Shawn Calkins has held several jobs in the past couple of years including working as a banquet server at a catering hall and a custodian at a local school. He says in the end he just really enjoys working with people and gaining new experiences.
Calkins hopes these experiences will open the doors for his dream job: owning a food truck and working alongside neurotypical peers. YAI is helping him forge that path by partnering with FedEx for a one-of-kind work experience program that will allow Calkins and three other people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) who attend YAI’s Westbury Prevocational and Day Program to do exactly that – bring neurodiversity to the company’s workforce at its Garden City facility.
“Not too many people know that people like me who have a disability can work in many different types of environments,” said Calkins, 24. “I'm hoping to gain new skills and to show the people who work there that I can do this too and prove that my employability skills are strong. I want to learn skills that I can apply to a job in the future.”
The work experience program is a five-month unpaid internship where the group will learn and master package handling with the end goal of some of them being hired for part-time positions at FedEx’s Long Island location. Starting mid-October, they will work three hours a day, twice a week, and will be responsible for unloading containers that come from JFK airport that have been shipped overnight, and then reloading them onto trucks that go out for delivery.
“Now more than ever, everybody talks about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but the population we support doesn’t always come to the forefront in these conversations,” said Bonnie Holtzman, YAI’s Deputy Director of Day and Employment Services. “People usually mention the LGBTQ community, minorities, women, and veterans, but people don’t always think of people with I/DD as viable candidates for jobs in their company.”
Holtzman hopes to change the narrative and get as many people as possible with I/DD employed in positions that are not typically accessible for them. The partnership with FedEx is a step in the right direction she says, but more needs to be done for true inclusivity of this often-marginalized group, despite recent promising statistics. Data from the Economic Innovation Group shows that since the pandemic, more remote work options have benefited people with disabilities because they remove transportation barriers and accommodate more disability-friendly work environments.
In 2022, more people with disabilities were employed than ever before, with 23.1% of people with disabilities participating in the workforce. However, this is still much lower than the employment rate for people without disabilities, which was 65.4% in 2022. This difference suggests that people with disabilities are not yet fully appreciated as members of society who can bring valuable skills, creativity, and loyalty to any employer.
“As a company, it’s inspiring to us to give young adults the opportunity to see if this is something they would like to do and pursue working for a large company...it’s truly been a rewarding experience on our end and we are excited to see where it leads,” said Nanette Malebranche, Managing Director of FedEx Express. “We hope it will give them the confidence they can do the job and be proud of what they have accomplished.”
Malebranche knows firsthand what opportunities like these mean for people with I/DD. Her son Joseph has been gainfully employed for the past decade and receives supported employment services through YAI.
“Sometimes it really takes someone in a company who has been touched personally by a person with I/DD to be our biggest advocate because they understand and appreciate how important the services we provide are for their loved ones to be active and productive members in society,” explained Holtzman.
This is not a one-way street, employers also gain a lot from employing people with I/DD. People in YAI’s supported employment program remain on the job for an average of close to eight years, filling roles in retail, healthcare, hospitality, and office services. YAI’s employment program also offers trainings that encourage employers to hire job seekers with I/DD.
“Work experience and equal opportunities for people with disabilities are not just about skills development, but about igniting a spark within their hearts and empowering them to believe in themselves and defy the limitations society has imposed upon them,” said Randi Rampersad, Assistant Supervisor of the Westbury Day and Employment Services. Rampersad will be accompanying the group to the FedEx site every week and guiding them through the day.
“It is about witnessing their triumphs and seeing their self-confidence soar as they shatter stereotypes and prove their worth while giving them the chance to feel seen, heard, and celebrated,” said Rampersad.