By Lacey Sikora
Ben Rankin-Parker likes to be busy. The Oak Park resident doesn't let his disabilities keep him at home. He has two part-time jobs and feels a sense of purpose, as well as an enhanced sense of community, from punching the time clock on a weekly basis. While Ben and his family see the benefits of his working, not every person in his position is able to find meaningful work.
In 2015, a report of the National Conference of State Legislatures for the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, found that in spite of the fact that Americans with disabilities make up one of the largest minority groups in the country at nearly 20 percent of the population, only 20 percent of citizens with disabilities are participating in the workforce, compared to 69.1 percent of people without disabilities.
There are roughly 45 federal programs that support employment for people with disabilities. In the western suburbs, Oak Park's Oak-Leyden Developmental Services offers a Supported Employment Program to train people with disabilities to prepare them to obtain private sector jobs. Locally, Culver's in Berwyn, Jewel in River Forest, and Oak Park's Trader Joe's and Happy Apple Pie Shop are employers who see the benefits in working with adults with disabilities.
From making money to connecting with the community to building lifelong skill sets, the benefits of employment for those with disabilities are wide and varied. Once people with disabilities age out of the school system, a job can provide an important lifeline as it has for Ben.
The state is required to educate students with disabilities until they are 22, and public schools and social service agencies can help students prepare for life after school. Ben's mother, Ruth Rankin, says that the services of Oak Leyden were instrumental in bridging the gap between high school and employment for Ben.
When Ben aged out of OPRF, he attended job training programming through Oak Leyden. At first, Oak Leyden worked to train Ben as a busboy at a downtown restaurant, providing on-the-job training. That job proved too challenging for Ben, Ruth says so Oak Leyden and Ben recalibrated to find a job that he could master. Oak Leyden provided on-site training for Ben at the River Forest Jewel, and he jumped into the job bagging groceries as a courtesy clerk.
Ruth notes that for individuals with disabilities, self-sufficiency takes on a different meaning. Ben will never live on his own or manage his own money, but she says that his ability to learn through hard work and his self-worth have absolutely been impacted by his employment.
At OPRF, the CITE (Community-Integrated Transition Education) program for students with disabilities promotes movement from school to post-school activities, including post-secondary education, vocational training, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation.
Gwendolyne Walker-Qualls, OPRF's director for student services in the special education department, says approximately 45 students are currently enrolled in CITE, and these students have a variety of different disabilities: including autism, emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and intellectual and physical disabilities.
CITE teachers and transition specialists work with students in volunteer experiences, work experiences, and exploration experiences, based upon the abilities of the students. In the classroom, Walker-Qualls says CITE students work with resume building and job interviewing skills. They might take part in working on job applications and learning about various career opportunities.
For students who may not be able to participate in competitive employment, CITE recognizes that self-efficacy can be fostered through other means. Students participate in volunteer opportunities or workshop experiences, which provide a sense of purpose and an important connection to a larger community.
Finding that right fit of challenge and engagement with the community can be key to self-efficacy, no matter the kind of disability a young person lives with.
Ben has experienced plenty of times when he was not able to do what everyone else was doing, but his employment has changed that dynamic according to his mother, "His work is absolutely priceless. He knows he's an integral part of the community and that the work he does is valuable. He doesn't need job coaching anymore, he has learned how to do it himself. Being a part of something that's so visible is invaluable to his happiness."
Earning a paycheck is also a part of that equation. Ruth notes that Ben has a strong sense of the value of being paid for his work. "When he pays for things he wants to do or buy, he knows he's doing that with money that he's earned, and that matters."
While Ben loves his weekly shifts at Jewel, the lifelong Oak Park resident was not content with just one job. A few years ago, he was at the gym when he ran into a neighbor. Ben recalls, "I asked him if he had a job for me, and he said, 'sure.'" That neighbor happened to play a key role in Aspire Coffeeworks, an organization on the north side of Chicago that combines Aspire, a leader in providing services to kids and adults with disabilities, and Metropolis Coffee Company. Adults with disabilities work through Aspire side-by-side with Metropolis employees to bag and market Metropolis Coffee. Every dollar of Aspire Coffeeworks proceeds go back to fund programs for people with disabilities.
While his two jobs may be quite different, for Ben there is a sense of connectedness and purpose that goes along with both. "I like having two jobs," he says. "I like to be busy."
SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).
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