Creating Inclusive Work Environments for Employees with Disabilities

Creating Inclusive Work Environments for Employees with Disabilities

Photo: Urban farmer Rauly (in blue shirt) cultivates soil in raised beds at an S:US supportive housing.

By Lori Lerner, LMSW, RYT-200 hr., S:US Coordinator of Family and Wellness
Autism Spectrum News
Summer 2023

Historically, adults with disabilities have faced high levels of discrimination in the workplace environment.  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA, was enacted in an effort to eradicate discrimination against employees with disabilities while also requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and impose accessibility requirements on public accommodations1.  Even with positive intentions of the ADA, a recent statistic from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that in 2019, only 17.9% of disabled American adults were employed and 24,238 disability discrimination claims were resolved by the Commission2.  In the article, “The Latest Disability Discrimination In The Workforce Statistics 2023 You Shouldn’t Ignore,” they shared “…61% of disabled employees have experienced discrimination in their workplace2.”  These statistics emphasize employers need to be steadfast at establishing and promoting policies and procedures that cultivate inclusivity, fairness, and equitable workplace environments for employees with disabilities.  Carl Richardson, a member of the Disability Employment Subcommittee of the Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities in Massachusetts, expressed “…according to the last census, almost 20% of people have disabilities… by not hiring people with disabilities, you’re segmenting yourself from 20% of the population [that] have an incredible and talented pool.  You’re hurting yourself financially3.”  Therefore, it is important to shed light on organizations and companies that provide opportunities for employment for people with I/DD and disabilities, foster an inclusive work environment, and adopt holistic approaches in the workplace.

In 2013, S:US’ Urban Farms team started the program with nine volunteer participants at four garden sites spread across the four boroughs of New York City where S:US has supportive housing programs – in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.  The initial aim was to grow vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers with involvement from buildings residents and volunteers.  Michael Hollis, S:US’ Urban Farms Director, takes an innovative and progressive approach to managing our urban farms program, our urban farmers, and our volunteers.  Michael shares, “If S:US has access to a backyard of a group home or a building with supportive housing, we should absolutely leverage that outdoor space to grow vegetables, herbs and fruits, and provide a rich resource for our residents and the people who can work in our gardens.”  Since 2013, S:US’ Urban Farms has expanded to include 650 participants, mostly volunteers, 23 of whom are people with disabilities who are employed and work in the gardens, located at 73 different sites in New York City.  The program has grown to include beekeeping for honey cultivation and construction and repair of garden beds.  Training is provided for all volunteers and people employed along with adherence to safety protocols to ensure the protection of the participants who help in the gardens.

There are two innovative ways in which Michael and his full-time staff foster an inclusive work environment.  Michael and his team provide physical accommodations and non-physical accommodations for staff and volunteers in the gardens.  Physical accommodations include construction that often emphasizes accessibility like high garden beds; use of electric or small hand tools which are lighter in weight than gas-powered or larger gardening tools; and job carving to assure assignments match physical capacity and strengths of the participant.  In addition, urban farmers assist with virtual or in-person training workshops, or perform tasks requiring less dexterity.  Non-physical accommodations include job coaching (as an accommodation allowing gardeners to fully engage in competitive employment, whether with job task analysis or modification, or training through cues, prompts, modeling, self-instruction or additional methods); and advocacy around S:US’ policy (such as providing language supports, delivering in-person or virtual corporate training and policy communications, liaising with administrative support departments and/or Human Resources to overcome technical barriers in completing timesheets, adjusting personnel information, addressing payroll issues, obtaining employment records, or other related areas where extra support is needed).  Each participant with a disability, whether they are an employee or a volunteer, is provided with job carving so that their responsibilities match their capacities and goals to grow as a gardener, or tailoring so that their strengths are in line with the tasks that are needed to be completed.

