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Six months into her new job as a concept artist at Boston video game development company Harmonix, Anne Szabla made what she calls “an awkward” request: Could she bring a dog to work?
The dog wasn’t a pet, but Sienna, a golden retriever that had just been paired with Szabla, a Type 1 diabetic who has become “hypo unaware,” a condition that prevents her from feeling when her sugar levels drop, causing her to have dizzy spells or come close to fainting. Sienna alerts her when her sugar levels are dropping too low.
“I was worried it would be hard to do, to get everyone to understand,” says Szabla, 30, who had been on the wait list for a diabetic alert service dog before starting at Harmonix in 2013. “But they were more than accommodating and continue to be absolutely amazing with Sienna.”
For Szabla’s colleagues, the biggest challenge was resisting the temptation to play with Sienna, says chief operating officer Chris Rigopulos. “We do whatever we can to accommodate whomever may come to us with particular disabilities. In this case it was as simple as getting an OK from the building,” he says.
Harmonix is among a number of local companies actively hiring or pledging to hire more people with disabilities — part of the population that is chronically unemployed or underemployed. Many disabilities do not prevent people from holding down a job, but the unemployment rate for people with disabilities — those actively looking for work — was 10.5 percent in 2016, more than double that of people without disabilities.
Not enough is being done, says Christine Griffin, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Law Center in Boston. Employers “are really afraid they’re going to get some lousy person and they’re not going to be able to get rid of them, which is ridiculous; if you can get rid of a lousy white guy, you can get rid of a lousy worker who has a disability.”
More than half of employers surveyed recently by the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability said adding diversity is part of their hiring goals, but only 28 percent are making a point to seek people with disabilities. Griffin would like to see government agencies commit to an annual hiring quota of disabled workers, because it would both entice private employers to do the same and help reduce the stigma around employing people with disabilities.
At the Institution for Savings in Newburyport, hiring Katie Maitland, 25, whose Tourette’s syndrome manifests as vocal and physical tics, “wasn’t a big deal,” says Tricia Ferguson, the bank’s senior vice president and head of human resources. “We’re looking for people who have the best job skills,” she says. “As long as you can do the job, you’re hired.”
Maitland, who started working at the bank a couple of months ago, says it accommodated her request to work in a more crowded area of the call center, which makes her less nervous and less prone to tics.
More employers are also partnering with organizations that advocate for disabled workers, such as MGH Aspire, which has been supporting children with autism for 30 years and now also helps young adults on the high-cognitive end of the spectrum find internships. Since launching its jobs effort in 2012, the program, run by Massachusetts General Hospital, has matched interns with more than 50 employers in Greater Boston. Most of the interns are in college or graduate school but have difficulty getting jobs because they lack certain social skills. The program supports the workers and helps employers feel more comfortable hiring people with disabilities, says Leslie O’Brien, internship program manager.
Boston nonprofit WORK Inc., which provides vocational services for people with disabilities, has so far placed about 200 people in jobs this fiscal year, says president and chief executive James Cassetta. “We still have a long way to go, but we’re making progress,” he says. “It’s a matter of education, and eliminating the stigma that people with disabilities cannot perform certain jobs.”