Matt Fink

Matt Fink loads a steel glass door frame to be cut by computerized machinery at Granite State Glass in Gilford. (Roberta Baker/The Laconia Daily Sun photo)

GILFORD — At age 36, Matt Fink is capable of much more than his family and friends ever thought possible. He lives alone, takes high school equivalency and music courses, is active in church, competes in slalom and giant slalom races, and after 11 years of working at Granite State Glass, he knows the warehouse inside out. He also knows how to run much of the machinery.

Fink has Down’s Syndrome. But his perseverance in learning and making the most of his opportunities — plus his employer’s dedication to training him and making him part of the team — have reaped tenfold rewards. They’ve built Fink’s self-esteem and bolstered his quality of life — and retooled the workplace at Granite State Glass, a glass door fabricator on Aviation Drive.

“I just like everything I do here. It’s not specific,” Fink said of his job, which is constantly expanding. A skier for 30 years, Fink trains and races in the Special Olympics at Gunstock, Waterville Valley and Pat’s Peak.

“He’s not one to stay idle. I never have to ask him to do something,” said Dan Palmer, his supervisor at Granite State Glass. “When we have a slow time, he’ll go wash windows, or push a broom in parts of the building that need sweeping. He’s always doing what he can to help the fabrication crew by doing the small stuff that helps them. He goes out of his way to help us,” Palmer said. “And we go out of our way to help him.”

At a time when workers are in short supply in New Hampshire and nationwide, disabled employees like Fink are changing the workforce landscape, and the way businesses and the public view people with disabilities, and their potential roles on the job and in the community.

“It’s like family here with these guys,” Fink said of Granite State Glass in Gilford. “I like my boss. Everybody’s my friend — Dan here, the Marcottes (the company’s owners). My parents, too, help out at times.”

Linda Brown, his personal assistant from Lakes Region Community Services, helps him with daily needs such as cooking, shopping and transportation. After nine months of saving his earnings and preparing to move out of his parents’ home, Fink rented his own place almost two years ago. “Having his own apartment gives him more confidence here,” Brown said. “This job gave him the confidence and ability to work toward what he wanted. He’s truly starting to feel independent.”

The freedom and newfound self-reliance that fuels Fink’s evolving identity is due to a collaboration between Lakes Region Community Services, one of 10 statewide agencies that help people with disabilities, and employers in the Lakes Region who are willing to train and support workers with intellectual and other disabilities. In previous decades their differences or deficits would likely have left conscientious self-starters like Fink underutilized and underwhelmed.

Twenty to 30 years ago, people with disabilities were confined to jobs in sheltered workshops where they worked for sub-minimum wages at only simple and repetitive tasks — such as sorting or wrapping — that didn’t recognize or capitalize on their individual abilities or ambitions or desire to help others, said Stephanie Patrick, executive director of the Disability Rights Center in Concord, a statewide advocate for the disabled.

Since the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, research and broader community engagement has spawned a gradual culture shift, experts say. Workplace accommodations and advances in adaptive technology have expanded their employment and levels of community involvement. Federal and state officials and, increasingly, employers now view disabled workers as valuable staff additions who can contribute in ways that are not necessarily obvious at first, but depend on their personal goals and attributes.

Their presence can also boost workplace morale.

“They’re well liked, for sure,” said Joe Whalen, manager of Market Basket in Tilton, who also praises the reliability of the store's disabled workers, most of whom bag groceries or collect carts. Some with mild disabilities work as cashiers.

At Granite State Glass, Fink's can-do attitude is contagious and an eye-opener for employees who have never lived or worked with someone who has an intellectual or developmental disability.

“Matt can do an amazing amount of stuff. When he first came on, all he did was empty trash, two hours a day, three days a week,” said Palmer, his supervisor at work. "It gives everybody a sense of pride to have Matt here, and to work with community members with disabilities. They realize there’s a lot more out there to do, and it’s good that (Matt) can show that to people."

New Hampshire is not among the states that still primarily employ disabled people in cloistered settings with limited or single tasks, said Patrick at the Disability Rights Center. The New Hampshire Department of Education’s Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation and the state’s regional community service agencies help employers with advice and logistics, and provide direct support for disabled employees. As a result, their opportunities can grow in a booming economy.

“When firms are looking for workers and everyone’s got a job, they start expanding their search into populations that may not be their top choice,” said Kimberly Phillips, research associate professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. Disabled people have proven to be a valuable resource for entry-level jobs that others might want to quickly move up from or quit.

