Working for more than a living

Phillip Savoy, a Melwood landscaper, trims grass outside the La Plata Train Station Museum.

Landscaper Phillip Savoy said he enjoys being able to work outside.

“I don’t like to be inside; it can get hot inside real quick. I like to work outside,” Savoy said. “I’m an outside person anyway.”

Savoy said he has a learning disability, although most people don’t know it. He started working through Melwood’s Vocational Support Services program since 2007.

“I was working at restaurants, but I got tired of restaurants; I wanted to work outside, so that’s how I got [to Melwood],” Savoy said.

Savoy said his job as a landscaper encompasses “everything.”

“I cut grass, weed, mulch, trim bushes, [empty] trash cans, all of it,” Savoy said.

Savoy works at close to a dozen sites throughout the county, including the La Plata Train Station Museum, parks, the fire house and other sites.

Savoy learned to use the various pieces of equipment for his job quickly, said his foreman, Kelly Burrows.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, National Disability Employment Awareness Month was first established in 1945, when Congress declared the first week in October to be “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week,” largely in response to the number of physically disabled veterans returning from World War II. The word “physically” was dropped in 1962 to acknowledge the workplace needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. It was expanded to a month-long recognition in 1989.

This year’s theme is “The Right Talent, Right Now.”

“I think that it’s a good thing that they do have this awareness month, so that people in the community, and people with children with disabilities can learn more about Melwood’s programs,” said Marilyn Silbaugh, Melwood project manager. “If you have the right coach, the right foreman, they can really bring out the best in these guys.”

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 19.1% of working-age individuals with a disability were employed in 2018, compared to 65.9% of working-age individuals without a disability.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seven most common workplace barriers are attitudinal, communication, physical, policy, programmatic, social and transportation.

“It’s critical we act now to make workforce inclusion a reality,” said Cari DeSantis, Melwood’s president and CEO. “Today, our national workforce is stretched thinner than it’s ever been and companies need a reliable new employment pipeline to fuel the next generation of American industry. Every person has abilities that they can contribute to society and we are committed to helping people of differing abilities unlock their potential and enter the American workforce.”

Melwood hosted two conferences at The George Washington University Law School earlier this month, bringing together representatives from federal agencies, business and human resources professionals to highlight the benefits of recruiting individuals of differing abilities.

“There are so many companies today looking for talent to fill high-demand jobs. We want to show them how a neuro-diverse workforce can be the answer they have been seeking,” DeSantis said in a news release.

Neurodiversity is a term first coined in the late 1990s considers differences in mental functions, such as autism, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, dyslexia and others, to be a product of variation within the human species rather than pathology. It is often used within the disability rights community to recognize the special gifts and talents individuals with non-typical neurology can bring to the workforce and society.

Melwood’s Vocational Support Employment Services provides vocational job training and work support “to individuals of differing abilities, so that they are encouraged to transform their own lives,” according to Melwood’s website.

The program serves over 800 employees throughout Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia working at military bases, government buildings and grounds as well as commercial sites, performing document conversion and destruction, custodial, fulfillment, administrative, information technology and landscaping duties.

Vocational support case managers and specialists assist employees with job opportunities matched to the individual’s interests and needs. They also work to identify any reasonable accommodations that may be necessary for the individual to succeed, according to the Melwood website.

The Spring Dell Center in La Plata also provides supported employment; employment specialists communicate with an individual’s employer and co-workers to help them understand an individual’s needs, building positive relationships and natural supports and acting as the individual’s advocate to help them enjoy success and productivity at their job according to the Spring Dell website. Spring Dell also employs several work crews supervised by a staff training specialist, who work at contracted employment or volunteer sites.

Silbaugh said she has seen firsthand how those with disabilities, or differing abilities, can flourish when given the training and supports to succeed at work.

“They’re awesome guys, they do fantastic work, and it really makes them feel good about themselves,” Silbaugh said.

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews