Strategies for Employer Engagement and Outreach: A DD Council Perspective

About This Episode

Prior to joining the staff and then becoming Executive Director of the Arkansas Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, Jonathan Taylor was a retail field manager with a decade of successful experience in competitive, integrated employment. In this podcast, Jon recounts his experiences and offers practical tips for how State Councils on Developmental Disabilities (DD Councils) and other stakeholders can engage with employers to advance competitive, integrated employment, economic outcomes, and community inclusion for people with disabilities.

This podcast is released to coincide with the brief Jon Taylor wrote for the Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center (DETAC), Employer Engagement and Outreach: How State Councils on Developmental Disabilities Can Open the Glass Door to Employment.


A portrait of Jon Taylor. He has a salt-and-pepper widow's peak and is wearing a blue shirt, tie and grey flannel suit. Jonathan “Jon” Taylor is the Executive Director of the Arkansas Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. He joined the Council staff in August of 2021. Prior to that, Jon was a retail field manager with a decade of successful experience in competitive, integrated employment. Over the last several years Jon has taken a progressively larger role in promoting disability inclusion in Arkansas. He is currently the Co-Chair of Disability: IN Arkansas and is the Chair of the State Rehabilitation Council. In 2018, Jon was the recipient of the Distinguished Leadership Award for his work promoting and advocating for the inclusion of Arkansans with disabilities into the workplace and community. Jon and his wife live in Conway, Arkansas; they have three children.

A portrait of Donald Taylor, a man with a medium smile and a mob of curly dark hair in a black collared shirt against a pattern of a blue pained wrought-iron gateDonald Taylor has been with TASH since 2014, where he is the Manager of Membership & Communications, responsible for membership and chapters, data systems and communication, and collaborates closely with other staff to make sure TASH systems support their work. Donald comes from a background of data systems, operations and business analysis, going back to the 1990s. Donald came to the world of disability while pursuing a degree in history. The history profession is deeply interested in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century and fellow students studying biomedical systems of oppression inspired in him the desire to make a contribution to this aspect of social justice.


Announcer: You are listening to the AoD [Administration on Disabilities] Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center Podcast, where we learn from people who are working to improve competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for people with disabilities.

In today’s episode, we talk with Jon Taylor, the Executive Director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities for the State of Arkansas. Jon wasn’t always an advocate for the employment of people with disabilities. He started his career in retail management. It was through his experience in retail of what people with disabilities are capable of, that Jon became a convert to the cause. We discuss his personal journey to advocacy and the perspective it gives him on what employment programs need to know about employers.

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Donald Taylor: Jon Taylor, why don’t you introduce yourself for our listeners. Tell us a little bit about your background and what you currently do.

Jon Taylor: Thank you. I’m Jonathan Taylor. Let me take a deep breath and spit my title out: I am Executive Director of the Arkansas Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, a role I’ve been in for about three years, and it’s a role I came to in – at least compared to some of my peers – a non-traditional way. I worked in retail stores for 30 years. It was my whole life. It was all I ever knew. I assumed that I was gonna do it for my entire life, and I was going to retire as a store manager, probably for TJ Maxx or Marshalls or wherever I was. And I really enjoyed it. I liked working with people. I liked the daily challenges. It was lots of fun.

But in the mid twenty-teens, the PROMISE Grant[1] came out and that was a, a disability focused grant that six states got, including Arkansas – which is where I’m from. And it was focused on putting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and SSI [Supplemental Security Income] recipients to work. And so the state agency that was administering that program was Arkansas Workforce Services, and they approached the TJ Maxx that I was at, and they said, would you like to participate? And I said, sure. And that sure, that yes, decision I made really changed the entire trajectory, not only of my career, but of of my life in many ways. I started working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, other disabilities. I started working with state VR [Vocational Rehabilitation] agencies and somehow stumbled into this second career of being the Director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and working for the DD Council. And so that’s what I do. Employment’s not our only focus, but it’s a personal passion for me, and that’s what I spend a lot of my time working on in my day job.

Donald Taylor: First, I want you to tell us about your personal journey, because I think this addresses where a lot of people’s perceptions are. And perhaps the biggest part of unemployment among people with disabilities is the widespread attitude that you once shared: that people with disabilities don’t have the skills, and that in a workplace they don’t do “real” jobs, or that they do make-work, or their job coach is the one really doing the work. And I want you to tell us about your experience in which you found out just how wrong all that actually is.