Valerie, a person supported by S:US’ day habilitation program in Brooklyn, NY and who has an intellectual/developmental disability (I/DD), began as an Urban Farms volunteer and now works as an urban farmer.  Valerie loves helping to grow vegetables, cleans garden beds, prunes dead branches, adds mulch to trees to protect them from storms, helps make tables and benches, and works at an S:US’ Urban Farms booth at a local farmer’s market.  Due to having sore knees and using a rollator to assist her in walking, Valerie cannot bend a lot and stand for an extended period of time because her knees get sore easily.  Part of her job carving includes mobility supports in allowing her to sit when needed, reducing or limiting her bending, and working with raised garden beds.  Valerie shared “…I like everything about my job except I don’t like weeding because it’s tough on my knees.  But I like all the other parts.  Working in the gardens motivates me, it keeps my spirits up, keeps me calm, and gives me ease because I am outside in nature.”  Through her work with S:US’ Urban Farms, Valerie embodies biophilia, a desire or tendency to commune with nature.  According to authors Bjøn Grinde and Grete Grindal Patil in the article “Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?” studies have shown that “…Nature can be beneficial for human health and well-being… More specifically, contact with Nature has been reported to have psychological benefits by reducing stress, improving attention by having a positive effect on mental restoration and by coping with attention deficits4.”  Michael Hollis and his urban farms team provide staff and volunteers opportunities to connect with nature regularly, which strengthens a sense of biophilia, decreases stress, and cultivates a holistic work environment.

Angelo, a person supported by S:US’ day habilitation program in Brooklyn, NY and who has a disability, works with S:US’ Urban Farms one day per week.  Because he has challenges with his short-term memory caused by his disability, Angelo works between 2-2 ½ hours per shift and is accompanied by his Job Coach, Andrea.  The job is tailored to Angelo’s needs by maintaining a shorter shift, including Andrea to work alongside him in the garden to provide verbal prompts when he forgets something, plus breaking his tasks down into smaller steps to promote ease.  Angelo comes from a long line of gardeners since his father, uncle, and grandfather cultivated their backyards and he helped them grow tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, and mint.  Angelo shared “…I like being outside in the garden with the sun and the wind.  I don’t have a lot of patience so it helps me to work for a short period and I like that we (Andrea and I) do the work together.  I like the job.”  Wilfredo Ila, S:US’ Urban Farms Coordinator, reminds staff to weave in compassion, provide breaks, and change the conversation topic when needed due to Angelo’s low level of patience to provide support and help him achieve his gardening tasks.  All of these steps exemplify job tailoring for Angelo which helps him be productive, remain focused, and relaxed while working.

For Wilfredo, who is both an S:US’ Urban Farms Coordinator and, at times, a Job Coach, it is important to him to provide a rich, engaging work experience for the farmers and volunteers; it is more about the experience they have when working in the gardens than how many pounds of produce or honey they help cultivate.  Wilfredo and his colleagues always treat all of the gardeners, whether they are staff or volunteers and no matter what abilities they may have, with respect, kindness, and provide good training with an emphasis on safety for them to follow security protocols.  Some farmers use power tools to help build or repair garden beds while others care for the beehives to cultivate honey.  All of the gardeners are proud of their work and this is more than a job to them.  Wilfredo explained, “The key is how we impact their lives and how they change and grow.  We give them training to enable them to have new experiences, develop as gardeners, and more importantly as people.  They are proud of their work and it gives them a purpose and meaning to keep going.”

S:US’ Urban Farms would like people with disabilities to develop transferable skills to hone their ability to articulate their wants and needs, not only regarding their job tasks in the garden but also in all areas of their lives in order to become stronger self-advocates.  S:US’ day habs also partner with the urban farms team and job coaches in working together to prepare people with I/DD who desire to work, obtain a job, and maintain employment.  Skills such as punctuality, building and writing a resume, and reviewing appropriate attire to look professional for job interviews are all taught along with practicing and building upon communication techniques to foster connection once employed.

Rauly started as a volunteer at S:US’ Urban Farms seven years ago, attends an S:US day habilitation program in the Bronx, NY, primarily speaks Spanish, and has an I/DD.  From growing up in the Dominican Republic on a farm, he honed his love of the natural world.  Over time, he has participated in trainings, has grown in his farming skills enormously, operates power tools and equipment, works well with the other volunteers, and likes to take on new challenges to deepen his skills.  According to his job coach, Rauly is very independent and intelligent.  He has grown in his English language skills too, and due to training provided by both his job coach and his day hab staff, has learned to travel independently to other boroughs for his job.  As Rauly shared, “Work has been a challenge and I meet the challenges.  I fell in love with garden beds – to build and repair them – and carpentry; I get to know the soil and I love it.  There are different types of soil and it is good to know which ones are good for which crops to help them grow.  Now I even grow my own herbs and vegetables at home in my own garden bed.  I love nature.  It helps me feel so happy and free, it releases stress and helps me feel calm or calmer when I am in the gardens doing this work.”  His Job Coach Wilfredo shared, “Before working in the gardens, Rauly never thought of traveling alone in his community or in New York City via the subway.  The training that we provide has been so impactful on his life.  Now he travels alone comfortably and has grown in his confidence and English language skills.”

