Disabled workers have a tougher time

Marketplace Staff Nov 10, 2009

Disabled workers have a tougher time

Marketplace Staff Nov 10, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Nearly two years worth of a desperately slow economy have affected a huge slice of the U.S. population. No matter your income bracket, your career path, or even where you live, you almost certainly know, or know of, somebody who’s lost their job, or you’ve been laid off.

The recession has affected another more specific group, too — the mentally disabled. They want to work as much as anybody does. But jobs for them are even tougher to come by.

David Martin Davies reports from Texas Public Radio.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES: In the workshop at the Unicorn Center in San Antonio, there are rows of tables with about 200 workers, sitting on folding chairs, concentrating on seemingly menial tasks. The labor force here is made up of people with mental disabilities.

John Schwab is the nonprofit’s executive director.

JOHN SCHWAB: Coming to work, earning a paycheck, and then receiving it — it’s a real good thing for our guys.

The Unicorn teaches life skills, and Schwab says a big part of that is providing jobs.

SCHWAB: Everything from collating papers to putting widgets, gidgets and gadgets together.

One crew is putting together clear plastic blister packaging. It’s that familiar casing that’s almost impossible to open. You can blame these guys for that.

Anthony Tosi is 45-years old, and he glows with pride as he does his job. He sits in front of what looks like a waffle iron that bonds the plastic shut.

Anthony TOSI: This thing gets up to 500 degrees — don’t touch this top — this and this goes there — oh how about that — this thing goes up, pour this out, and this is the finished product.

In this economy it’s getting tougher to find contracts to keep the workshop busy. And rising unemployment is hurting the Unicorn’s other mission: finding jobs in the real world for their special folks, like Judy Blackman. She got her job as a custodian at an Applebee’s restaurant. The Unicorn showed her how to punch in, punch out and everything in between.

Judy BLACKMAN: At first it was hard cause I was still kinda shy and nervous, but once you get used to the people then you kinds relax and say, OK you can do this.

John Butterworth is with the Institute for Community Inclusion. He says getting the disabled into the work force has so many benefits for the individuals involved.

JOHN BUTTERWORTH: Work defines us, provides us with some structure, provides us with friendships, you know, there are indications that it has impacts on other parts of our lives like health.

Right now, Americans with mental disabilities are losing their jobs three times faster than the typical worker. And Butterworth is concerned that the disabled are going pushed out of the job market, even after an economic recovery.

BUTTERWORTH: We are at a time when the economy is taking a toll on people with disabilities.

That’s what Judy found out when slow sales forced her restaurant to close down.

BLACKMAN: One day I walked in, they said I could no longer work there. I was pretty sad. I cried.

But rather than ending Judy’s career with the chain the district manager eventually found room for her at another Applebee’s. So she still has a job. And Judy tells her friends at the Unicorn not to give up.

BLACKMAN: Once you get a job, you’re set. Then you’re much happier.

In San Antonio, I’m David Martin Davies for Marketplace.

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