Jon Taylor: Oh, yeah. I’m really good at telling you how wrong I was. So let, let me start there. When, when that program, when PROMISE started, if you’re unfamiliar with what it was, you know, I touched on it a little bit in my previous answer, but the premise of PROMISE was if you could introduce this youngest generation of people to the world of work, would one, they be able to break away from the dependence on SSI, but also what would happen for other SSI recipients? And what they found, at least in Arkansas, was if you could move about 90 people out of a thousand, off of SSI into real work, the taxes, those 90 people paid from regular competitive integrated employment the word you just used was, you know, make work or made up work or busy work. But no, if you could move those SSI recipients into real jobs for real pay, doing real work, those 90 would pay for roughly the remaining thousand that were in that cohort.

So it, it was a success, but it was, it was hard work. That first summer was about, I think 2015 is when I really started working on it. And we had 50 participants in that program. And, and I was skeptical, but what they told us was all of those things that they just explained to me, and I explained to you, I didn’t hear any of that. All I heard was, you’re gonna have 50 young people working for you and we’re gonna pay for it. So all I heard was summer work program, I’m gonna get a ton of work done, and I’m gonna save a ton of payroll.

And I was oh, so wrong because so many of those young people, some with an intellectual and developmental disabilities, and some of them that didn’t, had no basic skills about the world of work. And I go out and I talk about my experiences in Arkansas a lot, and one of the questions I always ask to groups are, Hey, who in this room ever had a job before? And they raise their hand and I say, great, did your parents work? And they say, yes, they did. I said, great. Many of the PROMISE participants came from families that had multiple generations of dependence on SSI or had just never worked. So a lot of the basic job skills that even you and I probably had when we walked into the door, that group didn’t have.

So I’ll give you an example. You know, things like showing up to work on time, or yes, your boss gets to tell you what to do. All those sort of basic little skill sets this PROMISE group didn’t have. So of the 50 participants I had in that first summer of lost every single one of them for a wide variety of reasons, because my store staff really wasn’t ready for the amount of work that it was gonna take to engage and develop a group of young people with no experience of work plus disabilities on top of that.

And I would say that the job coaches on site really weren’t fully prepared either at the beginning of that program. So I was, I was frustrated at the end of that first summer. But when that program came around the second summer, we took everything that we had learned and we went at it again. And we spent a lot more time focusing on, when we asked somebody to do something, we talk about why, you know, and you can even talk about attendance. Why do you show up on time? Well, if you’re scheduled to show up at 7:00 in the morning, it’s because – and this was at a TJ Maxx – the truck gets there at 7:00 in the morning and I need all hands on deck to unload that truck, get everything into the store, and send the truck on their way. And when you equated what you wanted with why you wanted it, we started to get results.

And in fact, when we really went back and went to a back to basics approach on our training for all new employees, not just the PROMISE participants, we got better in general. We had better retention from that group, but we also had better retention and productivity from the non-disabled employees that we brought in with them. So going back to basics, focusing on why, not just what, but also going through more disability etiquette training, having a better understanding of some of the behaviors that we would see from some of our neurodiverse candidates that were in that program, really taught us just to step back, focus on the basics and, and be a little bit more patient. So by the third summer I was in that program, I had moved to a different TJ Maxx store, but I brought all those lessons with me. And having broken through all lot of those myths and misconceptions about people with disabilities, I was far more effective.

And I didn’t believe any of those things. You know, if at the beginning of the program, well, what do you mean they need a job coach? If they need a job coach, they’re just not ready to work. And a lot of those – and I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ll say it out loud, you know – a lot of those myths and misconceptions about people with disabilities, I had those. And you’re terrified of what you’re going to get before that first person even walks in the door. So working directly with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the work coaches and Arkansas Workforce Services really helped tear down all of those myths and misconceptions. And by the time I got through that third summer, I had gone from being a resistor of hiring people with disabilities to somebody that adopted it in that second summer. And then I had fully embraced it and brought it with me to a different store by that third one. But I learned, I learned a lot of painful lessons on the way, but it worked, it worked out for me.

