Life at Work

Beyond Cognitive Disability Barriers

David Hughes works in the Baker Botts mail room in the District. The law firm has at least one employee with cognitive disabilities in each of its locations.
David Hughes works in the Baker Botts mail room in the District. The law firm has at least one employee with cognitive disabilities in each of its locations. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

When Kathryn Giordano, director of administration at Baker Botts LLP, suggested to Pat Berry that his daughter come work at his law firm for the summer, he shook his head in disbelief.

"I thought no, not a law firm," he said. "It was absolutely scary."

That's because Berry's 19-year-old daughter who loves to ride horses and types 45 words a minute has a cognitive disability. His daughter's stint at the firm allayed his initial fears. "Professionals with cognitively disabled children think they can't do this," he said. "But they can."

Other organizations have had the same realization. A decade ago, the Cincinnati Children's Hospital opened a division called Project Search which helps place people with cognitive disabilities in jobs within the hospital and teaches other organizations how to do the same.

"We really have found that people with significant disabilities are capable of doing incredibly complex work as long as it's systematic," said Erin Riehle, director of the project. Most people with developmental disabilities work in stereotypical jobs, she said, like cleaning and horticulture. "Our objective was to look beyond that. We found that we could put people with Down syndrome, Williams syndrome and many other disabilities into roles that had never been considered before."

People with cognitive disabilities have significant delays in measured intelligence, adaptive functioning or academic functioning.

"A fair amount of hospital revenue comes from providing medical care to kids with disabilities. We kind of had an awareness that we needed to provide role models in our workforce," Riehle said.

More companies are realizing the workforce opportunities in people with intellectual disabilities and are considering them not only for jobs, but careers. But the number is still anemic. Only about 31 percent of people with such disabilities are employed, said Jon Colman, chief operating officer of the National Down Syndrome Society.

Mason Berry has a genetic disorder known as Fragile X syndrome, which affects speech, motor skills, cognitive abilities and other characteristics.

Last summer at Baker Botts, she picked up books at book drops throughout the towering office at the Warner Building and reshelved them. She logged magazines into the computer and did some Internet research. After a few weeks, she learned how to ride the Metro so she didn't have to wait for her father, a partner there, to finish a conference call. This summer, she is a Labor Department contractor doing database work, closer to their home in Virginia.

"I loved it," she said while visiting her father's office on a recent weekday. To bide her time, she was reorganizing library slips. "They are not in order," she said, shuffling through them.

Companies like Baker Botts, working with local schools and organizations, have found that hiring employees with cognitive disabilities can fill a major gap in employment -- and it has been acting as a go-between to find other firms for employees with cognitive disabilities.

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