Workplaces for Everyone

[This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.]

by Micah Fleisig

Individuals with disabilities are everywhere in our communities. We, ourselves, may have been living with one for years or may be recently diagnosed. Our Jewish summer camps include more and more campers with disabilities. Our parents, siblings, spouses, and children have disabilities. There is more evidence of disabilities as celebrities are revealing them, new diagnoses are emerging and publicized in the news, schools are adjusting from one legitimized model to another to accommodate all students, and even a few TV shows are creating more diverse roles. We may notice “those” in synagogue or the child in our children’s Hebrew School class. Inevitably, fortunately, and slowly but quite surely, those with disabilities are moving in to workplaces as well.

Aside from financial necessities that jobs support, individuals obviously gather more than just money through work. People receive purpose, organization and routine, confidence, relationships, and a place in a community. Jobs allow people to face and overcome challenges, learn from others, learn about others, learn about ourselves, and provide positive feelings from successfully completed work. For many of us it is the daily grind; it is one we may wish would be further away than the day after Sunday. For those who struggle to have an opportunity, they welcome the end to their weekends. Imagine that a job can provide emotional, educational, and interpersonal experiences every day. Would we not want that for everyone?

If everyone should in fact have the same work benefits, then the standard hiring practices must change such as hiring the most “polished” person who inevitably is the best interviewer with the most complete résumé. It sounds rational, it sounds like good business, and it may (or may not) sound fair. Why should someone who is less qualified have a better chance? Let us come back to that question. After all, there are “opportunities” for those who appear less able. There are volunteer positions and temporary or permanent paid placements because there has been more of a priority directed at getting a position, any position, for people with disabilities. Quickly finding busy-work, mundane workshops, or any thoughtless activity is the priority so everyone can quickly return to their own work. This can change. We can do better.

We want more opportunities for more people but again, “Why should someone who is less qualified have a better chance?” The less experienced individual may be initially less experienced (or appear to be so) but that does not mean he or she will remain that way (if that was ever the case). Programs have emerged that place individuals in workplaces for unpaid on the job internships. The workplace starts with a volunteer to help the paid staff members. If that volunteer is a viable candidate for a future position, then that person has already been trained. Free training for a workplace! The productivity that this new employee provides will most likely be more beneficial than a fresh new employee who has not experienced the work culture, expectations, and specific tasks. So what is the difference between this type of internship and all the others? The difference is the qualified intern has a disability.

Hiring individuals with disabilities are win-win situations with a likely potential for win-win-win outcomes. The employer trains a potential future employee for free and has an extra set of hands supporting their current paid staff. The co-worker and customer feel good about their interactions with this capable individual being a part of their work and patron experience respectively. Therefore, when there are previous assumptions that individuals with disabilities cannot work as well, then it is realized the stereotype is just that, a stereotype. This can break down the barriers that may separate cultures, backgrounds and histories, ages, sexualities, or abilities. The priority for the individual is to receive both transferable skills and learn transferable job-readiness expectations. They are transferable from one position and workplace to other similar ones.

Additionally, the person builds their résumé, receives positive work references, and then accomplishes their ultimate goal to secure a job offer (from that employer or another). Skills can be learned. Effort, loyalty, and dependability are essentials that improve productivity.

Managers can take the time to train those who may have a disability, and co-workers can help their fellow staff members have positive work experiences. As patrons, we can support the workplaces that support others best by frequenting them. This can reinforce the positive choices to include individuals with disabilities on their staff, but we can also speak up. We can give our time and voice and support to each other as is inherent in our cultural and religious identities. Jeffrey Ingber, the Nosh Restaurant Manager at NewBridge On the Charles (part of Hebrew Senior Life) in Dedham, MA has been a mentor, advocate, and supervisor to numerous interns and paid, permanent employees with disabilities. He explained that as Jews, we are judged by our deeds. “We are all responsible for the well being of others. God gave us all compassion, but we choose how to use it.”

Breaking down barriers, dismissing stereotypes, working as a team, helping others achieve both work and personal goals… these are deeds we can all perform. Is it worth it to help others live a life they’d like to live and one they can live? Ingber stated, “The Mishnah, Ethics of Our Fathers, 2:21, says ‘It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.’ Tikkun Olam, one step at a time.”

There are options that provide and support new choices for more people. It often does not take much, but it takes more effort than simply using typical hiring processes.

Micah Fleisig works for Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in Boston, Massachusetts as a Senior Employment Specialist for the Transitions To Work Program. A collaboration of The Ruderman Family Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and Jewish Vocational Service, Transitions To Work is an employment program for young adults with disabilities.