With the help of programs like Upbound at Work, disabled individuals in Michigan are finding employment at Fortune 500 companies such as Ford Motor and IBM.
Upbound at Work is an employment outreach program under its umbrella non-profit the Autism Alliance of Michigan. The unemployment rate for Autistic individuals has only decreased by 1 percent from 91 percent to 90 percent, between 2016 and 2018. While the organization wasn’t tracking numbers early on, Upbound at Work has placed 144 individuals into the Michigan workforce in the last two years.
“All citizens have the right to work. No perceived obstacle, prejudice, or lack of awareness should deny any person that opportunity,” the AAMs Mission Statement says.
According to Chief Program Officer Tammy Morris, Upbound at Work grew out of a free case management program. In 2014, the AAM realized that while most of their adults were interested in employment, they couldn’t find jobs.
“These individuals were highly credentialed and there’s a tendency for high IQ in Autism,” Morris said. “We just found a disconnect between the potential of the individual and the opportunities available. The autism spectrum is so broad that employers didn’t know how to handle these individuals. Accommodations have to be unique for each person.”
36-year-old Jeff Gebhart found Upbound at Work soon after graduating from Walsh College in December of 2014.
“It was hard to find a job after graduating, mainly because the people I was applying to were looking for experience,” Gebhart said. “I didn’t have that being freshly out of college.”
Gebhart has Asperger’s syndrome, which falls on the Autism spectrum.
“It affects me in social situations,” Gebhart said. “It’s harder for me to get comfortable in an interview, for instance.”
Upbound at Work found Gebhart a job in bailments, a technical term for loan contracts, at the Ford office in Dearborn. He deals with the paperwork that’s required to loan out vehicles.
“When we started our pilot with Ford, it was pretty groundbreaking,” Morris said. “There were myths and concerns about safety on the job. Things like individuals with disabilities were more prone to injury on the job, which is just not true. Breaking into auto was pretty significant.”
Gebhart has been with Ford since July of 2016. He said his coworkers were extremely welcoming when he first started and are always willing to help him out.
“It can be challenging at times like when I have to chase people down to get what I need, he said. “But, the people are great, my boss is great. All in all, I’m happy.”
As a non-profit, Upbound at Work not only helps disabled individuals gain employment, but also provides a variety of free resources. The programs offers professional coaching, video feedback, work with social skills, and mock interviews. While Upbound at Work focuses much of their energy on resources for the disabled individual, the program also provides assistance and resources for the businesses that hire those individuals. For example, federal contractors, such as Ford, are required to hit a 7 percent disability hiring rate. Morris said that Upbound at Work helps companies reach those diversity targets.
“They have to be making a good faith effort to reach those goals,” Morris said. “The only area that can be an issue is if they see it as an act of charity. Companies may not expect that we’re giving them good candidates with good backgrounds.”
For disabled individuals that need employment, Morris suggested getting entered into the Upbound at Work database. Gebhart had one piece of advice.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “There’s something out there for you. You just have to find it.”