When Jawann Sharper got hired as a dishwasher at a new restaurant in East Harlem, he was thrilled. He had previously worked as a kitchen assistant at Freedom Tower, and he’s always considered himself a “restaurant guy.” Sharper felt lucky to get back into the industry he loved, especially after witnessing how the pandemic left so many restaurant workers jobless. The timing was fortuitous particularly since, according to the US Department of Labor, the rate of unemployment for people with disabilities rose from an already high 80.7% in 2019 to 82.1% in 2020.
Contento, where Sharper works, is doing its part to change those statistics. Two of the restaurant’s founding partners use wheelchairs and accessibility and inclusion are core to Contento’s vision. Half the bar is lowered so that wheelchair users can sit there. The menus are accessible using scan-read devices so that low vision diners can comfortably order. Hiring Sharper, who has a developmental disability, felt like a natural step for the restaurant, which opened its doors last month.
Sharper’s role came about thanks to YAI’s membership in the Consortium for Customized Employment (CCE), a partnership of 14 agencies run through Job Path throughout New York that work together to ensure adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are able to find jobs that align with their skills and interests. YAI’s collaboration with the CCE has been fruitful, resulting in multiple job placements, including several at Shake Shack. According to Karen Waltuck, Director of the CCE, Sharper’s role represents a collaboration between YAI, the CCE, Contento, and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD).
“The story of Jawann and Contento is a story about perfect matches and the work we always do, which is really take our time to find where a person’s talent is, what’s the kind of environment they’re going to thrive in, what's the time of day they’re at their best, what's their interest, and what's their skill,” said Waltuck. “All those things [are factors in] customized employment, which is what the Consortium’s committed to.”
Sharper agrees that the role was exactly what he’d been hoping for, despite feeling nervous to start a new job.
“I thought, ‘finally I got my own job.’ I could finally work and not worry about what I’m supposed to do,” said Sharper. “I was depressed about if I was going to go back to my old job or if I could find something new related to the restaurant.”
Sharper has received employment services from YAI since 2016. And although he already had experience working in a kitchen, he was grateful that Employment Training Specialist Emilio Quinones-Torres was able to support him with some of the soft skills.
“Emilio gave me good advice in case I get a little nervous, or I don’t know what to do. I get to ask, ‘what I should do now?’ because it’s been a while. I haven’t had a job since COVID-19.”
Quinones-Torres has been an Employment Training Specialist at YAI for four years and says that working with Sharper has been easy not only because of Sharper’s personal work ethic, but because the role at Contento was a specific position that needed to be filled and was not created as an afterthought to accommodate someone with I/DD. According to Quinones-Torres, that’s not always the case.
“Some workplaces think of the person with disabilities as incapable of doing a lot of things, so they get the work that nobody wants to do...It’s not ok,” said Quinones-Torres. Often, he finds himself in the position as advocate for the employee he’s supporting, in addition to his other responsibilities as a job coach. At Contento, the ideology is far different.
“Our ethos is to be inclusive for all,” said Mara Rudzinski, managing partner and sommelier at Contento. “We are very strong-minded about making sure that our employees are taken care of...We’re making sure that we’re giving people a proper quality of life.”
For Rudzinski and the rest of the Contento team, prioritization of inclusivity made hiring Sharper an easy decision.
“We’re five partners and [hiring Sharper] was of the only things we all agreed upon immediately,” Rudzinski said. “And once we met Jawann it was like, ‘well, of course.’ He’s doing a great job.”
Waltuck is optimistic that Sharper’s story reflects a shift in employment services for people with I/DD post-COVID.
“This is a perfect example of how things are opening up in New York, and that positive things are accelerating as we open up,” said Waltuck. “We’re opening up businesses to understand how valuable this untapped workforce is, and that the City, MOPD, is collaborating with us, shows we’re all on the same page right now. It’s a joyous moment. And Contento, perfectly named, is a joyous place that’s doing the same thing. It’s just a perfect confluence.”