01/21/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

(Not So) Equal Opportunity Employment

We're living in tough times. It's almost impossible to find a job. The economy is in shambles. The housing market is tumultuous. It's almost impossible to find a job! You've got a high school diploma? Get lost! You've got your Bachelor's degree? How adorable! You've got a Master's degree? We'll think about it. And that's for those of us who don't have any other challenges.

Now, imagine if you will, that same world if you had some sort of physical or developmental disability. You see everyone around you living on their own, going to work every day, going out with friends after work. Then there is you, who's been told that you're "not employable". Not employable?! What does that mean? "Hey, thanks for coming in. We understand you've got some challenges, but you should probably give up this crazy idea of getting a job now because it's a pipe dream."

Listen, we know not everyone is employable. We know that some disabilities are too severe. But what about the people who are out there that can work, that want to work? We're not talking about Cousin Eddie from "Christmas Vacation". These folks aren't holding out for management positions. They just want to work. They want to mop floors. They want to stock shelves. They want to clean toilets! They would gladly take those mundane, monotonous jobs that no one wants, just for a small sense of normalcy.

So what happens when a child with a disability becomes an adult with a disability? What services are out there specifically tailored to meet the needs of that individual when they reach adulthood? Sadly, the answer is not many. Special education services for those who are developmentally disabled under the age of 22 are plentiful. After the age of 22, however, there is sharp decline in the available opportunities in education and employment. In Indiana, the unemployment rate for the developmentally disabled population is 75 percent! According to the National Coalition of the Homeless, nearly one out of four homeless people have a mental illness. You can be pretty sure that those same people had that mental illness when they were children. You can also be pretty sure that when they were children, they were receiving some kind of services.

So what gives? Why the disconnect from adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities? Perhaps it's because we, as a society, have a structure that is built around the idea of children going to public (or private) school until the age of 22, at which point they travel into the world of employment, and find their places as working citizens. The difference is that most schools, public or private, have specific areas, teachers, curriculum, etc. that are designed specifically to meet the needs of an individual with a disability. The working world does not have these same standards, nor should it.

We have too long perpetuated a cycle of the mild to moderately disabled receiving life-long services and funding for their disabilities. Instead, we should be working with and empowering them to make a positive difference in their own lives as well as their communities. The idea that these individuals should be catered to their entire lives because they "aren't capable" is asinine. Teach a man to fish, right? Many of them are more than capable!

Take the story of Stephen Wiltshire. Stephen is a man from London with autism and an extraordinary ability. Stephen can draw. But not flowers and rainbows. Stephen draws cities. Entire cities. After only seeing them for 45 minutes from a helicopter. And he draws them exactly as they are. Perhaps it's not a lack of ability on their end, but a lack of creativity on ours. Maybe we're brushing them off too quickly without imagining where they might fit in. Many individuals with autism lack social skills, but make up for it in memory retention and repetitive task completion. To many people, filing paperwork is mind-numbingly dull. Sitting there for hours doing the same thing over and over is enough to drive anyone a little nuts. But to someone with autism, that could be the perfect job.

This idea is slowly, but surely beginning to catch on. Traditionally, there has been very little attention given to the idea that if each developmentally disabled person was given the opportunity to learn professional skills of communication, attendance, punctuality, and dependability they would be able to join the workforce and become self sufficient. But there's good news. More and more organizations are sprouting up and taking this model to heart.

Outside the Box (OTB) is one such organization. OTB was founded on the idea of giving these individuals the knowledge and skill set to go out and do for themselves, rather than allowing others to do for them. Participants in our program receive individualized career exploration and assessment. They also work through a structured curriculum including such topics as communication, attendance/punctuality, character and dependability, finances, marketing, skills building particular to the individual's chosen career, etc. Participants also meet with career support professionals for individual guidance/counseling on a weekly basis. Once prepared to begin working, individuals benefit from job development, placement, and follow-along services tailored to their specific needs.

So the next time you're at a fast food restaurant or Walmart, and you see that young man with down syndrome sweeping the floor, or the woman with cerebral palsy greets you at the door, think twice before you go out of your way to avoid them. They had to work twice as hard to get a job that pays half as much. And guess what? They're probably happy to be there each and every day.

Please visit our CrowdRise page to help us continue our mission of empowering, educating, and employing individuals with disabilities in Central Indiana.