From The Sofa To The Workforce:
Can A Diversity Employment Nonprofit  Learn To Include Wheelchair Users?

Elijah Johnson

Elijah Johnson

Three years after being paralyzed in a 2014 shooting, Elijah Johnson fell into a deep depression and says the only thing that kept him going was his wheelchair basketball team.

“I explained to my coach how tired I was of sitting around the house all day. I felt like I was 15 years old again,” says Johnson, who is now 25.  “Everybody around me was going to work, doing stuff with their lives, coming back and having something to talk about, while I was living the same lifestyle as my dog.”

Johnson’s coach suggested he join a support group at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He sat in on a few meetings when he first became an L2 paraplegic, but back then was skeptical they could help. Taking his coach’s advice, he returned to the group, where he met Bill Lehman, a 74-year-old C6 quad.

“Bill asked what I thought about going back to school and getting a job and I told him, ‘I don’t know,’” says Johnson. “Then he said, ‘What if they paid you a little money and then offered you an internship at the end?” Johnson took that deal and today he is an analyst for Turner & Townsend, a global construction firm.

Lehman’s offer to Johnson is one that Year Up has extended to enrollees between the ages of 18 and 24 since its inception in 2000. Many participants only have a high school diploma or GED when they start and are often either out of work or underemployed. “There are ample stories of young people who were living in homeless shelters during our program, only to finish and get a job making $40,000,” says Lehman.

Lehman’s Terms

From 2009 until he was paralyzed in 2014, Lehman recruited corporate partners for Year Up. The program offers enrollees a year of concentrated and accelerated vocational training for entry-level positions in an array of professions. The year is split between the classroom, where participants receive college credit, and a paid internship with a corporate partner like the ones Lehman helped recruit — big-name companies such as Facebook, Hasbro, PayPal, Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, General Electric, LinkedIn, JP Morgan Chase or American Express, to name a few.

Jesse Chin was the first wheelchair user in Year Up’s program.

Jesse Chin was the first wheelchair user in Year Up’s program.

Prior to his injury, Lehman admits he didn’t give much thought to the employment picture of young wheelchair users. It was only after he retired and transitioned to part-time consultancy at Year Up that he had a sudden realization: “Since I was in the SCI world, I began to think, why can’t we do something similar for these folks like we do for nondisabled people?”

Right now, the number of success stories of wheelchair users at Year Up is low. Although to be fair, the program doesn’t keep specific statistics on how many people with mobility disabilities have actually enrolled and graduated. But prior to connecting Johnson, Lehman only knew of one: Jessie Chin, 27, who happened to be a wheelchair basketball teammate of Johnson’s. Lehman had connected him too.

Chin, a T4 paraplegic and Year Up New York’s first wheelchair-using student, paved the way for Johnson. When the program asked for his opinion on improving accessibility, “I made sure to tell them, ‘I’m pretty much independent, but there are people who have less mobility. Let’s make these doors lighter’ or ‘Let’s make sure the bathroom is accessible just in case someone like me comes along and needs to use it,’” says Chin. As a result, the program added automatic doors to its building entrance and to a washroom.

Communication And Accommodation

As the only current Year Up student using a wheelchair, Johnson was nervous, but it helped him to know he wasn’t the first. “I was sure there would be setbacks, but it was a doable thing because someone had already done it,” he says.

While Johnson worked to achieve his goals, he embraced skills he always had but lacked opportunities to use, like public speaking. He appreciated having Year Up’s full support behind him, even if the organization’s lack of experience with wheelchair users occasionally showed.

“There were a lot of times I had to tell them, ‘No, leave me alone, I got it. Let me be independent please.’ They were always trying to help me and looking out for me,” he says. “At the same time, their attitude changed as they got to know me and saw how independent I am. Then, they would only help me if I asked.”

Wil Velazquez, the program director at Year Up New York, admits that working with wheelchair users forced the organization to rethink some of its tactics. “The biggest issue for us was making sure our site was ready so wheelchair users wouldn’t have any problems getting into the building, going up stairs or moving around the office,” he says.

Nadine Sylvester-Crammer, the director of internship services and employment placement at Year Up New York, says she has found that communicating about a potential disabled employee’s specific access requirements is critical to building a solid working relationship. “If we have a young adult who is disabled, we would have that conversation with our internship partner up front and work with that partner to set up whatever they need,” she says. “Employers are open to accommodate, but I don’t think there are enough intentional conversations that happen before potential employees with disabilities arrive.”

Velazquez hopes to demonstrate to corporations how employees with disabilities can energize their teams. “Sometimes Year Up can teach even big-name companies what works and what they can try,” he says. “Maybe being able to see how productive these hires can be and how much they contribute, along with just the effort and the grit that they show, allows people to say, ‘You know what? This might’ve been a talent pool we missed that we need to tap into.’”

Finding Those Gems

Johnson and Chin’s experiences are perfect examples of Velazquez’s theory. After completing the program, Chin went back to school for a master’s in social work and is now pursuing a career as a high school guidance counselor. Johnson made such an impression that not only was he hired where he interned, but his Year Up class of 160 voted him to be their graduation speaker.

Following the success of Chin and Johnson, Year Up New York is open to more students with disabilities, and the national organization is starting a partnership with United Spinal Association [see sidebar] to hopefully bring more wheelchair users into the program.

“We’ve been clear — we want those gems, those people who have talent, and we want to help them,” says Velazquez. “We’re looking for somebody who has already figured out how to traverse their own challenges a little bit and put some thought and intentionality in what they want for themselves.”

Lehman is committed to the creation of more positive employment scenarios for others with SCI. He was fortunate that he already had plans to step down from full-time work when he was injured and that he could do his job relatively easily with no adaptations. He knows others aren’t as lucky and that Year Up must create a more inviting and accessible environment if they want to better serve all people with SCI/D going forward.

“Jessie and Elijah are both paraplegics. They have good use of their upper body, which made transitioning from the classroom to the work environment easier because they can use their hands for various tasks,” says Lehman. He adds that Year Up has more to learn about what quadriplegics need to thrive in the workplace so they can help employers to accommodate them. “I’ve asked them to look into this, but it’s a research area they haven’t worked out yet.”

An optimistic Chin agrees there is work to be done if Year Up wants to attract more disabled applicants. “They could make a better effort of advocating for, and advertising to, people with disabilities. Me being the first wheelchair user to graduate from the program was the first step,” he says. “There’s still a long way to go, but there is in society too.”

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Expanding Access To Employment

In February 2020, national representatives from Year Up had a conference call with United Spinal Association to discuss becoming part of United Spinal’s Pathways to Employment initiative. Now United Spinal is proposing a webinar to present the program to its membership.

Bill Lehman thinks the two groups working together will lead to more wheelchair users finding employment success. “That’s why I reached out to United Spinal Association. They have network offices across the country that serve people with SCIs and my hope is that they can help match qualified candidates to Year Up sites throughout the nation,” he says. Year Up currently has offices in more than 10 states.

Though Year Up is willing to admit candidates whose disabilities require more accommodations than Chin and Johnson’s, United Spinal knows that is uncharted territory for the nonprofit and wants to help them navigate it. “The idea of engaging participants with a higher level of disability definitely seemed new to them, but they were interested in promoting the program to our members,” says Abby Ross, chief operating officer of United Spinal Association.