Jobs for people with disabilities matter to them, our communities and New York State

By Patrick Bardsley | November 15, 2023

Fifteen years ago, I decided to leave my family and friends in the United Kingdom and work at a special needs summer camp in the small town of High Falls in Ulster County New York. The summer camp experience changed my life more than I could ever have imagined – not for anything I did, but because of the remarkable people I met.

The campers, who society would consider “disabled” and were once labeled with one of the harshest slurs, demonstrated amazing capacities to learn, teach, grow, and love. Every day was a day of discovery for me and the campers.

But the most impactful moment came on the last day of camp. I asked one parent what was next on their agenda for the year. A trip? Get ready for school?

“I don’t know what happens tomorrow,” the parent said, tearing up. “I don’t know what happens next.”

Their son had graduated high school. The family had no services lined up and any hopes of a job or a life outside their direct care were inconceivable.

The parent then told me their one wish – one that still breaks my heart to this day.

They wished they could live just one day longer than their son. That way, they could always be around to support and care for him as he lived out his life.

Imagine that … wishing that you’ll be there to attend your own child’s funeral.

No one should hope their child goes before them, but that’s how many parents caring for offspring who have an intellectual or developmental disability honestly feel.

This is why the work of New York State Industries for the Disabled and its members matters so much. And it’s why I’m so incredibly honored to have assumed the role of NYSID’s Board Chair this fall, following three tremendous years of leadership by Stanfort Perry of AHRC Nassau.

NYSID exists to help facilitate jobs for people with disabilities through the State’s Preferred Source Program. It was created after the hideous Willowbrook scandal in the 1970s, in which New York State was found to have treated residents inhumanely.

To me, it’s personal and it matters.

It led me to help co-found Spectrum Designs with co-founders Stella Spanakos and Nicole Ferrara, parents of sons on the Autism Spectrum. It began as a pilot program with two teens and a single piece of equipment in a converted barn behind Stella’s Long Island home.

Today, we are a non-profit custom merchandise and uniform business dedicated to transforming the lives of those with developmental differences through the creation of authentic employment and vocational training opportunities. Our clients run the gamut from schools and universities to other nonprofits to small business and large conglomerates, representing every sector and industry. These include Google, Uber, the MTA, JP Morgan Chase, JCrew, Meta, and Northwell Health. We produce more than 10,000 items per week, with a staff of 75, operating out of two locations.

Every nickel from every sale goes toward the ongoing expansion and advancement of hiring and retaining staff in an inclusive and integrated culture. More than half of our workforce is on the Autism Spectrum.

It’s the gifts our workers bring that help us all succeed. This t-shirt we designed and sell makes the point: Great minds don’t always think alike.

Employment matters. It’s life changing. And not just for the individual but for their families, friends and loved ones.

People with disabilities make up the largest minority group on the planet at just over 15 percent of our global population. It’s also the only minority group that you can join at any time or phase in your life.

The unemployment rate for New Yorkers with disabilities sits at an astounding 67 percent. This has huge ramifications for our state, which has 2.5 million people with a disability. An individual with a disability is twice as likely to live in poverty and three times as likely to be homeless.

And yet in the workplace, individuals with disabilities are tremendous assets – eager learners with strong work ethics and pride in their performance. Research shows they stay employed longer once hired and are generally more productive and happier employees. Individuals with disabilities are remarkable problem solvers. New Yorkers who find work through NYSID and its members become taxpayers, are less dependent on social security and spend their wages in the communities in which they reside.

New York has come a long way in the five decades since Willowbrook. One of the tremendous changes is the recognition that there is nothing like a good job to help people achieve independence. Employment is the pathway towards the American Dream.

Like New York, I have changed a lot in the fifteen years since first arriving here. I believe that that the world needs all kinds of minds to solve our biggest problems. Diversity must be inclusive of those with disabilities, particularly in employment. To achieve that, everyone needs a seat at the table, or perhaps around the campfire.

Patrick Bardsley is CEO of Spectrum Designs, a non-profit custom apparel and promotional products business with a social mission to create meaningful and inclusive employment and vocational training opportunities for people in a neurodiverse world.