The positive impact of being in the gardens is a common theme in Rauly’s experience along with other gardeners and volunteers.  The environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen, who has studied workplaces remarked, “Biophilia is just exploding…People are happier when they are in a natural environment5.”  Studies have shown that movement in nature has been “…associated with decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and a perceived increase in energy and feelings of positive engagement6.”  Working alone, with a job coach or among a team, the gardens provide a holistic environment for staff and volunteers which promote a sense of calm, health and wellbeing.

In 2011, Noel, who lives with an I/DD, began as a volunteer of S:US’ Urban Farms in the backyard of his home in Brooklyn, NY, managed by S:US.  He then expanded to volunteer at other program sites.  One of Noel’s strengths is that he is physically strong and he likes to take on new challenges.  With time and extensive training, Noel helps deliver wood and soil to newer gardens, and supports building new garden beds since he is adept at using power tools through training that he received from the urban farms team.  Noel shared, “My work takes energy to put together the (garden) beds, but it is relaxing and comfortable to me.  I like it.  I am proud of my work.  I have learned how to grow so many vegetables and herbs.  In the off-season, I help with the workshops, teaching healthy eating and cooking to the tenants at other homes.  I also help train the volunteers on garden tools and caring for the garden.  It is good.  I like my job coach Wilfredo – he’s kind, cool, and helpful.  He helps me fix broken beds and learn new skills.”  For Noel and his co-workers, S:US’ Urban Farms has had a positive impact on developing their skills as gardeners and empowered them to take on new challenges and grow.  It is through the practices of job carving and tailoring along with the accommodations to employ people with disabilities that have made the gardens such an inclusive, impactful, and beneficial place to work and volunteer.

Urban farmer Noel (left) uses a power tool to build a raised bed with the help of a volunteer.

Another place of employment for people with disabilities is Domestic Personal Helpers (DPH) where Jesse and Robert, two people with an I/DD supported by S:US, are employed.  In 2014, DPH, which was originally called Ditmas Park Helpers, was founded to provide snow and ice removal service, but soon expanded to offer more property maintenance and tri-state moving services. DPH offers various residential and commercial services, including but not limited to:  home and business cleaning; decluttering and organizing; painting; clean-up and trash services; electronics recycling; junk removal; snow and ice removal; moving and delivery; furniture assembly; and other tasks as needed.  The company hires skilled and experienced staff that are friendly and reliable.  Jesse works mostly alone in outdoor maintenance one day per week in Queens, but sometimes works with a team.  He rakes the grass to remove trash, sweeps sidewalks and pavements to keep them clean, and picks up garbage.  He has a job coach, Ulysses, who makes sure that he has all of the supplies needed to do his tasks, helps him maintain his focus while working, and assists him with his schedule, payroll, timesheet, and work commute.  Jesse shared, “I like my job coach Ulysses, he’s great, helps me stay focused, and organized which I like.  I like my job.  DPH gives me the tasks and I do them.  My mom taught me to always be a leader for other people so I am always a leader, a model, on my job.  I do this in my job.  I want to be good at it.”  Robert, another person supported by S:US who has an I/DD also works at DPH at the same location in Queens.  For two days per week, he sweeps and cleans sidewalks and pavements, and assists co-workers in their use of heavy equipment such as leaf blowers or lawn mowers.  Robert expressed, “I like my job.  They give me the tasks and I get them done.  I get along well with my co-workers, we laugh a lot together.  I worked all the time during the COVID-19 pandemic because I am devoted to my job.  My job coach Ulysses helps me with my commute for work, with my budget for my metro-card, and also helps me pay my bills.  He has also assisted me in traveling more independently by using the MTA app and learning my way around the city.”  Ulysses is a supportive asset to both Jesse and Robert, helping them with staying focused while working, making certain they have needed supplies to do their jobs, assisting them with their commutes, and helping them with budgeting.  DPH fosters an inclusive work environment by hiring people with disabilities and making accommodations for them and their job coaches.

