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Beyond Cognitive Disability Barriers
Employees Quickly Emerge as Assets

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.

The firm started what is now an official practice several years ago when the managing partner brought his son with cognitive disabilities to the office in Dallas and paid him out of his own pocket. It went so well that the firm decided each office should hire one or more employees with cognitive disabilities.

Danny Ricchi, 22, sets up the conference centers at Baker Botts. Ricchi, who has Down syndrome, likes going to the company gym and walking around the office -- and eating. "My favorite place is my mom's restaurant," he said, referring to I Ricchi.

Mir Azad, 18, who also has a cognitive disability, works at Baker Botts's library, shelving books, inputting information on the computers and making deliveries.

David Hughes, 43, works in the mail room, delivering boxes and mail. Nancy Leap, human resources manager, said he recently returned to her a document she meant to leave on her assistant's desk, and she apologized for her mistake. Hughes, who has Down syndrome, looked at her incredulously and said: " You made a mistake?"

"It's eye-opening to come out of the office and you're a self-centered lawyer and you bump in to someone so excited to be doing what they're doing," Berry said. "It disarms you."

More companies are finding nothing but a loyal, diligent employee base.

"It's hard to get employers to imagine that people with impairments actually can fit into a busy 24/7 workplace," said Cathy Healy, director of workforce and education programs with the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "When you see it in action, it's so amazing."

Only 32 percent of Americans with disabilities aged 18 to 64 are working, but two thirds of the 68 percent who are unemployed would rather be working, according to a study done by her group.

Healy is working to show employers that adults with disabilities make up a large pool of workers. "Lots of research tells us that people with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, have great staying power," she said. "These employees are loyal. They are hard workers, people pleasers, and they want to stay employed."

David Egan, 29, has been with Booz Allen Hamilton for 10 years. He works as a distribution clerk and is "proud to be a part of that team." He likes working with different people and enjoys delivering packages to employees at Booz.

More than just being a loyal full-time employee, he is also an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. He has Down syndrome. He is active in the Special Olympics, an organization that Booz supports. "They like to have employees come together to show team spirit. Here at Booz Allen, we also talk about core values a lot," Egan said. "I try to fit what we do as a company and what I do outside the company."

Heather Skeen, a senior recruiter and disability coordinator at Booz, said the company believes hiring employees with cognitive disabilities enriches the overall work experience. "When you have someone with different learning experiences, it's an experience for those who don't have a disability," Skeen said.

"I'm very fortunate to be with this company not just as a disabled person but as a full citizen," Egan said.

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