I recently learned that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, or NDEAM.

As many of you may know from my past blog posts, I previously worked as a job coach for an adult with autism, whom I will call Tom. Working with Tom was a dream– he was so kind-hearted, funny, dedicated, and driven to do well at a job he had worked so hard to obtain. Tom worked at two jobs. In the mornings, he made artisan candles; in the afternoons, he worked as an administrative assistant for an academic office at a nearby university.

There were many factors that contributed to Tom’s success at work, but today, I will focus on one very important one. Tom had a boss at his afternoon job named Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a cousin with a disability, so she was well-versed in making accommodations for diverse needs. These accommodations, for Tom, included sticking to a routine. Each day, when Tom arrived for his shift, he always wanted to start the day reviewing his email with Elizabeth. This was an email that he would craft and send to her each evening, to read with her the following day. This email typically described the day’s meals, the workout he had at the evening’s Special Olympics team practice, or the TV shows he had watched. Elizabeth would read the email aloud to Tom, and then they would look at the attached images together.

The unique thing about these images is that they were always screenshots of the “Pictures” folder Tom had on his desktop computer. Ultimately, one could not make out much in these images, but Elizabeth would patiently ask Tom to explain to her what was in the picture. He would often outline each thumbnail (“Alex Trebek on last night’s Jeopardy” or “The picture dad sent me from his work trip to Las Vegas”, or even “My favorite Bob Ross painting”). All very specific, and seemingly random, pictures to be sending your boss. However, Elizabeth did not bat an eye.

Elizabeth understood that Tom has unique interests, strengths, and needs, just like the rest of us. In order to feel settled and comfortable doing his job, he needed that routine and that quality time with his boss. It couldn’t have taken more than five minutes each day, but Elizabeth made sure to give Tom that time. As a responsive and supportive employer, she gave her employee what he needed to do his job best. As soon as he was finished reviewing emails, Tom would get right to work with his scanning, shredding, or whatever other job he was completing that day. In order to feel that the day’s work was done, he would always stop by at Elizabeth’s desk for exactly seven M&Ms on his way out.

Tom is always well-prepared. He shows up to work on time, looking professional, and ready to work hard and stay focused. However, he has unique needs to support him in doing his best. They are not difficult to meet– they just require a slightly different outlook. If Elizabeth did not have experience growing up with a cousin with disabilities, I am not sure she would have been equipped to adjust to this foreign routine. She may have seen Tom’s pictures as strange, his emails as irrelevant, and his M&M fix as unprofessional. However, she embraced his differences with open arms, acknowledging that we all need something different, and the emails and M&Ms are what Tom needs to be comfortable at work– a routine that makes him feel appreciated.

Because of Elizabeth’s early exposure to personal differences, she was able to appreciate Tom for all that he can contribute to her workplace, as well as what exactly he needs to do his job best. I hope that someday, with the help of Kids Included Together, we will be able to say that all people will have been exposed to diversity and inclusion early in life. That way, all people will be ready to support their colleagues, employees, family members, friends, and neighbors in a respectful way that encourages tolerance, helping us all feel welcome and appreciated.

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Editor
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

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