By: Sara Kuang, FCSN Voices Senior Youth Reporter
Employment for an individual with special needs is an especially tough situation for both the individual, as well as their caregivers and parents. According to the National Organization on Disability, nearly one-fifth of all Americans have a physical or intellectual disability, which amounts to over 54 million people. Of this population, over 75% are without employment (Grassi, et. al). Most concerning is the drop off in subsidized and government-funded care that individuals with special needs often experience past the age of 18; for children, there are schools and therapists that will readily accommodate their needs and provide enrichment programs, but these opportunities often dry up as soon as the child reaches legal adult age. Lack of jobs and training can be particularly stressful situations for individuals with special needs, leading to mental health issues.
With such a dismal outlook, many families are left feeling overwhelmed and helpless while trying to ensure financial stability for their child with special needs. Fortunately, FCSN offers clear guidance, job training and even employment opportunities for adult clients through a multitude of adult day programs. Additionally, FCSN co-founder Anna Wang is a fount of resources, as she has gone through the journey of finding employment for her son Lawrence. Through her hard work and incredible foresight, she was able to find Lawrence three jobs, not including one as a full-time professional musician playing up to 70 shows a year across the Bay Area. Lawrence has already worked at a State Farm Insurance company branch for 12 years, an office as a paper filer for 8 years, and even at a TJ Maxx outlet as a retail and inventory worker for 8 years. Anna opens up about the process of finding Lawrence three engaging, steady jobs during an interview.
When did you first start thinking about trying to find a job for Lawrence?
“Lawrence is now 31 years old and FCSN is 25 years old, so I’m a co-founder of FCSN because of Lawrence! I’m always designing programs that meet the needs of individuals with special needs, so I try to adapt FCSN activities as our kids grow up as well. When our kids were small, we had integrative playgroups and afterschool programs, the music and drama camps, but when they grew older we started the adult day program and supported employment programs at FCSN so all our programs can grow and support the particular needs of our kids as they needed.”
“I thought of his future employment when he was just six years old. When I first started the nonprofit, I was already thinking ahead, trying to answer the question, ‘How can he live a life that’s as normal as possible, that is as engaging and fulfilling as the lives of everybody else?’ And of course, this includes employment. For Lawrence, we started training him to enjoy working by giving him an incentive to work, the natural incentive for everyone, money! I gave him stickers for whenever he followed directions, worked well, or did his best, which he could then exchange for about 25 cents each. As he saw how important money was early on, he became anxious to go to work when he grew older.”
“I’ve always discouraged parents from simply giving their children money whenever they wanted it. If they always receive money whenever they hold their hand out, they never learn how necessary work is, meaning they won’t have an incentive in place when it’s time for them to enter the workforce.” The training with stickers and money that I did when he was young helped him make the transition to earning a paycheck independently, but of course you can start incentivizing work at any age. Earlier rather than later helps though, because it’ll be harder to teach your child to learn the value of work as they get older.”
What challenges did you or Lawrence face when you first started seeking employment for Lawrence?
“It takes two to tango! Now that you’ve got your son or daughter eager to work, you now need someone who wants to hire them. This is something that a lot of college graduates find difficult too. You need to work on this problem from all directions, to see which employers would be more likely to hire your child.”
To help Lawrence develop job skills, Anna began training him in several life skills early on, that could later help him with finding employment. Menial jobs that would fit her son only required basic, adaptable skills like washing dishes, filing paper, sorting items, etc. So she began to teach him concrete multi-step chores to do around the house and eventually for the neighbors as well, in exchange for quarters This helped him learn how to follow directions, do his best, and most importantly, adapt to different environments. “If he knows how to do something, he’ll need to know how to do it anywhere. He learned how to fold clothes at home after doing the laundry. Now, he will be able to fold clothes at Walmart, at TJ Maxx, and at other department stores. I helped him generalize his skills.”
