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Employment helps adults with intellectual disabilities see what they're capable of

Serena Ashun is a team member at Hugs Greenhouse in McKinney, Texas.
Hunter Lacey
Serena Ashun is a team member at Hugs Greenhouse in McKinney, Texas.

From the age of 2, I have always had at least one close friend in my life who has an array of disabilities. It started with my brother Chase and has expanded outward to his classmates and therapy buddies ever since he started attending motor therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy and school. When I was too young to attend full days of school, my mom and Chase were stuck with me. I couldn't be home by myself, so I spent a lot of time in waiting rooms. In those waiting rooms, I'd befriend kids who were like my brother and, at the time, didn't seem much different from me either.

Kristen Lyons is a teaching assistant at the Octopus Garden Preschool in Richardson, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Kristen Lyons is a teaching assistant at the Octopus Garden Preschool in Richardson, Texas.
Blaine Harden is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Blaine Harden is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.

When you're that young, it's difficult to differentiate between neurotypical and not. I knew plenty of kids from preschool who didn't talk much or behaved erratically, so the kids in those waiting rooms seemed run-of-the-mill to me. It was a long time before I realized that my brother was not "normal." It would be even longer before I realized the roadblocks that Chase would face as an adult, and what that meant for the broader disabilities community.

Jerry Winters is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Jerry Winters is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.

In recent years, I have become interested with the world of meaningful employment for adults with disabilities. What does it look like? Is it possible for their unemployment rate to lower? How can more companies employ neurodiverse individuals? My interest stems from my connection to my brother Chase. I know and love Chase, as well as his friends. I want them to experience as full a life as anyone else. The difficult moments come when I remember that Chase cannot work — he is too cognitively disabled to understand the concept of a job much less hold one down. As I've looked into this subject and spent time with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who are high-functioning enough to hold down jobs, I feel a bittersweet joy. There is joy because I'm seeing a community I love thrive, but there is sadness because I know that for Chase — and others like him — life will not include this specific component that, for so many, brings meaning and empowerment.

Max Adamczyk is a groundskeeper at All Saints Catholic Church in Richardson, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Max Adamczyk is a groundskeeper at All Saints Catholic Church in Richardson, Texas.
Marty Cole is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Marty Cole is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.

Ruth Thompson owns and operates a restaurant in McKinney, Texas, that employs adults with IDD called Hugs Café. When speaking with Ruth, it is clear that her passion lies in working with this population. Her passion created Hugs but what has allowed it to last is the team she built.

"We are a restaurant that has 0% turnover. That is unheard of anywhere," Ruth shared with me. "My initial vision for Hugs was we would train them, employ them for a while, then they'd move on and others would come in. After the first year, we had so many say, 'Please, don't tell me I have to go somewhere else' — they found a home, a family, a community."

Jacob Shaw is a team member at Hugs Greenhouse in McKinney, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Jacob Shaw is a team member at Hugs Greenhouse in McKinney, Texas.

For the people in this population who get to experience employment, it's a chance to prove to themselves and to others that they can contribute value. For so much of their lives, it's apparent to them that they're different. Many of the people they encounter don't have high expectations for their abilities. But employment flips that on its head. Not only does the company benefit from the person's work, but the neurotypical coworkers have their conceptions challenged and, if the employee with IDD works in a front-facing role, the customers do, too. Best of all, the person with IDD realizes how much more capable they are than they previously thought.

Andrew Dennett is a team member at Hugs Greenhouse in McKinney, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Andrew Dennett is a team member at Hugs Greenhouse in McKinney, Texas.
Jerry Winters is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.
/ Hunter Lacey
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Hunter Lacey
Jerry Winters is a team member at Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas.

Hunter Lacey is a Texas-based photographer. Her work explores human connection, memory and personal ties to place. She also teaches journalism and photojournalism to high school students. See more of her work online, at HunterFolsom.org, and on Instagram, at @hunterfolacey.

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