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Adults With Intellectual Disabilities Face Greater Challenges During COVID-19-Driven Unemployment

“The coronavirus is officially affecting me,” a Facebook friend posted in late March.
Photo by Hunter Lacey | Courtesy of My Possibilites

“The coronavirus is officially affecting me,” a Facebook friend posted in late March. He is an adult with intellectual developmental disabilities, and he had been about to start an internship he was very excited about with My Possibilities, a local nonprofit that seeks to support people with intellectual development disabilities.

Because of COVID-19, it was postponed for at least a month. “I live in downtown Plano and it’s so busy, and I’m all alone in my apartment with no job to go to,” he wrote a few days later.

He’s one of the lucky ones. He knows he will be able to return to his internship after the shelter-in-place order is over. Other people with intellectual disabilities aren’t so lucky and struggle to retain work, and will have a harder time finding employment once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted. In 2019, only 19.3 percent of persons with a disability were employed compared to the 66.3 percent of people without a disability, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

It was with that disparity in mind that local parents of adults with Intellectual Development Disabilities (IDD) founded My Possibilities in 2007. Since then, the nonprofit has created avenues where adults with special needs can receive what the rest of the population already gets: continuing education and vocational training.

But lately, COVID-19 has thrown the IDD community into chaos.

As My Possibilities Executive Director Michael Thomas puts it, in a crisis like COVID-19, when unemployment begins to rise, “our guys are the first to go.”

Of their roughly 200 employed HIPsters (Hugely Important People), Thomas says the vast majority have already lost their jobs and have no idea whether they will be rehired after the crisis. As he breaks it down, out of a million Texans with intellectual disabilities, about half of them are working age or are eligible to work. Six to seven percent of that population was working prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Those HIPsters who work in fast food are faring the best, but their hours have been cut and are changing. My Possibilities’ job team, which used to focus on helping new HIPsters find jobs, are struggling to help them get their jobs back.

“It’s challenging,” Thomas says.

The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities reports that more than six million Americans have been diagnosed with some form of intellectual disability. The umbrella of intellectual disability is extremely broad, covering not just a range of vastly different abilities but a full array of vastly different people. In 2016, about 70 percent of those with an intellectual or developmental disability were able to live at home, supported by family and caregivers, while others live in either group homes or supported-living apartments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Texas, roughly 3,500 people lived in state institutions as of 2015 — and social distancing is practically impossible for them, Vox reported in an April 9 article.

Those who live in group homes have very little they can do to protect themselves in the case of exposure.

“Social distancing may not just be inconvenient or lonely, but could actually eliminate their sources of basic care, like food, transportation, assistance with hygiene, or critical emotional support,” Dr. Lisa Sigafoos, an expert on special education and disability studies at The University of Texas at Austin, told The Hill in a April 3 report.

Everything must be reassessed, and they have no idea what the recovery time will be like.

Since forming in 2007, My Possibilities has become a community of its own, where adults with IDD are appreciated for their abilities, rather than excluded because of their differences. Before the novel coronavirus began sweeping the nation, Thomas estimates that they were placing about 50 HIPsters in jobs around North Texas annually, and had roughly 200 who were currently employed. Thomas fears that repercussions of COVID-19 will run the clock back in time, not only on their HIPsters’ individual progressions but on employment rates for people with IDD.

“Our [HIPsters’] response to this is about as varied as the realm of disabilities in general,” Thomas says.

Some of their HIPsters understand the COVID-19 pandemic and are on board, even advocating for social distancing. But others are having major trouble with the changes to their daily routine. All they know is that they aren’t able to see their friends, and they can’t go to school or work, and they don’t truly understand why. It’s especially difficult because the My Possibilities campus is currently closed.

“The impact of MP being closed is heartbreaking for the HIPsters,” one parent posted on social media. “[My son] constantly is asking many many times a day when he can return. MP is such an intricate part of his life. He misses that part of his life immensely.”

For every day that the shelter-in-place order continues, Thomas sees a widening regression in skills. It takes years to work on social and cognitive development, as well as technology and training, but those skills are lost much more quickly than they are gained.

“It’s a major major step back,” he says. “We’re all going to get back on other side, and companies will start ramping up, starting to hire again, and one thing they won’t do is say, ‘Okay, let’s focus on people with IDD.’ They will focus on scaling up as quickly as possible.”

It’s a time of incredibly high stress for a community that is already often last to get resources, last to be hired, last to recover.

On April 8, My Possibilities announced a new merger with an e-commerce retailer Soap Hope. At first, Soap Hope was just known around My Possibilities as that “funny little soap thing.” But Thomas marvels at how quickly everything can change. Soap Hope has suddenly become one of their most vital lifelines.

The idea first was discussed in 2019, brought to the table by Salah Boukadoum, one of Soap Hope’s founders and a social philanthropist. Soap Hope has been an online retailer offering thousands of natural home and body care products like soap for home delivery, serving U.S. customers online. The merger has been a year in the making. Soap Hope will now serve as a curriculum for HIPsters and employ them in job roles throughout the organization, including in the warehouse, shipping, and assembly. Profits generated by the social enterprise will help fund the nonprofit’s work. It will be a cycle of training, employment, and pouring back into the program.

It’s coming at the time when HIPsters desperately need it. The merger was also announced in the middle of the COVID-19 peak in the United States, a time when unemployment is rising, and more and more people are finding themselves unable to work. Non-profit organizations have always relied on a variety of revenue streams to survive, but in times of crisis, when donations across the non-profit world are low, what was a side project is now an essential lifeline. Thomas calls it “Serendipitous.”

“Adults with IDD need a voice,” he says. “They’re already such a hidden population. We have to remember in times like this that as challenging as it is for us, it’s harder for them.”