Um I’ve got one story I always like to share. And I was in the third summer and I was wandering around my store, just checking things out in the morning. And one of the supervisors that worked with the PROMISE participants stormed up to me and she said, “Jon, that new kid threatened to fight me”. I said, okay, that’s not good. So she had my full attention. We went back to where they all were, and we saw that participant in question. And he was in the middle of a pretty intense conversation with his work coach, and he saw the supervisor and he saw me, and he walked up to me and he said, “Why Johnny Tyler, you Madcap, where are you going with that shotgun?” And so the supervisor was still next to me and she said, “See, now he’s threatening to shoot the place up. He’s gotta go.” Now, three years ago when that program had started, I would’ve probably fired him on the spot, told his work coach to get that kid under control, and that would’ve been the end of it. But when I was interacting with this young man, he was smiling and he was nodding, and he didn’t seem aggressive at all. And then it, it hit me. He’s quoting from the movie Tombstone. So I hit him back with a movie quote of my own and said, “I’m your huckleberry.” And he laughed and he said, “Yeah, I’m your huckleberry.” And then he turned around and went back to work. Now everybody that had overheard that whole conversation was looking at me and said, what just happened? And I said, Hey, he’s quoting from the movie Tombstone. Now, of course, that turned into a huge back and forth of, alright, are we talking about Tombstone with Val Kilmer or are we talking about Wyatt Earp with, you know, Kevin Costner? And I said, no, no, no, this is the good one. This is Tombstone. And so once we had that conversation and everybody was done laughing, they said, okay, and that was it. And that was indicative of many of the interactions I had with the PROMISE participants that summer. But because we were in that third summer, we were a lot more patient, we were ready to expect some, you know, unusual behaviors, but we dealt with it in the moment, brought the work coach in when necessary, and we moved on.

And that’s what I mean by fully embracing it. If at the beginning of the program, I’d have fired him and sent everybody home, and I would’ve probably had an angry phone call with the workforce services rep talking about, hey, they can’t threaten to shoot the place up. But by that third summer, it was like, okay, I get it. Movie quotes are his thing. And they were and we had to have discussions about movie quotes particularly the summer after that. We still had that same participant. And Deadpool had come out that summer. I don’t know if you’d ever seen Deadpool – hysterical movie, but you don’t talk about Deadpool at work unless you want a trip to the human resource office. You just don’t do it. But we were prepared. We, we were ready to deal with some of the different behaviors that we got. And, and, and so that’s really what I mean about, you know, becoming a full adopter of it. I understood, I had understanding and I was able to bring my team with me.

Donald Taylor: In your brief, you write “Too often, qualified workers with disabilities struggle to find work because the organization that supports them are focused on them. Equal focus must be placed on potential employers.” Tell us what employers need to know about employing people with disabilities.

Jon Taylor: Right now many of my former peers in the – not just the business world, but even in, you know, state government now – we are all really struggling with hiring and retention. If you’re able to go to an organization and say, I have a talent pool for you that will stay in-role; I have a talent pool for you that is good for the team and the culture that you have; I have a talent pool for you that is just as productive as everybody else; and I have a talent pool for you that might even make your organization eligible for a tax credit – if you’re able to go to an organization and tell them that, that will get their attention. And that’s what I mean by you’ve gotta focus on what the business wants. I call it an “employer first” mindset.

So if you are going out there – and whether you’re a job developer, whether you’re voc rehab, or whether you are a DD Council, trying to engage with a business and get them to open up their hiring practices and be more inclusive – even though we represent people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the businesses don’t care about that at the beginning. What they care about is, can you provide somebody for me that is a stable staffing pool where I can source talent, bring them on board, and they’re gonna stay and they’re gonna work hard and they can follow directions and they’re gonna fit into my culture. That’s what I mean by an employer first mindset: going in there and understanding that the business has to understand that you are representing a talent pool that can get things done for them.

Too often when you are working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities – and I’ve seen this firsthand at the beginning of the PROMISE program – when some service providers recognize that, oh wait, this store manager and his team will hire people with disabilities, I had lots of service providers knocking on my door with people that they wanted to place in a job, but all I would ever hear from them is, oh, this, this person has struggled so much and they’ve gone through so much. And they made it a very almost charity based approach where they’re telling me this person’s story without telling me about, hey, this person’s gonna work hard, show up on time, and really wants to be here. It was more about their story and the charity. And again, I was a busy store manager. I would literally say, thanks for your time, I’ll see you later. But the organizations that came in and approached me with, hey, I’ve got this person that’s looking for a job, and they wanna show up, and they wanna work hard, and they like your store, and they didn’t focus on the personal story, those were the ones that got my attention.

