Landing a job can be much tougher for Joey Lerner than for most people, said his mother, Estelle, who accompanied him to a job fair last week organized by Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
“People look at someone with a disability and tend to see the disability and not the individual,” said Estelle Lerner, whose 27-year-old son has Down syndrome. Prospective employers, she added, are no different, with many of them speaking to him differently than they would other people or inviting him to an interview and then having second thoughts.
But Joey Lerner has a part-time job at a Jewish day school, where he works as a cook and helper in the kitchen, and he’s now looking for a second job to earn additional money.
That search brought the Lerners from their home in Cherry Hill, N.J., to Yachad’s second job fair for people with special needs, which took place in Lower Manhattan and drew close to 400 people. An agency of the Orthodox Union, Yachad provides social, educational and recreational programs for people with disabilities while promoting their inclusion in the Jewish community.
Discussing the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, Yachad’s international director, Jeff Lichtman, said hiring someone with special needs “comes with challenges,” just as hiring anyone does. At the same time, businesses often share the same prejudices or “inaccurate perceptions” about disabled people as those possessed by society at large. Their focus, he added, is on the bottom line — “Will this help us make money or lose us money?” — and not on chesed or charity. Those misperceptions, in turn, contribute to the unemployment rate among adults with special needs, which Lichtman pegged at 70 percent.
Compounding the confusion for employers is the diversity of the special-needs community, which includes people with learning, developmental and physical disabilities, and conditions among those who share the same disability ranging from mild to severe.
Michael Rosner, executive director of the OU Job Board, said he’d guess that “people with physical disabilities have somewhat of a better chance” in the job market “than people with Down syndrome or Asperger’s.” In the employer’s mind, he continued, someone with a development disability might act out or present a problem that the company can’t handle.
The reality is different, though, Rosner said. Once they’re acclimated in a new workplace, he added, “many of these employees become extremely focused on their job and extremely proficient at doing their work” — so much so that they’re often more productive than people without a disability.
Both Rosner and Lichtman hope their job fairs will not only help disabled adults in the job market, but will also educate employers about the special-needs population, dispelling any misperceptions.
Their work may be bearing fruit in that regard. Yachad’s first job fair, held in March, drew 30 firms and 500 job seekers, Lichtman said, adding, “We know for sure that 38 [of those people] were hired and are still employed.” Lichtman has also heard that one company at last week’s fair, Primerica Financial Services, wants to speak with 25 of the job seekers who signed up at its table.
A vice president of the Georgia-based Primerica, Kathryn Kieser, confirmed what Lichtman heard and said her company recruits people solely on merit. The company looks for people interested in starting their own business, and those it recruits are independent contractors rather than employees. Kieser said she sees no reason why disabled people shouldn’t be given the opportunity to join the company, which is glad to make accommodations for them.
A statement released by another company at the fair, CVS Caremark, said people with disabilities “thrive” in every part of the company, which prides itself on having an inclusive environment and a diverse workforce.
Indeed, one of the Yachad members at the fair, 19-year-old Josh Weiselberg, is an intern at a CVS store in Brooklyn Heights, where he hopes to join the staff in a few weeks.
Weiselberg, who declined to identify his disability, said he’s worked at the store for two months in customer service and stocking. He had trouble finding work beforehand because he “didn’t know how to put myself out there,” he said. But he finds the work “rewarding,” saying that he’s especially gratified by his “ability to work with colleagues and help customers with what they need.”
Despite the positive news, Lichtman said that any matches made by the fair are a “drop in the bucket” compared to the number of disabled adults who are still looking for work.
Among those having a tough go of it is Chaim Zahler, 41, a deaf member of Yachad who was laid off three years ago from his technical-support job at a hair-dye company.
“I worked for 10 years, and they said they didn’t need me any more — they needed to save money,” said Zahler, who spoke to The Jewish Week through a sign-language interpreter. Since then, Zahler said, he’s landed “many, many interviews” after applying for jobs online, but things turn sour after he arrives at the company with an interpreter and the employer discovers he’s deaf.
“They don’t look comfortable while they’re interviewing me,” said Zahler, who wears a black kipa. “I think it’s discrimination.”
As for Joey Lerner, he loves his part-time job at a Jewish day school, where he feels “as if he’s part of the staff,” said his mother, Estelle. But he needs an additional job to realize his goal of living independently.
“I want to make more money and hopefully get an apartment for myself,” Joey Lerner said. Toward that end, he recently finished a 200-hour professional cooking class, sponsored by a synagogue in Cherry Hill and funded by the local Jewish federation, for people with disabilities.
In addition to the money factor, Estelle Lerner said, her son benefits from work because “he needs to be with people. He’s a very people person.”
Work is important for people with disabilities for the same reason it’s important to those who aren’t disabled, she said. “You have to feel worthy. That’s a human need. “You have to feel needed.”