Disabled in the workforce: How a local Philly organization is training a generation of workers
SpArc Philadelphia exhausts every avenue to carve a path for disabled workers. But many say current funding is not enough.
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Editor’s note: Names mentioned in this article were changed to protect the identity of the organization’s participants.
Ms. Jane’s first work assessment with SpArc Philadelphia begins in the afternoon at a volunteer organization in Northeast Philly, about an hour and a half from Center City. They prepare meals for those in need, and albeit a small operation, the organization welcomes a large number of volunteers.
Aaron, one of SpArc’s handful of job developers, first meets with Danielle, the volunteer organization’s partner for job assessments, who then directs Ms. Jane to a desk where she’ll be assigned administrative responsibilities and determine if the job is right for her. Ms. Jane is accompanied by Aaron throughout the day, who’ll aid as needed.
That day, she’s tasked with stamping a large stack of index cards with the organization’s name.
Ms. Jane suffered an accident that left her with a permanent brain injury, causing epilepsy, and intellectual disabilities. She’s also lost use of her left hand.
She carries a can-do attitude and was confident the job would be easy, since she had done administrative work in the past. After half an hour, Ms. Jane developed an efficient system of stamping to get through the stack faster.
After an hour, she was entirely comfortable in her secretary role, redirecting other volunteers to the front desk while she employed her stamp and stack strategy. She also told jokes and made conversation with surrounding workers.
Aaron barely intervened and allowed Ms. Jane to put her best foot forward, offering encouragement along the way.
“It’s definitely important for me to be here just because we need to know how an individual works in a community based environment. We need to be there to assist if they have any support needs on the job,” Aaron said while stressing the importance of the evaluation period. “We also need to be there to evaluate (...) skills, strengths. But also, I don’t like to say the word weaknesses but I like to say things they might need some assistance with to get better.”
When the assessment was done, Ms. Jane was chipper. She loved the role and was ready for her next assignment.
Ms. Jane’s on-site visit is one of many hundreds of stories at SpArc Philadelphia, the parent organization that also contains advocacy branches. Ms. Jane’s assessment filters through SpArc’s overall workforce development program.
SpArc Philadelphia is tucked away in the city’s Northwest industrial sector, a stop away from the 33 bus’ final destination before it loops back to Center City. A short walk through a junkyard and salvage store leads you into a brick structure lined with colorful banners and an inconspicuous entrance that’d be fairly easy to miss with the banners alone.
SpArc assists, trains, and develops incoming clients with intellectual and mobility challenges via a three-phase program that starts in a community setting. They partner with local volunteer-driven organizations where participants can engage in small tasks and develop a skillset transferable to a regular job. ]
Through a series of partnerships, largely achieved through heavy legwork and door knocking, SpArc created relationships with volunteer organizations across Philadelphia. Lamees Jiménez, the Associate Director of Workforce Development, told AL DÍA what a typical scouting day would look like.
“One of the first meetings could be a general introduction, like getting to know one another (...) We get to know what the interests of the participants, what’re they looking to work on,” Jiménez said.
“The employer can just have a regular conversation with the participants to get them more acclimated because sometimes the environment can be really nerve-wracking,” she continued.
Jiménez and her team also work directly with each program participant to gather work history and create resumes for employers. The team can find employment suitable to the candidate’s wants and needs through this process.
While productive, Jiménez’s team faces thorny barriers, like unfriendly employers that aren’t necessarily open to partnerships.
She said some employers, who will remain anonymous, turn away job developers while onsite to offer employment services during a critical labor shortage.
“There are so many barriers when [it] comes to us reaching employers. We have some who actually tell us no. We don’t want to hire ‘your people.’ They tell us that and it’s just so unfortunate because they lack that education,” Jiménez added.
Another on the laundry list of obstacles Jiménez faces is funding, since coaching throughout the assessment and employment process is both costly and lengthy.
“The cost to support somebody of any disability has exponentially increased,” said Nofre Vaquer, Chief Operating Officer at SpArc.
Organizations like SpArc are funded through the Department of Human Services, and according to the 2022-23 operating budget, Intellectual Disabilities account for just 11.25% of the overall funding.
“We are a big line item on the budget. Usually, Human Services is one of the biggest items that any state will spend of their budget. But the money has never been adequate,” Vaquer said.
He told AL DÍA that while seemingly generous, funding is usually 12 years behind what is required year over year.
“We’re seeing an influx of dollars in the budget process, but we still need to be providing more resources because we were underfunding it,” said Councilmember-at-Large Derek Green, who serves as Chair of the Committee on People with Disabilities.
Green previously devised legislation to allocate half of 1% of the general budget as a trust fund to direct dollars toward housing services. One that is available through the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation is its adaptive modifications program, which installs upgrades to houses to make them more accessible.
But services like SpArc’s workforce development program are ongoing even after a participant successfully finishes the assessment period and lands a position. Because many workplace operations don’t account for intellectual or mobility challenges, participants rely on job developers to fill those gaps.
Vaquer remarked that some interventions begin with the company’s onboarding.
“We have to help the employer modify their [Human Resources] process to include people that are neurodivergent. They’re smart and brilliant, but they just can’t go through that traditional HR process that [we] have experience and no issues going through,” Vaquer said.
For participants like Hakimah, SpArc’s services were vital in obtaining a job she liked and was able to perform comfortably.
“I work hard. I socialize with my coworkers, and I do my work. I get a 15-minute break, and I do my job. I don’t bother anybody,” Hakimah said.
Through SpArc, Hakimah held a community job where she boxed cakes at a well-known dessert company and a supermarket role she still has. She told AL DÍA she doesn’t spend as much time in SpArc because she wants to focus on her current position, which she also landed through the program.
Oftentimes, Vaquer said, the organization reaches into its overages to continue on-site assistance when DHS funding doesn’t cut it.
For Green, achieving an adequate figure that meets the challenge of the disability community is an uphill battle because of the commonwealth’s traditional approach of providing static, federal funding deemed sufficient.
“The way the public sector and, more specifically, Philadelphia has viewed funding, especially for those who have learning or physical differences, is that whatever money we get at the federal level or the state level, that’s all the money we’re going to provide in these areas,” Green remarked.
New funding has made its way into the state’s overall budget, like Sen. Nikil Saval’s Whole Homes Act, which aims to tackle Philadelphia’s housing blight. But much is yet to be seen at the workforce level, with very few safeguards in place.
Green noted that many programs have a long road ahead to reach the disability community because their purview is limited to one dimension of the disabled person’s overall life and needs.
“They may have other issues in their home outside of where those programs can fund (...) So not just a roof or a heater or adaptive modifications, but how do we continue to do that work, not just a piecemeal approach?” he said.
“We have people who have intellectual learning differences that could be eligible for a lot of different programs but don’t know how or may not have the means to navigate these various programs,” Green continued.
Although Saval did not specify logistics, he said in an interview with AL DÍA that he would install teams to reach folks who may not have immediate access to an application portal.
But the disability community faces other challenges, like the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent ruling, reducing drop-off ballot boxes, and limiting a disabled person’s ability to cast a vote without a support system in place.
In these instances, local advocacy groups and organizations become critical for a disabled person’s ability to participate equitably within social structures.