This is America’s most ignored workforce, 80% of whom cannot find work

The entrepreneurial couple and their parents solve the problem of unemployment for people with disabilities

With national labor market data showing that the economy supports jobs for only one in five Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities, there is a clear lack of opportunities for people with I/DD in the workforce. Amy and Ben Wright, co-founders of Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, are entrepreneurs – and parents – who are closing this gap between available labor and market demand at a time when employers are struggling to find enough workers to keep everyone to fill their jobs open positions.

The Wrights have four children, the youngest two of whom were diagnosed with Down syndrome. They opened their coffee franchise named after these children to show that a business model based on hiring disabled people can be successful. Bitty & Beau’s has grown to 19 stores and over 400 employees, most of whom have disabilities.

“Any company can adopt this model and employ at least one person with a disability in their company,” Ben Wright said during an interview with CNBC’s Sharon Epperson at the virtual Small Business Playbook Summit on Wednesday. “What I saw was that people spending time with our children, Bitty and Beau, who have Down syndrome, changed them. They saw them as real people, not just people with disabilities.”

He stressed that society and business need to redefine their view of people with disabilities, who “deserve the innovations that the business world can bring them.”

Entrepreneurs can also benefit from state and federal funding tax incentives in connection with the employment of people with disabilities.

“Beyond the tax credits, I think there are some intangibles. In addition to the tax credits available, companies will find that there is a whole new level of innovation, problem solving and creativity that is about to begin.” “I sneak into a company if there are people with I/DD within its four walls” said Ben.

The numbers have improved. In 2022, the labor force participation rate (23.1%) and employment ratio (21.3%) for disabled workers increased. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These were record highs for this data since the BLS began collecting it in 2008. Unemployment among disabled workers also fell by 2.5 percentage points to 7.6% in 2022. But that is still twice as high as unemployment among non-disabled people. Meanwhile, the employment-to-population ratio for people without disabilities was 65.4% last year (the BLS notes that one factor contributing to this gap is that the population with disabilities is aging compared to the non-disabled population is).

Although the Wrights find the recent improvements encouraging, they say there is still a long way to go.

The first Bitty and Beau’s Coffee opened in Amy’s hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2016 after she quit her job at another one of her projects – a children’s theater program. Ben left his job in 2020 after working at a financial advisory firm he founded in 2013 to work on the Bitty and Beau franchise full-time. Bitty and Beau’s operates in 11 states, with most of its 19 locations located in the South, Southwest, Midwest and Northeast.

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee employees celebrate the grand opening of a new location.

Bitty and Beau’s coffee

At the CNBC small business event, the Wrights offered some initial advice for employers on how to be more inclusive in their hiring.

Start a conversation in your company.

Amy said it was as simple as an owner saying, “This is important to us.”

Spreading the message will have an impact on employees, she says, and sets an example for other companies in your community by showing that it is a priority for you.

She noted that one in five people in the U.S. has a disability and employees likely have family and friends who would be interested in employment. That could be a “great starting point,” she said.

Identify the best positions for workers with disabilities.

Once business leaders realize that people with I/DD deserve employment, they should find the right positions for these employees in their organizations, Ben said.

“Find out what they can do and what ways you can innovate around them so you can be successful,” Ben said, adding that in the Wrights’ experience, it’s not always the first job a disabled worker starts, which also ends up being the best job for them.

Amy noted that while the company employs a majority of disabled workers, it does employ non-disabled workers who provide an important support network for the entire workforce.

Companies that get this right will prove that hiring workers with I/DD can be “a key competitive advantage for your company,” he said.

Choose the right language for job postings.

While it is illegal in the U.S. to discriminate against disabled job applicants, Epperson noted during the interview that at the top of Bitty and Beau’s job description for a food service worker position at their D.C. location said, “Reasonable accommodation may be required.” to assist individuals with disabilities to perform essential functions.”

This was notable because the language came before listing job responsibilities.

Amy emphasized the importance of other companies clearly highlighting such language. If someone wants to start working and “learn something new, we’ll give you a chance and figure out how we can make arrangements to set you up for success,” she said. “That’s really how every company should see it.”

Hiring untapped talent: Hiring employees with a disability

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