So you have to really focus on what’s in it for the employer, not necessarily what’s in it for that person with disabilities. Over time – employers are people, they’re human beings, they have a heart, they’ll get to know that person at the beginning. But just like any other person that’s going to apply for a job, they don’t necessarily care about that person’s life story. They care about, what can you do for me? What’s in it for me? Are you gonna show up on time? Are you gonna do your job? You know, are you gonna be a good fit for the organization? Those are the things that employers care about. So that’s what I mean by you’ve got to focus on the employer, not necessarily that person with a disability right off the bat. Because when you talk about competitive integrated employment and building disability inclusive workspaces, it’s a trinity. It’s a trinity that is, of course, yes, that person with disabilities needs to get that job, that service provider’s there to help them. But if you don’t take into account what’s important to the employer, you’re not gonna get a lot of movement forward.

Donald Taylor: In your brief, you outline four tips for DD Councils working with employers. Would you tell us about those?

Jon Taylor: I’d love to. The first thing is you’ve gotta do a little bit of research. Now, I recognize that as a DD Council – and I’m an executive director of a DD Council – I am not a service provider, but I do have the ability in my capacity as a DD director to go in and talk to businesses about the importance of hiring people with disabilities and what the benefits are. But you’ve gotta do a little research, and that’s the first tip. Research the employer before you make that initial contact.

You know, right now, in this day and age, it’s a timely topic. A lot of employers, they have diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI] statements, and that’s great, but a lot of times they don’t really focus on disability. The other part about it is that a corporate headquarters may have a great DEI statement, but when you get out into the field, you know, an individual business unit away from a corporate headquarters, that DEI statement might not be real. So take some time to really look at a company’s DEI statement first and understand, you know, where are you at? If I were talking to A CEO, I’d say, you’ve got a great DEI statement. How do you work to bring people with disabilities into that and see what they have to say? And they might have a highly detailed program, or it might be a general statement, and which case it’s an opportunity for that DD Council to partner with them to help make the disability part of that real. That’s a big part of it. Just do a little research.

The other thing I would say about doing a little research too, is recognize that there are certain times to approach businesses and there are certain times not to approach businesses. I’ll give you an example of, of the retail world.

And, and I focus on retail because so many people with disabilities tend to find jobs in the service-related fields. You know, it’s not just retail, but you know, fast food or hotels or, you know, janitorial work. Things that are often very entry level. And when you’re dealing in the entry level world, those supervisors are often really busy.

So when I refer to retail, if I was looking to build a relationship with a retailer and they were a, a traditional apparel-based retailer, and I wanted to start having them hire people with disabilities, if I walked into, you know, gosh, a Macy’s or a TJ Maxx and I did it in November, I am not gonna get a great reception. They are already full blowed into holiday madness, and they’re not gonna stop until after January. They don’t really have a lot of time to do that relationship building. They’re staffing up for the holidays usually in September and October. But if I [inaudible] approached a retailer in the summer, they might have a little more time.

You could build that relationship. You could introduce them to your state’s VR if they haven’t been already. You can bring a strong service provider with you and build that relationship, but you’ve gotta get to know each one. So an apparel retailer, sure you wanna leave them alone during the holidays, but you could walk into a Home Depot and their holiday busy season is in the summer. So if I walked into, you know, a Macy’s in the summer, I’d probably be okay if I walked into a Home Depot or a Lowe’s in the summer, they’d say, I don’t have time for you because everybody’s doing their yard work and home improvement. What if it was an accountant? Would you really walk into an accountant’s office to talk about staffing the first week of April when they’re filing taxes like crazy, but maybe after they breathe a little bit and you go approach ’em in May, you’d have the chance to talk to ’em.

So a lot of it is just finding out when they’re busy. Sometimes that’s just walking up to ’em, handing ’em your card and saying, I would love to talk to you about some hiring initiatives that we have. We’d love to be able to support you. When’s the best time to talk? And that’s part of it. But yeah, that’s the first tip. Do some research, find out when the best time to go in there is.

The second tip I would have is you’ve gotta position your DD Council as a staffing partner. Again, you don’t deliver services, but you’re a partner with that.

I’ll give you an example. In my state on my council, the commissioner of our state’s VR agency is a trusted, valued member of the council. So I’m able to work with him, work with his agencies, and, and bring people along with me. Also on my council is a nonprofit representative from a few nonprofit service delivery organizations. I’m able to build partnerships with them and let those employers that I engage with know that you can talk to VR or I can put you in touch with a service provider and they can give you a, a real world understanding of the work that they do. So you just have to make sure that you’re a partner, because sometimes when you’re hiring people with disabilities the first time and you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be terrifying.

When I was an employer my main staffing partner was my VR agency, and they literally held hands with me at times when I struggled. And that’s the important part of the partnership, is that you’re introducing them to resources that are useful to their business, but you’re also there. If things go wrong or get a little tough, you’re there. It’s a relationship.

The third tip I talk about is at the beginning of the relationship, if you’ve got a business that’s willing to hire people with disabilities, you’ve gotta be very careful about who that first person is. And that can sometimes be a hard thing to say, but when I go back and look at watching my own state VR agency or some of the service providers I worked with, the first few people that they put in there, they cherry-picked. They they really did. It was all right, this person has low support needs. They know what they’re doing. We think they’re gonna be a really good fit for your environment. And that person was successful and put the rest of my team at ease along with myself. And then after that, we were able to take on more people with higher support needs over time. So that first person that you put in there is really gonna be the one that sets the tone for that disability employment program that you’ve got in there.

So you just wanna make sure that it’s the right fit more than anyone else. And, and that’s with any real new relationship that you’re building, making sure that you are fully committed to making not only that person that you’re placing successful, but that business has all the tools and the training that they need to make sure that they’re successful. So that’s part of it.

The last tip is just follow up. It’s never a one-and-done. So once you place that first person, or you’ve even continued to place, people just stop in every once in a while, talk to that business unit leader, you know, whether it’s a store manager or an HR manager or you know, a district manager, whoever your points of contact are, just follow up. Let them know that you appreciate what they’re doing and that you’re here if you know they’re needed.

Sometimes one of the most important parts of follow up is that let’s say you’ve built a great relationship with an HR manager or some other senior business leader, and they get promoted and they move on. If you show up a year later and you have no idea where you are, you might have to start over. But if you follow up every couple months and somebody new is there, you have the opportunity to keep that program and that relationship going. So it is just following up on a regular basis. I’ve got a council member that taught me once, she said, Jon, if it’s not an Outlook, it’s just not real. So I’ve got some Outlook calendar tags just for follow up to make sure that I’m keeping relationships alive.

Donald Taylor: What are the big four benefits of hiring people with disabilities?

Jon Taylor: This is what I refer to as an employer first mindset. And it really goes back to: you’ve gotta go into the business and understand what’s important to them and what’s in it for them for hiring people with disabilities.

So the first one I always go back to is retention. You know, many businesses have huge struggles with attrition where they’re just turning people over constantly. So if you’re able to go to them and explain to them that, Hey, people with disabilities, if they can make it one year in this role, they’re likely to stay 85% of the time. That’s huge. When you look at, you know, retail attrition averages is around 60% – where that means they’re only gonna stay about 40% of the time. So you’re constantly in this vicious cycle of interviewing, hiring, training, and then you’re gonna probably lose somebody, and then you have to start all over again. So if you can find a talent pool like people with disabilities who can come in and they will stay 85% of the time, that’s a huge hook for employers. So that’s always the first one.

The second one I like to talk about is productivity. There’s sometimes this thought that, oh, well, I’m just creating made-up work to keep these people with disabilities in-role. Oh, you know, no, there’s an off quoted DuPont longitudinal study that showed that people with disabilities, when you look at the bell curve of productivity, are usually at, you know, or maybe a little below sometimes that bell curve around productivity. But when you look at it, are all your employees hitting that? And when you have an honest conversation with employers about productivity, they recognize that. So if you say, Hey, you’ve got this person with disabilities, they’re going to stay in-role most of the time and they’re gonna be just as productive as your other employees, you’re gonna be fine.

Now, sometimes around the productivity, that’s where you do have to talk about job coaches and say, you know what? You might need a job coach to help keep them productive. But that job coach is coming from the supported employer that’s supporting them. It’s not coming from their payroll. And once they understand that, they’re fine.

And productivity is also a great chance, by the way, to start talking to them about what reasonable accommodations really mean. There’s somebody that was working at a senior fitness center here in Arkansas, and he was very productive as long as he had certain tools. So he had short-term memory loss. So if he didn’t have a checklist on his phone that he reviewed every hour, he would go clean the same locker room five or six times a day, right? Which would be unproductive. That one locker room might be super clean, but the other ones that he was responsible for would not. But because he had a tool on his phone, it allowed him to keep on track. So as long as an employer understands that that person with disability is gonna be just as productive with everybody else – yes, they need some tools or accommodations in some cases – but they’re still gonna be able to do the job. They understand that.

