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Special Article

Competitive Employment for People with Intellectual Disabilities — Real World Experience in Changing the Paradigm of the Way We Think

By Joyce Bender [view bio]
President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services.

Image of Joyce Bender

It is an honor for me to speak to this prestigious group of people today. It is an honor to work with a group of people devoted to the competitive employment of people with intellectual disabilities. It is an honor to work with a group of people who will be making recommendations to the President of the Untied States. You have a voice that can make a difference in America for those often left out — that is so powerful.

I love the title of this speech, because it is what is so needed in the world of competitive employment for people with intellectual disabilities — a Paradigm Shift in the way we think. We know that people with intellectual disabilities have a very high unemployment rate and are more likely to live in poverty. We know that many employers think about people with intellectual disabilities as people who should be taken care of — not employed, and if employed, frequently underemployed. We must change the way we think if we want to see a change in the competitive employment of people with intellectual disabilities and if we want to see people with intellectual disabilities acquire a higher level of self-efficacy.

As a woman with epilepsy and a hearing loss, I know that not that long ago, people with epilepsy were considered to be the untouchables. For many years and with some still today, people believed that epilepsy was a psychiatric disability and contagious. The stigma attached to epilepsy still exists, but people with epilepsy have made great strides. Due to the stigma, the unemployment rate is still high for Americans with epilepsy.

My career has been in the area of employment for over 30 years, working with the private sector and Federal agencies. I have studied and written so much on the area of competitive employment and it is so exciting to speak about the competitive employment of Americans with intellectual disabilities.

My career in executive search was interrupted by an almost fatal accident in 1985. For many years prior, I had experienced on-going fainting spells and immediately visited a doctor. My disability was misdiagnosed; I did not know I had epilepsy until I had a tonic seizure in 1985 at a movie theater concession stand in Pittsburgh, PA that resulted in an intracranial brain hemorrhage and fractured bones in my inner ear. I was rushed to the hospital in a coma and had life-saving brain surgery; it was in the intensive care unit that I first heard the news that I was a woman with epilepsy. After two months of rehabilitation, I went back to my executive search firm, as a person with disabilities. I soon sought to include people with disabilities in all the work I did in the area of employment and did volunteer work for the next nine years.

Finally, in 1995, after becoming frustrated with the inability to get companies to hire people with disabilities, I founded Bender Consulting Services, a company that focuses on competitive employment for Americans with disabilities. It was a paradigm shift for many when I told them we would be a for-profit company and focus on no pity and accountability. Many people still tend to invoke the pity model when they think of employing people with disabilities and that will not work. Today Bender Consulting operates in 18 states; we have hired over 380 people with significant disabilities.

In 1999, I received the President's Award at the White House and in 2003, I received the New Freedom Initiative Award. In 2001, I founded Bender Consulting Services of Canada to provide employment to Canadians with disabilities; Bender Consulting of Canada operates today in Ontario and Quebec.

Bender Consulting has included hiring people with intellectual disabilities, through the Elizabeth Project, in white collar areas at corporations, such as data center or mail room positions. This initiative provides a competitive career opportunity with health care benefits for people often left out.

When Bender Consulting first proposed including Americans with intellectual disabilities in competitive employment, many people thought the idea was ludicrous. How would people with intellectual disabilities work under the Bender model of competitive employment in corporate America. We moved forward and it works — better yet, it works for our employees.

One of the core problems in the ability of people with intellectual disabilities to gain competitive employment relates to what Albert Bandura discussed in his social cognitive theory — self-efficacy. Without a reasonable level of self-efficacy, it is impossible to succeed in the workforce for anyone.

Frequently, people with disabilities have a low-level of self-efficacy, for many reasons. If we want to see this change we must have a paradigm shift in this area.

  1. Self-Efficacy — There is a difference between self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of performing a certain goal. For example, although I have good self-esteem, I know I cannot be an Olympic Medalist. I do however have a high-level of self-efficacy that helps me believe in my ability to be a civil rights leader by impacting the employment of Americans with disabilities.

    If you have no self-efficacy, you do not have the belief you can achieve anything. Low self-efficacy causes a person with an intellectual disability to assume he or she will fail at a job before they even start work. Low self-efficacy will cause a person to quit a job or give up when it seems difficult because they do not believe they have the ability to succeed in the position.

  2. Social structures help to create low or high self-efficacy. If a person with an intellectual disability is surrounded by family, friends or service providers who see the person as weak or inferior, this will help create low self-efficacy in the person with an intellectual disability.

    You cannot expect a person with an intellectual disability to raise the bar or raise their level of self-efficacy if they are in a social structure that does the opposite. People with intellectual disabilities who succeed the most are people who have been encouraged to have a higher level of self-efficacy.

  3. Pity creates low self-efficacy. There is a tendency by many to pity people with intellectual disabilities; they do not want pity — they want paychecks. When you pity a person, you are really saying they are inferior to others and not as good. A person with an intellectual disability senses how you really feel about them by your treatment of them.

  4. Proper training on business skills is critical to a person having a high level of self-efficacy. You cannot put anyone in the work force that has no idea of the world of work and no idea of basic skills such as attendance and how to dress for work. These are basics that are critical to creating that environment, where the person is not humiliated because they did not know what to do at work.

  5. We must create on-going internships at companies for people with intellectual disabilities to help them have a higher sense of self-efficacy. If you have a chance to do an internship or job shadow, it takes away the fear of that first job.

  6. High self-efficacy means that not everyone with an intellectual disability will need a job coach at work. At Bender Consulting Services, the two recent hires with intellectual disabilities are working at Highmark in the mail-room, with excellent pay and benefits. The first individual, already hired by Highmark, is the trainer for the new person recently hired.

  7. Getting people with intellectual disabilities to serve on not-for-profit boards will help them have a voice and create a higher level of self-efficacy.

Originally, when Bender wanted to hire a young man with an intellectual disability, his service provider told the Bender recruiter that he was only good enough to mow the lawn. This is terrible. This individual now works in the mailroom, at Bender's partner company Highmark, and is the trainer for the new Bender employee with an intellectual disability, who was recently hired. The service provider who worked with him had a low view of him and his ability to succeed; fortunately, he met people who did not feel that way.

We cannot make a change in the area of competitive employment for Americans with intellectual disabilities until we change the way we view people with intellectual disabilities. There are those who are so profound in their disability that they do need a job coach or support at work, but they can still work.

It was not many years ago, that with epilepsy, I would have been considered unable to run a company; today, I run three companies and have a radio show heard throughout the world. I have a high level of self-efficacy.

We cannot work on improving the competitive employment of Americans with disabilities and exclude this group; it is to be justice for all — not for some.

People with intellectual disabilities are tired of waiting to be treated equally, tired of being pitied, tired of being pushed aside, and tired of being unemployed. People with intellectual disabilities are tired of waiting for jobs that do not appear.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while in Birmingham jail said, “For years now, I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”

People with intellectual disabilities say “NO MORE WAITING”!

Joyce Bender is President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services. Please direct questions for Joyce to info@disability-marketing.com.

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