Like many recent high school graduates, Emmett Larimer is living at home, applying for jobs, and dreaming of moving into an apartment with friends. What sets Larimer apart is a brain injury sustained at birth that left him with a rare seizure disorder that interferes with his communication abilities. This adds an extra layer of challenge to his job search.

While 63% of the national population was employed in 2019, only 19% of people with a disability had jobs. Project SEARCH, a one-year internship program for high school graduates with developmental and intellectual disabilities, aims to change that statistic. The nationwide program, developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, provides real-life work experiences combined with job training  and independent living skills. In 2019, 71% of the program’s graduates gained employment.

While employment is crucial, it’s by no means the end game. The real goal is moving beyond diversity hiring to creating a culture of inclusion in the workplace.

What is inclusion in the workplace?

According to a recent study, fostering inclusivity literally pays off. Highly inclusive organizations typically generate 2.3 times more cash flow per employee, 1.4 times more revenue, and are 120% more capable of meeting financial targets.

While hiring for diversity is a good start, inclusion means more than just placing people from varying backgrounds in certain jobs, including those with mental and physical disabilities. “It means going a step further,” says Taryn Farley, regional director of Employment Services at Northwest Center, “putting thought into who is brought into the company at all levels. It’s about building a culture where everyone has a voice and looking at problems from different angles is valued.”

A growing number of companies, including SAP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and Microsoft, have reformed their HR processes in order to access neuro-diverse talent — and are seeing productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities and increased employee engagement as a result.

Internships provide a foundation for inclusion

Emmett is in his second year of the Project SEARCH program at Swedish Edmonds Campus, a collaborative effort between the hospital, The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Snohomish County Developmental Disability Administration, the Edmonds School District and Northwest Center. “My first internship was the front desk,” Larimer says, and goes on to describe his work at the hospital. “I really liked working with nice co-workers and helping people. It made me feel good.” His duties included wheelchair assistance, answering phones and taking messages, looking up patients’ names and rooms for visitors and taking flowers to patient rooms.

He also learned independent-living skills including how to calm himself down by taking deep breaths, how to communicate more effectively with people, how to take the bus to work and how to organize his time.

Self-advocacy and independence are key goals of the program. “Students are expected to communicate with staff, teachers, mentors and supervisors as independently as possible,” says Ben Hammond, a teacher at the Swedish Edmonds Project SEARCH site. “Interns are held to the same standards as every other hospital employee and volunteer.” Hammond teaches a variety of job skills in his classroom of Project SEARCH students, from how to write professional emails and time management, to soft skills like maintaining eye contact and facing people when communicating. Students graduate with the well-rounded skills needed to enter the job market with confidence.

After serving internships at the welcome desk and the gift shop, Larimer is now waiting for the pandemic to end so he can do prep work in the kitchen. “I’ve seen Emmett make incredible gains since he entered our program last year,” says Hammond, who was also Emmett’s teacher last school year through the Edmonds School District VOICE program. “He’s shown growth in his communications work task abilities, and stepped up into a leadership role.”

“We’ve come a long way in education in terms of what inclusion looks like in the past decade,” Hammond adds. “It used to be you’d have two or three differentiated learners in the classroom, but all sitting together at the back of the class. Now, those students are sitting side by side with other students, everyone is learning from each other. We can — and should — do that in the workplace. We all have things to learn from each other, and can be supportive in different ways.”

Northwest Center has led inclusion efforts since 1965: our founders wrote the first laws guaranteeing all children an education. Our therapy, education, and employment services for people with disabilities maximize potential and create diverse schools and workplaces that benefit everyone.