The third part of the big four is morale. Employers that successfully integrate people with disabilities into their workforce, they routinely report high levels of employee satisfaction. And when you talk about employee satisfaction, some companies refer to their employees as internal customers, meaning that you have to take as good of care as your internal team as you do your external team. But people with disabilities have been found to fit well into cultures. Their peers like working with them, and many customers on the outside – and you know, it’s customers, if it’s a private business, it’s taxpayers if you’re working for state agencies – but they’ll find that three out four Americans are likely to support a business that’s committed to breaking down barriers. And I think it’s 71% of Americans will indicate that they’re more likely to support a business that makes employment opportunities available to people on the autism spectrum.

So sometimes they worry about, oh, is that person with disabilities gonna fit into my culture? You know, I can reference back to that story about that young man that kept quoting movies: once we understood what he was talking about, he was a valued part of the culture, and he could even talk to his peers about movies once he understood how to do it appropriately. And he fit in just fine, and he was a good fit back there. So people with disabilities are good for your internal culture, and they’re good for morale.

Finally, the last credit – and I could go on for hours about this one, and I’m not gonna talk about this for hours – but there’s the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), which is part of WIOA [Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act].

So that Work Opportunity Tax Credit – if a business hires a person with a disability and they’re a vocational rehab referral, they might get a tax credit that averages around $2,400. Now there’s nine targeted groups within the WOTC. People with disabilities that are a VR referral are part of that. And there are a couple things: that tax credit’s not automatic; that employer has to fill out an IRS [Internal Revenue Service] form 8850 – it’s my favorite tax form. You send it into your state workforce coordinator, and after that person works 400 hours, that business gets that tax credit. Now it’s a one-time tax credit; you don’t get it every year. You get it that one time, but it’s a financial incentive to hire people with disabilities.

Many large businesses do a lot of work with WOTC. And every state has one person, whether it’s their Department of Commerce, or Workforce Services, or VR – their whole job is just to process tax credits.

But just to put it in perspective, in 2023, the Department of Labor reported 1,982,000 certifications for WOTC were processed. If all of those were claimed, and it was an average credit of $2,400, that would’ve been about $4.7 billion that would’ve been paid back to people and businesses that use the WOTC tax credit. And by the way, $2,400 is, the average; the most that credit can be is $9,600. So there’s a powerful financial incentive for businesses to bring people with disabilities into the workforce. And that’s what I mean by the big four. If you have the time to sit down and explain that to an employer, there’s a real financial incentive for them to bring people with disabilities into the workforce.

Donald Taylor: It’s not enough just convince upper management. You have to convince, support, train the on the ground employees responsible for hiring, training, scheduling. How do you do that?

Jon Taylor: That’s where it’s critically important that your partners get in there and train those line supervisors and peers about what’s going to happen. And I’m glad you brought that up. You could have a great DEI statement, and you could have a great strategic plan coming from a corporate headquarters saying, we’re gonna hire more people with disabilities. But if you don’t train those line supervisors, those managers, and those peers in the basics of disability etiquette, you’re not gonna get very far. If you don’t train them that, hey, this job coach is gonna be right there, but the job coach is there to assist that person with disability: you’ve gotta engage with that person with disability, not the work coach.

You’ve got to help them understand that, hey, sometimes you are going to run into some off-the-wall behaviors. That’s why I love to tell that story about Tombstone. We always refer to that as the summer of Tombstone back where I used to work, because it encapsulates so much of some of the struggles, but also some of the rewards that you have around people with disabilities. Once we recognized that, hey, movies is his thing, we were able to communicate with him more effectively.

I had another employee that worked in that store during the summer, and all he would ever talk about was Kit Kats. It was Kit Kats first. And once we recognized that, all right, we’re gonna talk about Kit Kats, then he’ll get back to work, that was fine. But again, like I said at the beginning of the program, if I or some of my supervisors only were talking about Kit Kats all day long, we would’ve discounted that person as unable to focus, unable to work, and discounted his contribution to the team.

