Painting studio Create and Escape in Peabody was about to start recruiting for workers this fall when Darren Goad proposed hiring one of his clients.
A career specialist with Bridgewell, a Peabody nonprofit serving those with a variety of developmental and physical disabilities, Goad was seeking a job for a client who loves to paint.
“We don’t want to pigeonhole people and just stick them in the available jobs,” Goad said. “We want them to find the job that they really want to do. And in the case of this woman, Lois, hers is a creative goal.”
People who have disabilities are much more likely to be both unemployed and underemployed, meaning they are placed in jobs below their skill level and are less likely to gain promotions. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, companies can pay less than minimum wage to those “whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability.”
Yet despite federal law, all those employed through Bridgewell are paid the same as their nondisabled co-workers, at least the state minimum wage.
Now, Create and Escape has a full-employment program for workers with disabilities who, through Bridgewell, rotate days and hours based on who wants to work at any given time.
About 100 people with disabilities are currently employed through partnerships like these, according to Goad. A number of businesses have returned to the network since closing during the pandemic. He said the initiative has yet to return to maximum capacity but will continue to expand.
Depending on the level of support an employee needs, each business Goad partners with can either hire people directly onto their payroll or contract with Bridgewell. In that case, the nonprofit provides a coach to help the worker.
Someone who has trouble reading might get help creating and following a picture-based schedule of tasks, while someone who struggles with pouring paint through a funnel could have a coach help steady their hands.
“The coach really is just sort of there to help fill in the gaps while we’re working on the individual skills so they can become more independent,” Goad said. “The goal is that they can be as independent as they possibly can be. We don’t want to be in their way as far as the coach is concerned.”
Lois Durkee, who has a learning disability, typically works at the studio for two hours every Monday. She has a coach from Bridgewell who helps out if she has trouble performing a task. If she finishes early, she can create her own artwork — which often depicts houses, landscapes, or animals.
To accommodate Durkee and other workers from Bridgewell, every bottle on the studio’s wall of paint is labeled by number. This way, they can match paints by finding the right digits rather than reading the names of each color, which can get complicated.
“I like checking paints,” Durkee said. “And I like sweeping floors and cleaning the windows.”
Studio owner Wendy Minton said she has only one full-time and one part-time employee, so Bridgewell’s workers are welcome. Minton has noticed that refilling paints along the wall is a favorite task.
The Bridgewell workers have begun to take on leadership roles — training new employees who enter the contract’s rotation — and are eager to request more tasks once finished with their work, she said.
“They’re really motivated to make sure they do everything that we need them to do,” Minton said. “Just as if you were looking for a job, you would look at what you’d like to do, what’s fun for you to do. And this is exactly how it worked out.”
Angela Yang can be reached at email@example.com.