An inspiring nonprofit aims to help people with disabilities find employment in the Pearl District.
In a typically industrial-cool office in the Pearl, with a conference table made from a split log and art on the walls sourced from nearby galleries, you’d expect to hear a lot of talk about innovation, and big, world-changing goals. And those are indeed topics of conversation for Emily Harris and Robyn Hoffman—as are hardnosed business issues, like the methods for improving a company’s bottom line.
“Our secret mission—although I guess I’m spilling the secret now—is to make employment for people with disabilities typical by 2020.”
But when these two particular women step out of their building’s freight elevator—and into the Oregon headquarters of WISE (Washington Initiative for Supported Employment)—they get to work on an issue that affects many workplaces in Oregon, and indeed the United States: expanding employment opportunities for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. “Our secret mission—although I guess I’m spilling the secret now—is to make employment for people with disabilities typical by 2020,” says Harris, a program manager at WISE (514 NW 11th Ave). “This would be the pinnacle of the civil rights movement for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities,” she adds, “that when all people are adults, and they want to work, they can.”
That is not the situation today. When people with these kinds of disabilities—basically, those that originate from the brain, whether it’s a condition that’s defined through a lower-than-typical IQ score or through a disorder like cerebral palsy or autism—find employment, it’s typically at what’s known as a “sheltered workshop.” While this phrase sounds rather cozy, many advocates for people with disabilities have another word for these workplaces: segregated. Since they employ only people with disabilities, and because these facilities can pay workers far less than minimum wage, these jobs are not lucrative, nor are they necessarily great resume builders. People who work in sheltered workshops and who want to work elsewhere have little opportunity to leave.
There are some 7,000 people in Oregon who either work in sheltered workplaces or are eligible to work in them. While sheltered workshops do have their advocates, the tide has turned significantly against them. In 1999, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C., held that the practice of routinely isolating people with mental illness and other disabilities from the community constituted a civil rights violation. Since then, the federal government and the states have slowly moved toward community integration. In Oregon, a class action lawsuit against the state on behalf of people with disabilities, Lane v. Brown, reached a proposed settlement in fall 2015, part of which requires the state to find new, integrated employment for people currently working in sheltered workplaces, and to provide training and support for others with these disabilities to find jobs in the mainstream community, and at a regular, competitive wage.
This is where WISE, a Seattle-based nonprofit, comes in. The organization provides training to employment agencies that place people with disabilities in jobs as well as consultation and training to employers who are interested in hiring people with disabilities directly.
As the “W” in the organization’s name heavily implies, it originated with a primary focus in Washington state, but the shifting legal and policy environment generated enough demand for its services in Oregon to justify opening an office in Portland in January 2015.
Emily Harris and Robyn Hoffman, both lifelong Oregonians, are the entire office of WISE Oregon. Both women are program managers, and provide education and training to employers and employment agencies throughout Oregon, using their office in the Pearl as a base of operations.
“Employers can find a new employee perfectly matched to their business’s needs, without hiring an employment agency or placing a classified ad.”
Part of their job is addressing misconceptions that employers have about hiring people with disabilities—for example, that these employees will be more expensive due to additional training or insurance costs. In fact, a variety of federal, state, and in some cases, private funding covers any extra resources required by such employees, training or otherwise—so there’s no drain on the bottom line. What’s more, employment consultants tasked with helping these would-be employees often provide an analysis of a company’s unmet needs and then provide a job match, at no additional cost to the employer. Recent local examples of successful placements have included one at a dog-grooming business, where the new employee handled bathing, freeing the groomer up to handle clipping and trimming, and another at a farm, where the employee washed crates and handled seed starts. A number of other placements have involved office support, ideal for prospective employees whose disabilities also involve intense attention to detail. “This is an amazing untapped resource,” says Hoffman. “Employers can find a new employee perfectly matched to their business’s needs, without hiring an employment agency or placing a classified ad.”
Although WISE Oregon has not yet tackled any large projects in the Pearl District, “we’d love to be a go-to resource for employers to make that connection with these employees,” says Hoffman. A few months ago, she and Harris conducted casual informational interviews with some of their new neighbors—an art gallery, a boutique, a record store—to learn about their employment needs. After this experience, the two set a personal goal of helping 10 people with disabilities find jobs in the Pearl within the year, says Harris.
She adds, “As of now, we have 10 to go.” – Alison Stein | Photos by Ashley Anderson