TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- Christine Francis just wants employers to give people from New York-based YAI, founded as Young Adult Institute, a chance. A long-term relationship with a Tarrytown hotel has proven people of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be reliable and capable employees, if they are given the opportunity.
“Most employers don’t know what these people can do,’’ said Francis, a job coach at YAI who has been with the organization for 25 years. “We have to take our passion and story and bring it to employers, ask them to give us a chance. I often tell them give me a month and let me show you what we can do. If we had 25 employers like this, it would be amazing.”
DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tarrytown employs YAI workers who provide housekeeping services, help maintain the rooms and even cook and work in the kitchen. “Anything they might need,’’ Francis said.
Rich Friedman, the hotel’s general manager, gives high marks to the YAI workers. “They’re strong workers,’’ said Friedman, who helped develop the relationship with YAI six years ago. “We really look out for them, but we also make sure they’re treated equally.”
Francis and YAI staff match their workers with their interests and employers. In Westchester County, YAI workers have landed jobs at drug stores, department stores, restaurants and hotels. Francis and three other job coaches help secure the jobs.
“We find jobs that are interest to them,’’ Francis said. “If they weren’t interested in a hotel, we would not bring them into that. We start out on a volunteer basis to see if it’s a good fit. If it is, then it’s just a natural progression.”
The American Disabilities Act of 1990, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability. While illegal, the practice still occurs with startling regularity. Fewer than 21 percent of people of disabilities participate in the labor force, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 12.1 percent, nearly three times that of people without disabilities.
At the hotel in Tarrytown, however, the YAI workers are greeted with open arms by the other employees, and the hotel’s guests.
“Their co-workers love them,’’ Francis said. “They are focused and the quality of the work is amazing. They have to do the same jobs their co-workers are doing, and their co-workers accept it. They don’t even see their disability, which is awesome.”
The YAI workers are eager and are frequently given more responsibility and hours if they prove themselves. Instances in which YAI workers require discipline from the employer are rare.
Francis and the other YAI job coaches fight daily to find opportunities for their workers. When they land jobs, Francis, even after 25 years in the business, finds it just as rewarding as she did when she first started.
“It’s not about the pay,’’ she said. “It’s all about the fact that this person had an interest, and we were able to give them the skills and they were able to get the job. It’s the biggest high I ever get. They’re out there in the community, and they’re able to step on the stage with everybody else.”
Businesses such as the DoubleTree are setting the standard for how people with disabilities can be incorporated into the workplace. Twenty-six years after the historic legislation, some progress has been made. But there is still a long way to go.
“One of my favorite quotes I always tell people is from Winston Churchill,’’ Francis said. “He said, ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.’ That’s what our workers are doing. They’re trailblazing. They are opening doors for others, and showing people what they can do.”
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