Anna cautions against parents sending their kids into a work environment full of new skills that they’ve never been exposed to, as the stress of adapting to the work could have further negative consequences down the road. “They don’t know what the standard for a good job is –for skills they’ve never encountered before — so if they get fired in two weeks or put on probation, it’ll hurt them a lot because there will be a general sense of ‘Oh, I’m a failure! No one wants to hire me!’ That’s devastating, and it can lead to a difficult depression. Parents should take steps to set their kids up for success as early as possible. Your goal should be to ensure that once they’re hired, they’re never fired. ”
She also stresses that parents should utilize their connections with local businesses when trying to find their child work. “The office accounting and State Farm Insurance jobs are both owned by my friends who’ve already known Lawrence for a long time. For me to help him get the jobs, I did a proper introduction of Lawrence to them first, then got him started at around 2 hours a week, which then increased from there. They know that he isn’t good with listening to directions so they know to write down instructions for him to process and follow.” Family friends at jobs can help special needs employees feel more comfortable and have the added benefit of already knowing what works best for the certain individual, which means they’ll be able to adapt the job for the employee.
Were there any classes or training that Lawrence took to prepare for work?
“For the job at TJ Maxx, Lawrence has a job coach that goes with him to work. At TJ Maxx, there are several adults from our adult day program who also work with him there. Besides depending on the FCSN nonprofit organization to find work for your special needs adults, you should also use your connections to get your child a volunteer internship just for a bit to showcase their skills to potential employers and incentivize them to eventually hire them.” A volunteer internship done well, she explains, could help pave the way to employment for special needs adults and even add credibility to their skills for future employers in the form of letters of recommendation or endorsements. With such endorsements, the need for interviews can be mitigated if the child struggles with communication.
“Actually, none of his jobs required him to do an interview! I know my son’s weakness is in being interviewed since his communication skills are not the best, so instead, I would compile recommendations and testimonies from his previous employers, who he volunteered for and even from the high school librarian whom he shelved books for. I’ll either request a letter of recommendation or a video testimonial from them for Lawrence to let potential employers know my son’s strengths. Let that become your child’s resume and you won’t need much of an interview.”
Bypassing this interview process using creative ways like this can be a boon to helping a special needs adult get hired as it directly highlights their work ethic and skills without letting their weaknesses be the first impression potential employers see.
Were there any setbacks that you and Lawrence had?
“Not really, because again, I set him up for success from the start. One of the reasons I got him three jobs is if he’s laid off from one or if one of the businesses goes bankrupt, he won’t be completely lost and jobless. Also, I don’t foresee him working for forty hours a week at the same job. That would drive him crazy and it would eat up a lot of the time he needs as a musician. The way it’s set up right now ensures his happiness.”
How has Lawrence’s job employment been impacted by the COVID pandemic?
“He stopped working in mid-March last year but went back to TJ Maxx in August of last year but then had to leave again after just three weeks due to how crowded TJ Maxx was getting and the lack of vaccinations. He went back in April of this year after receiving the Pfizer vaccines and has been working since. His other two jobs weren’t impacted as much since they are less public than TJ Maxx; he went back to work at those in May. Last year, every day, he’d come complaining to me, saying, ‘I’m getting no money!’ but all I’d say is just, ‘Well you’re not going outside so it’s not like you are spending anything either!”
What would you like to say to any parent looking to search for employment for their special needs child?
“I’d say to the parents to start training your child to work and follow directions. Don’t have them do nothing for their money. This is the crucial first step. The second step is to not wait around for somebody to simply pick your child to become an employee. Be creative and think outside of the box about where your child can be employed; it’s not going to be Google and Facebook!”
“I think any individual of any level of functioning can work. I encourage families and parents to expand their perspective. Don’t just try and find some office job or forty-hours-a-week job for your special needs child. Lawrence started his job at just 2 hours a week and now he’s doing 8 hours a week for each of his jobs. Any work is a great start for your kid and if they do their job well, you won’t even need to ask for your child to be employed.”
Although employment can seem to be an incredibly daunting task for both the special needs individual and their family, there are resources to make this a smooth, stress-free experience. Parents are incredible resources for potential employment, and if they take steps to capitalize on their child’s strengths rather than focus on jobs that will target their weaknesses, employment is just around the corner. Anna’s own success story with Lawrence shows that with adequate preparation, an open mind, and patience, employment is possible for all individuals to find fun, fulfilling jobs.