Finding a job can be challenging and frustrating for anyone. For those who have developmental disabilities, it can seem hopeless.
“Years of being unable to find work can leave a person in a very dark place,” commented Wayne McMillan, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based Bobby Dodd Institute, which provides job training and placement to adults with disabilities. “They may feel depressed and have low self-esteem. Often they have been treated differently all their lives and have not learned to be self advocates. We rekindle hope by directing them to work they are qualified for.”
He said that persons with disabilities are often among the most loyal, patient, dependable and hard-working employees in the job market. Still, he said, such people face a 65 percent unemployment rate.
The Bobby Dodd Institute originally started in 1960 as a program at the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities. In 1989, it became an independent organization. Named in honor of Georgia Tech football coach Bobby Dodd, an advocate for people with disabilities, the institute has over the years placed clients at a wide variety of job sites, including restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and retail stores.
During its 20 years as an independent nonprofit, the Bobby Dodd Institute has placed an average of 200 clients a year. Among its success stories is Decatur resident Frank Harris. Working through the institute, Harris found a job he enjoys and takes pride in at Panera Bread Company in Emory Village. Harris said he was offered positions at two grocery stores and a shoe store, but chose the restaurant job. “I like the work and I like the people,” Harris said, “the managers, the other people who work here, the customers, everybody.”
Harris, who lives with relatives, takes the bus to work three days a week and works a 2 to 10 p.m. shift.
McMillan explained that each client creates his own career plan. “Because the clients choose their career paths, they are likely to stick with it and be successful,” he said.
Clients go through a training program that is customized to each person’s needs. It may take a client a few weeks or several months to learn to do what is expected of him or her in the workplace. “We don’t rush them or make them stay in the training program longer than they need to,” McMillan explained.
The institute doesn’t train potential employees for specific jobs—the employer does that. Instead, clients learn such basics as keeping a work schedule, working under supervision and meeting production goals. Harris said that during his training he put together toiletry kits for a hospital. At the restaurant, he buses tables, keeps the dining room tidy and pours tea and coffee. As he moves about the dining room, he keeps an eye out for anything that might be out of order, picking up stray napkins or wiping tables.
McMillan said the retention rate for jobs secured through the program is 86 percent, which a far greater than in the general marketplace. Harris has been at his job for six years and is so valued that when the restaurant closed for renovations, the manager arranged for Harris to work at another restaurant in the same chain until he could return to the Emory Village store, McMillan said.
The institute, he said, not only helps the clients, it also helps employers find good, dependable employees—and there’s a benefit to the larger society. According to the institute Web site, “Wages earned by successful BDI clients along with decreased public assistance annually creates an economic impact of more than $2.5 million, which compounds over time as clients retain and grow in their new jobs.”
“Through our program, people go from depending on taxpayers for their livelihood to being taxpayers themselves,” McMillan said.