Finding opportunity for all in the working world

GREAT BARRINGTON — Chelsea Fosella is the kind of millennial employers might want around. She's 21 and lives on her own in Lee. She's got a focused interest in the culinary field, and now works 40 hours a week at the Starving Artist Creperie & Cafe. She loves what she does and being a part of the vibrant downtown area.

But it took her and her employer a little extra time and practice to help coach her to reach the level of confidence and success she now has.

Fosella's learning disabilities made her initially feel nervous and she hard a hard time with following and remembering verbal instructions.

But with the right training, the right attitude and a healthy dose from her previous school and employer, Fosella has been learning and growing by the day.

Last month she shared her story as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, as an alumna of the College Internship Program in Lee. Also speaking on the matter was Emmy Davis, who owns Starving Artist Creperie & Cafe, and Shannon Miller, Fosella's advocate as the career coordinator for the College Internship Program.

Davis said she's a big supporter in this year's National Disability Employment Awareness Month motto, "#InclusionWorks."

"I appreciate the differences in people," the restaurateur said.

To get Fosella ready to transition from the College Internship Program into the full-time working world, Miller worked with Fosella to help the young woman identify her interests, skill levels, challenges and goals as a whole.

She found out that Fosella had a culinary internship at the neighboring Salmon Run Fish House through the Railroad Street Youth Program.

"That's where I decided I wanted to work, that I liked the people and learning more about cooking different things," Fosella said.

Miller helped the young woman put together a portfolio and resume, and helped Fosella set up an interview at the cafe.

"I was nervous because I had only had one job," Fosella said.

Davis, who used to work at the College Internship Program, said she knew where Fosella might be coming from, so she kept an open mind and listened to what Fosella's interests and goals were in working at the cafe.

"When I work with other businesses to find employment for our students, I tell them who we are, what goals the students have, and talk to them about any accommodations the students might need. We also talk about how employers can break down steps and have a common understanding with the students ahead of time, before they begin working," Miller said.

While she was learning what to do at the cafe, Fosella said it was helpful that her employer and other co-workers, "made me feel comfortable. Being able to ask questions is nice. I've been able to make a lot of friends here and live on my own and live in my community."

Miller said though this is not always the case, it helps in Fosella's case that the school, the cafe and the young woman's apartment are all on the same block, and she's only a few steps from accessing support or guidance.

In advocating for diverse and inclusive workplaces, Davis said it's important for both employers, employees and customers to think about and approach each person with empathy.

"For example if a customer comes in, shoots off five things to order with Chelsea, and Chelsea can't remember it all, the customer might get upset and say the staff is rude when that's not the case," Davis said.

Miller gave another example of how she had a student who was so nervous at an interview at Barrington Stage Company, that it seemed like the job applicant was reluctant to be there. But once hired, everyone realized how eager and successful the new employee could be.

"I think there's a fear of not knowing outcomes and society can be judgemental," said Miller.

"But everyone can be able to do something if they're given a chance," Fosella said.

Miller said in Berkshire County, more than a hundred businesses have partnered with the College Internship Program and other organizations serving similar populations, to offer a range of employment opportunities and options for people with disabilities.

"I think it's important just to have knowledge, to take the time to learn about your employees and ask questions to figure out what works and what's best for your staff and your company," Davis said. "Maybe for some staff you have to write things down versus giving them instructions verbally. But it's a great thing to have people with all different abilities helping out."

Miller recently participated in the Work Without Limits Raise the Bar Hire 2016 Conference and Career Fair, held Oct. 25 and 26 in Norwood. Work Without Limits is a program of the University of Massachusetts Medical School that convenes a statewide network of engaged employers and innovative collaborative partners that aims to increase employment among individuals with disabilities. Their goal is to position Massachusetts as the first state in the nation where the employment rate of people with disabilities is equal to that of people without disabilities.

According to 2015 statistics published by the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, there is a stark inequity in the employment of people with and without disabilities. Of the 399,206 people between the ages of 18 and 64 living with a disability in Massachusetts in 2014, 35.5 percent had employment. In comparison, of the 3,904,715 state residents in that age group that year, 79 percent had employment.

"It's an untapped market of human resources," Miller said of people with disabilities. "It's about accepting that we're all interdependent and we all have to count on each other in life."


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