By Laura Crimaldi

Americans have struggled mightily in recent years with high jobless rates, but the unemployment rate for disabled people has been even more bleak.

In 2012, the jobless rate among the disabled was 13.4 percent, compared with 7.9 percent among those who do not have a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the US Department of Labor.

The figures are even more sobering when you consider how many people are disabled—1 in 5 Americans, according to 2012 figures from the US Census Bureau.

“They are the largest minority in the world,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Newton-based Ruderman Family Foundation. “This is one of the last major minority groups that’s fundamentally discriminated against.”

The foundation focuses on supporting people with disabilities and educating the public, including employers, about how they can improve the lives of the disabled.

“Someone’s work years are the largest portion of their life and to really be included in society you have to be gainfully employed and accepted in the work environment,” Ruderman said.

To encourage employers to be more inclusive about hiring practices and give disabled people a better shot at a job, the foundation set aside $2 million to pay for a program called Transitions to Work. The program launched in July 2011 and has produced more than 80 graduates so far, said Beth Tauro, business community liaison at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

The Patrick administration also recently chipped in $250,000 to expand the program, which trains young adults with disabilities for jobs with employers who are interested in hiring Transitions to Work graduates. The foundation collaborates with Jewish Vocational Service and Combined Jewish Philanthropies to offer the program.

Unlike programs that only provide job training for disabled people, Transitions to Work also helps students with the job search and partners with employers.

“The added value to this program is that the employers are lined up,” Ruderman said.

Among the employers who have partnered with Transitions to Work is CVS Caremark, which has a training center for new employees at Jewish Vocational Service in Downtown Crossing.

Pictured is a recent training session where trainees engaged in a role playing exercise, where Joseph Kagan played the role of a cashier and Caroline Greenfield played the role of a customer.

The training program accepts adults between the ages of 18 and 35, who have graduated from high school or hold a high school equivalency degree, Tauro said. Trainees must also be independent enough to get to and from a job.

The training lasts three months and includes classroom and hands-on training sessions held at the sites of employers who partner with the program.

Aside from CVS, other training sites include Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Whitsons Culinary Group in Newton, and NewBridge on the Charles, a retirement community in Dedham.

The training includes skills that could be used in any work setting like customer service, computer literacy, resume writing, and workplace etiquette, plus an eight-week internship that focuses on skills needed to work for the employers who partner with the program.

Completing the program does not guarantee a job, but more than 70 percent of graduates have found employment, Tauro said.

“Because of the funding, we are able to really give the student a very intensive training and work with them one-on-one and build their skills,” said Tauro, who recruits businesses to participate in the program. “We’re building these relationships with the employer partners to create culture change. It’s very important to us that if we present a candidate for a job, that we really think it’s going to be a win-win situation.”

Other employers who have hired people who went through the training program include Legal Seafoods, Anton’s Cleaners, and Prime Motor Group, Tauro said.

Jessica Schiowitz, 26, right, recently completed the program at CVS’s training center and now plans to do an unpaid “externship” with the company.

Schiowitz, a Dorchester resident, said she has a learning disability, fine motor problems, and trouble with depth perception.

“I needed help with cashiering skills and customer service,” Schiowitz said. “I’m getting more experience with it.”

She said she wants a job to help her pay for utilities and other bills and be more confident.

In the past she served as a tour guide at the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury and volunteered at Vilna Shul, a Jewish cultural center in Beacon Hill, Schiowitz said. She added she has a bachelor’s degree from Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

“I have more confidence in my abilities, Schiowitz said. “There’s no limit for me.”

Those who train at CVS’s training center use the same training curriculum that the pharmacy chain developed to get new employees ready to work in retail stores, Barker said. The training in the Transitions to Work program, however, is spread out over eight weeks, instead of a few days.

The disabilities that the trainees face vary, but include learning disabilities, Asperger’s Syndrome, and other forms of autism, Barker said.

The practical training covers topics like how to talk to customers, use a cash register, and discuss the company’s ExtraCare card with consumers, Barker said.

“They all have desire to work,” Barker said. “They all want to work and do better for themselves.” 

The CVS training puts a lot of emphasis on customer service skills, Barker said. To give students experience, the trainers do role-playing exercises meant to replicate situations that may play out in a CVS store.

A customer in a hurry at the cash register, a child who has ripped apart a display, or a consumer asking for advice about a medication are among the types of scenarios that get acted out in training.

At the end of the role-playing sessions, the group discusses how the students handled the scenario they acted out.

Cash register skills are a big part of the CVS training, Barker said.

“We hear a lot of, ‘I don’t know how to use a cash register. I’m afraid of the cash register. I’ve used it before, but I think I messed it up,’” Barker said.

A lot of times it’s those students who end up feeling the most confident at the end, she said.

By the end of the training, trainees are qualified to work in a CVS store, whether it be behind the cash register, on the floor, or stocking merchandise, Barker said.

Once the training is complete, the staff at Jewish Vocational Service continue to help students search for a job and provide support for up to a year.

In the case of CVS, some of students participate in an unpaid “externship” with the retailer, which lasts about five to six weeks, Barker said.

“They are more prepared. They feel even more confident in themselves starting the job versus someone who just fills out an application on a whim,” she said.

If a position becomes available, the trainees can apply for a job. Those students who do land jobs at CVS generally work part-time hours, Barker said.

Employed graduates usually earn more than minimum wage in their positions, Tauro said.

At the end of every training day, students write in a journal to reflect on their experience, Barker said.

She said she loves it when students write about overcoming a challenge they encountered while training. 

The training is designed to be specialized.

Transitions to Work matches trainees’ interests and strengths to the skills required of positions that employers need to fill, Tauro said.

Tauro said when an employer has a good experience with an employee with a disability, it can break down perceptions that people may have about the disabled and change a company’s culture.

She added the “biggest issue” for employers is confronting a “preconceived notion” that people with disabilities can’t do a job or require some costly accommodation.

“If there is any accommodation, there doesn’t always have to be a cost to it,” Tauro said. “Once one of our partners has hired one of our graduates, they realize this person can become an integral part of their workforce,” she said.

There are other benefits that employers may enjoy by hiring people with disabilities, Tauro said.

Businesses who hire people who have been out of work for an extended period of time may be entitled to a tax credit, she said. This is often the case among people with disabilities because of the high unemployment rate among that population, she said.

Employees with disabilities also tend to have low absentee rates, and are loyal and productive, Tauro said.

“I think it raises the bar for the other employees,” she said.

Tauro added that hiring people with disabilities gives businesses the chance to tap into the massive purchasing power represented by that segment of the population and their families.

Ruderman said employers have the power to reshape the way society perceives people with disabilities.

“People need to be educated and I think employers can serve a crucial role in changing society,” he said. “This is what this is about. It’s sort of like rolling a snowball down the hill. This thing will just take on a life of its own and I think we’re going to get there.”

Reprinted from Boston.com, January 27, 2014. For photos and link to Boston.com: http://www.boston.com/business/news/2014/01/27/training-program-opens-doors-for-the-disabled/SRatnSsnLhuZhvsGaFRdSI/story.html

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