So it’s lots of training upfront. After I started working with PROMISE, I started working with my state’s VR agency, Arkansas Rehab Services, and they actually came in and they did a great training on disability etiquette. But they also focused on other things. And I really didn’t recognize what they were doing at first, but over time, and particularly once I stepped out of being in the stores and doing this DD work, I I recognize exactly what they were doing. So when they came in and they would follow up on those people with disabilities, what they focused on were, hey, is that person achieving the goals? Are they working well with the team and are they able to adhere to the schedule? They didn’t focus on things like, are they making friends or are people being nice to them, you know, who’s sitting with them at lunch?

And the social is important, but they trained us to focus on performance metrics and making sure that they were doing their job and not focusing too much on the social part. And, and it reminded us that, hey, they’re here to do a job, let’s focus on that. And that made it a lot more successful. But they taught it not just to myself as a store manager, but they taught my other managers and they taught those hourly supervisors how to interact with the people with disabilities in the workplace. So that was really one of the most important parts when you bring the staffing partners in, make sure that the training isn’t just around that senior leadership: it’s around the people that are gonna be working right there next to those people with disabilities day in and day out. That that was a huge key to the success.

Donald Taylor: Tell us about the importance of employer champions.

Jon Taylor: Hmm. So, you know, if you’ve got a goal of, I want to increase my state’s percentage of people working, you know, in competitive integrated employment in the community, you can’t just do it yourself. You know, you can go in as a DD Council director or council member, and you can give a speech about the importance of competitive integrated employment. But if you yourself haven’t really lived it recently, your speech is gonna sound more theoretical. When you can find an employer that does all the things that you want them to do and is an adopter and an embracer of hiring people with disabilities, you’ve gotta find a way to help them tell their story to other employers, to other people that might be resistant, or scared, or nervous about taking the risk about hiring people with disabilities.

That’s what they did to me. You know, when, once I really got it by that third summer where it was, all right, I understand this and I see what we’re trying to do, and hiring people with disabilities is great. And at, at one point in the last store that I was at, I was at about, I think it was at 15% permanent staff of people with disabilities. And it was higher during the holiday seasons ’cause I would hire a lot of seasonal workers for that time of year, but I always had a good permanent core staff of people with disabilities that worked really hard. And so to me, that was just standard operating procedure. I would post a job and one of the first phone calls I would make would be to my business engagement manager at VR. And he was all but embedded in my HR team by the time I left. So to me, it was just no big deal. I was just doing my job day in and day out. What I was unable to understand was I was atypical among employers in my area that I was gladly hiring people with disabilities.

So what they asked me to do would, hey, come talk at one of our meetings about what it is that you’re doing. I had an invite to come speak to the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities about the work that I was doing about hiring people with disabilities and how I had really, how voc rehab had broken down all of my resistance and made me into a champion without really telling me about it, is really what ended up happening was they just got me to tell my story. And that’s what DD Councils can do really well, is that when you talk to your partners, you know, whether that’s staffing organizations, whether that’s VR, whether that’s service providers, and they say, hey, we’ve got this employer who’s really good at hiring people with disabilities. If you invite somebody to come and have lunch and tell their story and lift them up and thank them for what they did, they’re more likely to keep doing what they’re doing.

Everybody likes to be attention, you know, the attention, everybody likes to be told that they’re doing a good job. And that’s what Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and the Council did to me. They told my boss that they were really grateful for about the things that I was doing. I got an award a couple years ago from the state for the work that I was doing, and the more that they did that, the more I kept doing it. And I wasn’t the only one at that point. And this was 2018. Most of the TJ Maxxes in my area were doing what I was doing. And so if I was unavailable to talk to, whether that be voc rehab or a service provider or the council, I had peers that could go tell the same story.

And, and that’s a large part of what I do now, is I go out and I look at the community and look for businesses that are actively hiring people with disabilities. And we say, thank you, and we look for opportunities for them to come and speak publicly and lift them up as a champion and show them off to the community. So to thank them publicly, but also to show other businesses that hey, they can do it. You can do it too. The Governor’s Council sponsors an employment event in the Capitol during October – National Disability Employment Awareness Month– and we invite businesses to get up and tell their stories. And that’s always something that they love to do because not only can they come and tell their stories at the local level: they’ll bring a market manager and a CEO and that gets attention for them.

