA, focus must be on employment,” setting the stage for discourse on an issue that was front and center at the inclusion summit that would follow. They wrote, “Participation in the workforce by people with disabilities is only one-third that of people without disabilities. On the jobs front, we have a ways to go.”

In his keynote speech at the inclusion summit on Sunday, Harkin said it is time to “take stock of where we are in terms of meeting the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The legislation, Harkin noted, has four goals: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency, which together – if implemented successfully – would bring about “full inclusion.” He said that while America has done fairly well on the first three goals, economic self-sufficiency is “the bone in my throat.”

“That’s the thing we really haven’t accomplished,” given that the employment rate for people with disabilities is the same as it was 25 years ago, said Harkin.

The former senator spent significant time reflecting on the story of his brother, Frank, who inspired the legislator to work on disability issues in the first place. Deaf from age 5 due to spinal meningitis, Frank was sent to the Iowa School for the Deaf – “segregated out someplace else,” in Harkin’s words.

Pressured to become a baker against his will, Frank was asked what he would really like to be doing by a customer at the bakery he worked at. Frank said he wanted to work on machines, and lo and behold, that was exactly the function of the customer’s company. Frank took off his apron and was hired on the spot, taking a job in which he made jet engine nozzles.

In his new job, Frank would complete more parts per hour than any of his fellow employees and never made a mistake, according to his supervisor. In 10 years with the company, he was never late once and never missed a day of work. Frank and others with success stories just like his got Tom Harkin thinking about the employability of people with disabilities.

“If we open the doors and get more people employed and include them in the workplaces, we’re all going to benefit,” Harkin said.

Harkin is this year’s recipient of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s $100,000 Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion. He will use the funds for The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement, whose stated mission is to “inform citizens, inspire creative cooperation, and catalyze change on issues of social justice, fairness, and opportunity.”

“I hope … that we’ll be able to partner in the future with the Ruderman foundation to advance this cause as much as humanly possible, so in the next 25 yrs, we won’t have 60 percent of people with disabilities out of the workforce…. That is a goal worth fighting for,” Harkin said.

On Monday, at a summit breakout session focused on the issue of employment, Tad Asbury – vice president and executive director of the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities – stressed that “work is good, work can transform, work can change lives for the better.”

The Marriott foundation has worked on job placement for 20,000 people with disabilities around the country from ages 17-24. Why start from age 17? Data gathered by the Marriott foundation has shown that young adults with disabilities are more likely to succeed in the workforce later in life when they are first employed while still in high school. The mantra is “work early, work often,” said Asbury.

What is employers’ outlook when it comes to employees with disabilities? According to the Marriott foundation’s data, while 38 percent of high-level company managers say employees’ ability to perform is their top priority, that is only the top priority for 12 percent of direct supervisors. The significance of that statistic, Asbury explained, is that direct supervisors may have a greater desire to partake in socially responsible initiatives such as hiring people with disabilities.

Christine McCarthy, director of human resources at Legal Sea Foods, LLC, said that hiring people with disabilities is “the right thing to do,” but also good business.

“It’s a way for us to walk the talk, but more importantly, we’re looking for quality people in a people business,” she said.

McCarthy said that graduates of the Transitions to Work program at Legal Sea Foods—like fellow breakout session panelist Robbie Mikels – exhibit a high desire to work as well as exceptional work ethic and attitude.

One challenge of employing people with disabilities, she said, can be “communication and understanding.” It’s important to match employees with disabilities with managers who are invested in the idea, in addition to being flexible about situations such as shifting work schedules, said McCarthy.

“You have to be patient and have a leadership team that’s willing to adjust as you go through,” she said.

Rick Laferriere, lead manager of workforce initiatives at CVS Health, said it is important to hire people with disabilities in order to reflect the actual communities that companies serve. In a healthcare company, for instance, people with disabilities working in clinics will “share a common thread and a common feeling” with many customers, he said.

Building an inclusive work environment provides “a heightened sense of purpose and a heightened sense of accomplishment” within a team of employees, in addition to “changing the perception around good-faith efforts,” said Laferriere. Good-faith efforts need to produce actual success stories and results, rather than engaging in the initiatives for optics, he said.

Robbie Mikels recalled that after “a very long road academically,” he found himself staring down an employment industry that was not very open to him and the challenges he faced. But at Combined Jewish Philanthropies-supported Jewish Vocational Service, he learned how to be a cashier and to deal with customers, and sharpened his job-interviewing skills – enabling him to eventually apply for a job at Legal Sea Foods. Previously accustomed to waiting weeks or even months to get a response, Mikels got hired the same day he applied.

“The biggest piece was being able to hear someone say they needed me,” he said.

In the faced-paced work environment of a restaurant, Mikels said his biggest challenges were adjusting to the speed of the operation and understanding what he needed to accomplish to get the job done. But after two and a half years at Legal Sea Foods, he has reached the point where he is even able to supervise new employees.

Tad Asbury stressed that for people with disabilities, not just getting a job is important, but so is advancing in that job – as Mikels did – or transitioning out of a job in a way that sets you up well for future employment.

Mikels had the following message for employers: “Look at our skills only, not that we have a challenge of Down syndrome, not that we have Asperger syndrome. We’re all capable of doing the job, we just do it differently … Make clear, when you’re looking for employees, the pace of the industry.”

“If u like what you see and what [people with disabilities] are showing you for skills, then hire them, work with them, because I’m going to tell you, everybody in this room … you all struggled with your job at the beginning, you all struggled with trying to find that rhythm…. Take the extra five seconds to check in with us,” said Mikels. “We’re all capable, you just need to take the extra steps to try to accommodate us so that we can accommodate you.”