This is America's most overlooked labor force, with as much as 80% shut out of work

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The lack of employment opportunities for people with I/DD is evident in national labor market statistics. Amy and Ben Wright, co-founders of Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, are entrepreneurs — and parents — making a dent in this disconnect between available labor and market demand, and at a time when employers have struggled to find enough workers to fill all of their open positions.

The Wrights have four children, the youngest two diagnosed with Down syndrome. The Wrights opened their coffee shop, named after these two children, in order to demonstrate that hiring disabled people can lead to a successful business model. Bitty & Beau’s now has 19 stores, and more than 400 employees. The majority of them are disabled. Ben Wright told Sharon Epperson, CNBC’s Small Business Playbook virtual Summit host on Wednesday: “Any business can use this model to employ at least one disabled person in their organization.” What I saw is that people changed when they spent time with Bitty and Beau who have Down syndrome. They saw them as people and not just “oh, here’s a person who has a disability.” He stressed that both society and business need to change their perception of people with disabilities. They are “deserving” of the innovations that business can provide. “

Business owners may also benefit from state and federal tax incentives related to hiring from among the disabled population.

“Above and beyond even the tax credits, I think that there are some intangibles in there. Ben explained that in addition to tax credits, businesses will also find that they will be able to bring a new level of creativity and innovation to their business once they hire people with I/DD. In 2022, the labor force participation rate (23.1%) and the employment-population ratio (21.3 percent) for disabled workers increased, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These were the highest levels of data for this category since BLS began keeping track in 2008. In 2022, the unemployment rate for disabled workers fell by 2,5 percentage points. It is still double the rate of unemployment for non-disabled people. Meanwhile, the employment-population ratio for people with no disability was 65.4% last year (the BLS notes that a disabled population that skews older relative to the non-disabled population is one contributing factor in this gap).

Although the Wrights find the recent improvements encouraging, they say there’s still a long way to go. The first Bitty and Beau’s Coffee was opened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2016, after Amy quit her job as a director of a theatre program for children. Ben quit his job at the financial advisory firm that he founded in 2013 in 2020 to focus on Bitty and Beau’s full-time. Bitty and Beau’s has 19 locations in 11 states, with the majority located in the South, Southwest and Midwest.

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee staff celebrate the grand opening of a new location.

Bitty and Beau’s Coffee

At the CNBC small business event, the Wrights provided some starting advice for employers on how to be more inclusive in hiring. Amy Wright said that it’s as simple as a company owner saying “this is important to us.” She said that this could be a “great starting point.”

Identify the best positions for workers with disabilities. That could be a “great starting point,” she said.

Identify the best positions for workers with disabilities.

Once business leaders recognize people with I/DD are deserving of employment, they should find the right positions for these employees within their organizations, Ben said.

“Figure out what they can do and what ways you can innovate around them so that you can be successful,” Ben said, adding that in the Wrights experience, it is not always the first job that a disabled worker starts with that ends up being the best job for them.

Amy noted that even though the majority of its workers are disabled, the company employs non-disabled workers who are a key support network for the entire workforce.

Companies that get this right will prove that hiring workers with I/DD can become “a winning competitive advantage for your company,” he said.

Choose the right language for job postings.

While it is illegal in the U.S. to discriminate against disabled job candidates, Epperson noted during the interview that the top of a Bitty and Beau’s job description for a food service worker position at their D.C. location stated: “Reasonable accommodations may be made to enable individuals with disabilities to perform essential functions. “

That was notable because the language came before listing the job responsibilities.

Amy stressed the importance of such language for other businesses to highlight prominently. She said that if someone wanted to “learn something” and start working, they would be given a chance. They also looked at how to make accommodations for their success. “That is how every company should approach it.”