Cleaning with Meaning NY is another cleaning service based in New York City that employs people with disabilities.  It is different from their competitors in four ways: they provide two cleaners for the price that their competitors charge for one cleaner; they use only top-quality cleaning products and supplies; they are fully bonded and insured; and they are a nonprofit organization and hire staff who have disabilities including I/DD.  Their staff receive extensive training in both cleaning and customer service, and they support their staff in thriving and succeeding at their jobs.  They believe that it has a positive benefit to employ staff with disabilities because it changes their lives.

Justin and Darren are two people with an I/DD who attend an S:US day habilitation program in the Bronx, NY and both work for Cleaning with Meaning at different locations.  For three years, Justin has worked two days per week helping to clean office space in the Bronx, NY with his job coach Deidre.  Justin shared, “I like my job, it’s fun and I wouldn’t change anything.  Deidre is kind, cool, listens well to me, and is respectful to me.  When I can’t do something or don’t know something, she helps me learn it or shows me a new tool or method to clean in a hard-to-reach place.  She’s so helpful.”  For three years now, Darren works at cleaning a commercial space once a week with his job coach Michael.  Darren sweeps and mops floors, cleans tables, takes out the garbage, and works well with his co-workers.  Darren shared, “My job is tailored to my strengths.  I can lift heavy things like (cases of) water bottles and Gatorade – I’m good at it and it’s easy for me.  I worked in cleaning at a different job and I have a good memory.  My coach Michael supports me well, gets me the cleaning supplies I need, and makes sure that I do a good job.  I like my job and I like to earn money.”  For both Justin and Darren, they value working and the support that they receive from their co-workers and job coaches, which helps ensure their success in their jobs.

With insight gained from interviewing people with disabilities, staff and job coaches, it is clear that a holistic work environment filled with the qualities of kindness, compassion, and respect—plus supportive job coaches that meet the individual needs of each person that they assist—supports employees with disabilities and I/DD to be successful in the workforce.  Working outside in nature also provides a deeper connection to plant and animal life and the experience of biophilia has a beneficial effect for staff and volunteers that work in S:US’ Urban Farms.  Job coaches support people with disabilities to stay on task, maintain focus and concentration, complete their responsibilities with success, and advocate for themselves when they need help or assistance.  In addition to the benefits of a job coach, the practices of job tailoring, and job carving go even further to promote engagement in the workplace by tapping into the rich resources of each employee’s strengths which allow them to become adept in new skills and areas and shine in their job responsibilities.  It is the progressive practices of S:US’ Urban Farms Director Michael Hollis and his team and other organizations that employ people with I/DD to hone their skills, connect to their job and co-workers, and find meaning and purpose while doing their job.  The author Michael Carroll writes in his book Awake at Work:  35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos:
“We can engage our jobs sanely and openly without giving up on success or disregarding our feelings or ambitions.  What is required is surprisingly ordinary: simply to be who we are where we are, to subtly shift from getting somewhere fast to being somewhere completely.  By taking such an approach, we discover not only a larger view of work but also a basic truth about being human: by genuinely being ourselves in the present moment, we naturally become alert, open, and unusually skillful7.”

A holistic work environment is essential in supporting people with varying strengths, abilities, and disabilities in order to maintain employment, achieve work goals, embody authenticity, and commit to their purpose to complete meaningful work.



2. “The Latest Disability Discrimination In The Workforce Statistics 2023 You Shouldn’t Ignore” at:,or%20bias%20in%20their%20workplace.

3. “’It’s Really Across the Board’: People with Disabilities Face Employment Discrimination” by Kana Ruhalther, The Herald News, December 18, 2022.

4. “Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?” by Bjøn Grinde and Grete Grindal Patil, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, August 31, 2009, Pages 2332-2343.

5. “Nature Takes Up Residence Inside”, by James Barron, The New York Times, Metropolitan Section page 6, April 23, 2023.

6. “Harnessing the Four Elements for Mental Health”, by Jerome Sarris, Michael de Manincor, Fiona Hargraves and Jack Tsonis, Frontiers in Psychiatry, April 24, 2019.

7. Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos, by Michael Carroll, Shambhala Publications Inc., Boulder, CO, page 8, 2004.

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