From June 2018 to June 2019, the percentage of people with disabilities who were working in the US jumped from 29.5 percent to 31 percent of the disabled population, an increase of 1.5 percent. By comparison, the boost for workers without disabilities was 0.4 percent. Phillips said the increase for disabled workers seems small, but it is statistically significant.

“There have been (overall) gains in the last three or four years. It’s the first time since 1960 that we’ve seen this kind of rise” in employment among people with disabilities, who are benefiting from lowered barriers to job entry, better wages and jobs closer to where they live, she said.

Since June, the speed of hiring disabled workers has slowed with full employment in the U.S, according to economists. Last month, the percentage of people working out of the disabled population dropped 0.7 points from a year ago — at the same time the percentage of workers without disabilities increased by 0.8 percent.

In October, disabled workers age 16 to 64 numbered 4,548,000, or 3.1 percent of 148,423,000 — the total US workforce in that age group.

“What we know is people with disabilities have less job security, are hired less frequently, and work fewer hours," Phillips said. "They’re more vulnerable to job loss” and economic fluctuations.

Economists say that while it's too early predict what will happen next, they are optimistic that employment for disabled workers will return to a more robust level between February and May next year, continuing a pattern begun in 2016.

There are gains still to be made in employer understanding of worker potential and accommodations needed at job sites. Education and on-the-job training can help level the playing field, but preconceived notions shift slowly, according to advocates for disabled people. Despite a reduced stigma around mental illness and a greater understanding of intellectual disabilities, employers often underestimate the capabilities of disabled workers, and overestimate the expense of adapting the workplace.

In addition, managers “at the implementation level don’t always get the support they need to make it work” for the employee and the business, Phillips said. “If we’re designing spaces, processes and procedures to make work universally understandable and accessible, we’re benefiting everyone. Accommodations are a natural part of employment” for workers of all ages, aptitudes and states of health.

According to national statistics, those accommodations average $500 per disabled employee, a one-time cost. The solutions can be as simple as sit-to-stand desks, large print monitors, adaptive computer software, or just rethinking where an individual can fill a niche, Phillips said.

Surveys of workers with disabilities indicate that even though there can be initial challenges and extra training, disabled people typically become exemplary employees who add to workplace diversity and acceptance of human differences. “They’re incredibly productive, loyal and long-lasting employees,” Phillips said.

With job matching, skill-training, and daily-life and on-the-job support through Lakes Region Community Services, it’s become easier for local businesses to hire, pay and retain disabled workers.

For LRCS, the current challenge is finding and keeping DSPs, the direct support professionals who assist disabled people at home and work. The turnover rate is high — up to 22.6 percent among area agencies, and DSPs can be lured by less-intensive, higher-paying jobs, according to administrators. LRCS depends on private donations to train its DSP workforce.

Also helpful to employers is the contract that LCRS offers. Instead of paying disabled workers directly, some businesses pay LRCS, which then compensates the disabled worker who is technically on LRCS staff. It gives greater flexibility to the worker, who may not be able to work a full week, and greater assurance the employer, who may be able to rotate between workers to fill a full-time year-round slot.

The employee’s usefulness blooms over time.

Fink pulls parts from locations around the warehouse and machine shop — a building nearly the size of a football field — and helps carry them to fabrication areas. He recently pulled his first stock order from a “cut list” of parts to be fed through the saw, or drilled for hinges — identifying parts from boxes and shelves throughout the building.

He uses a machine that cuts metal frames for glass doors, and with minimal assistance loads and uses computerized equipment that trims, dills holes and smooths edges on parts. He’s learned to use a drill press that punches nails into holes, and an air compression drill that bores holes in metal. He also helps pull or drive broken forklifts back into the warehouse.

“I learn things by watching,” he said.

“Basically, I make the schedule and let Matt know what do every day, and Matt’s good about policing himself,” said Palmer. “He’s always good about jumping in and helping anyone.”

“Sometimes I come to pick him up and he says, ‘Guess what I learned today?’” said Brown, with a shine of tears behind her glasses. “He makes me so proud.”

As Fink’s direct support professional from LRCS, Brown takes him grocery shopping, and makes sure he does laundry and dishes and cleans his home. She also helps him cook larger, more complicated meals. Fink decorates his apartment for every season. In his free time time, he makes soaps, lotions, air-freshening sprays and furniture polish with distilled water, essential oils, and other botanical ingredients.

“This job gave him the confidence to work toward what he wanted,” Brown said. “Having his own apartment was his big dream and he made it come true."

"People with disabilities are striving to work and doing extraordinary things to overcome barriers," Phillips said. The value goes beyond their own experience.

“If people see people with disabilities working and being part of an economy," said Christine Santaniello, former executive director of Lakes Region Community Services, "they view them differently.”

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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