One thing about employer champions is that many companies have and it’s called lots of different things – but they might have a, a corporate responsibility program or some sort of public service initiative where they show that, hey, we’re an important part of the community. What better corporate responsibility program than hiring people with disabilities and partnering with state agencies? That’s a great way for them to show that, hey, we have this corporate responsibility program, we’re an inclusive employer, and it’s good for everybody. We’re able to source people as a talent pool that stay and work hard, and hey, we look good in the community for doing it. And, and that’s the importance of community champions, because then it’s the businesses telling the stories of inclusive employment to other businesses. And it means more when it’s coming from them because it’s not theoretical: it’s real. And that’s why it’s important to build them up.

Donald Taylor: Retention is great, but there can be like a dark side to retention, in that a person can just stay in a job forever.

Jon Taylor: Yeah.

Donald Taylor: Can you tell us about, not just jobs, but careers and career development and career advancement for people with disabilities?

Jon Taylor: Sure. In many businesses, they actually have a verb for it. You’ll hear them refer to it as pathing or career pathing. And I think it’s important that once you go in there and you see that, okay, that person with disability has been there, but you’ve gotta ask them, what do you want next? And that’s the importance of – we talked about follow up and building the relationship – is to go back to that business after you’ve had that relationship for a while, and then you can challenge him. You go back and you say, hey, you know what? John’s been working in your back room for a really long time. And they’ll say, yeah, he’s great. He’s dependable, and he works hard, and we love having him. That’s great. Does he want to do anything else? I don’t know. Okay, well, why don’t you go ask him.

Jon Taylor: I, I had somebody that I had hired through Arkansas Rehabilitation Services that, you know, was in my receiving area, and she worked on, on the truck, but she also wanted to explore other things within that store. So we taught her other things, like markdowns, or how to be a cashier, and introduced her to other parts of the store to see where she was good. What it really comes down to is: you’ve gotta challenge those employers to move people around, or at least offer career pathing to that person with disabilities, just like everybody else.

But again, that’s the importance of, if you’ve been following up with them, and building the relationship, and lifting up what they do in the community, it’s easy to go have that conversation with them at a later date and say, hey, they’ve been there in that role for a long time. What else do you think they could do? Wouldn’t it be great to show how you took a person with disabilities and they started out in minimum wage and now they’re a supervisor, or now they’re cross-trained and they can do lots of things, and there’s an important part of their team.

And this is a personal perspective, but you earn that right, to make that ask over time. You know, if you go in the front door to an employer that’s been resistant to hiring people with disabilities, and you get them just to open that glass door up a little bit, hire just one person, and that’s all they do, that’s great. But that first time, where they open that door up and let that person in, they’re terrified. If you try to hit them with, all right, I need you to hire ’em and I need you to have a career plan for ’em so that they can get promoted in two years, they may sit back and say, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, I, I, I’m not ready. I’m already nervous. This is a risk for me. And again, we know that it’s not, but they’re scared. You have to give them the chance to see that that person with disabilities can do the job, fit in with everybody else, and then over time you go back around and say, this is great. They’re doing so well. What’s the next step? But you earned that, right.

Donald Taylor: Jon Taylor, thank you for sharing your personal story and such important strategies for engaging employers.

Jon Taylor: I appreciate the time. Thank you so much.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to the AoD Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center podcast.

Today we spoke with Jon Taylor about how to engage employers who are new to the idea of employing people with disabilities. For more information on the State of Arkansas’ Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, you can visit gcdd.arkansas.gov. Jon Taylor has written a brief for DETAC on this topic titled, Employer Engagement and Outreach: How State Councils On Developmental Disabilities Can Open the Glass Door to Employment, which you can find on the DETAC website from the “Resources” menu under “Publications”.

The AoD Disability, Employment Technical Assistance Center, or DETAC, is a project of the Lewin Group and TASH, created by a grant from the Administration for Community Living to provide evidence based training and technical assistance to Administration on Disabilities grantees aimed at improving competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for individuals with disabilities across the nation. To learn more about DETAC, visit AoDDisabilityEmploymentTACenter.com. For news and alerts about upcoming webinars and podcasts, you can follow us on Facebook, Threads and X.

Music for the DETAC Podcast is an original composition and performance by Sunny Cefaratti, the co-director and autistic self-advocacy mentor at the Musical Autist. You can learn more about the Musical Autist at www.themusicalautist.org.

We’ll have another episode on competitive integrated employment for you in the near future.

[music plays]

[1] The Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) grant program was a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) to improve the educational and employment outcomes for youth with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and their families. The program operated in 11 states, including Arkansas. Visit the SSA website for more information.

This discussion was originally recorded on May 9, 2024.

This audio recording and transcript has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

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