Markita, a Seguin Gardens & Gifts participant, helps plant town planters. She has been with Seguin for more than eight years and works the most hours of all participants, according to Darrel Wood, general manager. Seguin is trying to find a job in the community for her.

There’s no shortage of associations or resources dedicated to people with disabilities and special needs, but this segment of the population still faces significant barriers to employment. According to some surveys, as many as 85 percent of people with disabilities don’t have jobs, although they are willing and able to work.

The executives of recognized the lack of employment opportunities for this population more than 20 years ago. Founder Jim McCann and his brother, Chris McCann, president and CEO, helped fund a greenhouse at Independent Group Home Living (a non-profit in New York that provides housing and support for people with disabilities) to create year-round jobs for people like their brother Kevin who were aging out of the agency’s educational programs. Selling flowers provided them with paychecks, but also pride and independence.

So many people called about recreating that business model in other communities that in 2015, Jim McCann started Smile Farms Inc. — a non-profit that partners with organizations to create horticultural jobs for people with developmental disabilities. Smile Farms started three more farms in New York last year, and plans to open at least five more this year.

“The need was great for [people with disabilities] to have any kind of employment, and it made sense to do it in horticulture because it’s so rewarding,” says Smile Farms Senior Director Jodi Taggart. “This population is certainly able to work, and they want to be productive. They’re great employees, so everybody wins. It helps the community because we’re engaging people who want to contribute and want to do a good job.”

For-profit operations are learning how employees with disabilities can benefit the business beyond a feel-good mission or social service.

We spoke with several non-profit garden centers about their best practices for hiring employees with disabilities to help for-profit retailers understand the advantages of working with this population.

The right environment

A retail garden center is a great fit for employees with disabilities, Taggart says. “It provides repetitive tasks in a set environment, which is good for [many in] this population because they [often] like regular routines and schedules,” she says.

Others have made the same connection. About 14 years ago, a group of families who met through Chicago’s sporting events for people with special needs looked at various businesses to create jobs for their teenage sons with disabilities.

“They were enamored with the daily routines and repetition of the greenhouse, and how it could be adapted for people with disabilities. So, they bought a greenhouse,” says Gregg Bettcher, who became executive director of the resulting non-profit operation in West Chicago, called We Grow Dreams Greenhouse and Garden Center, which provides jobs and training for people with disabilities.

An hour east, in the suburb of Cicero, Seguin Gardens & Gifts operates as a business initiative of United Cerebral Palsy Seguin of Greater Chicago. The non-profit garden center opened in 2009 with a similar mission to provide vocational training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

“Like any employee, you’ve got to determine their specific skillsets,” says Seguin general manager Darrel Wood, adding that his employees handle most greenhouse tasks like sweeping, weeding, deadheading flowers, watering and transplanting. “It’s great to have employees who enjoy [these] tasks and get a feeling of accomplishment and confidence from it.”

Michael, a seasonal participant at Seguin, helps water and take care of planters in the community. Seguin is hired to plant and take care of the these through the season.
In a 2010 survey by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability, 35 percent of executives ranked employees with disabilities more dedicated, and 33 percent saw lower turnover.

Dedication, lower turnover

In a 2002 study, supervisors rated the performance of employees with disabilities equal to or better than employees without disabilities on measures like quality, consistency, punctuality, attendance and overall proficiency.

In a 2010 survey by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability, 35 percent of executives ranked employees with disabilities more dedicated, and 33 percent saw lower turnover — almost 50 percent lower, according to one study of Walgreens distribution centers.

“Everyone’s concerned about hiring good people — people who are going to show up to work, who are going to do the work when they get there, who aren’t going to get bored after a few months and move on,” Wood says. “A lot of our [employees with disabilities] have been with us for seven, eight years, and that’s hard to find in retail.”

Seguin has nine full-time staff members and 20 to 30 employees with disabilities. “We look out for each other and really like working together, so it creates a good environment,” he says. “And certainly, the customers recognize that.”

In a 2005 survey of more than 800 adults who received services from people with disabilities, 98 percent were satisfied with the experience. In fact, all the non-profit garden centers we interviewed said these employees attract customers who want to support businesses that support the community.

“The biggest value of hiring people with disabilities is it shows your customers that you’re involved in the community, that you care about what’s going on, and that you have a heart,” Bettcher says. “It shows that you’re investing in your business and in your community.”

Businesses that make accommodations for employees with disabilities may also be eligible for tax incentives — like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (which ranges from $1,200 to $9,600), the Disabled Access Credit (of up to $5,000), and the Architectural/Transportation Tax Deduction (of up to $15,000). But a 2003 study found that 77 percent of companies don’t even take advantage of these incentives.

Lanscaping crews at Seguin Gardens & Gifts primarily care for homes where their parent organization provides housing for people with disabilities, but they also have some private clients and do some work for the town of Cicero by subcontracting work that requires heavy equipment, like hardscaping.
Smile Farms created three farms in New York last year, and plans to expand by at least five more in 2018.

Helpful resources

Seguin’s parent organization offers community employment services to help people with disabilities find jobs by connecting garden centers to qualified candidates.

These types of agencies also provide job coaches to provide each employee the training and support they need to perform their job.

“If you don’t have any experience working with people with disabilities, it would be best to reach out to an organization that works with that population,” Wood says. “There are a lot of organizations out there, and even if they don’t have a community employment program, they’ll give you advice. It’s really not any different from deciding to start offering landscaping services — you don’t want to go into it blind. You need to talk to someone who knows how to do it, and find out the best practices and mistakes to avoid.” See “10 Do’s and Don’ts for hiring employees with disabilities” on the previous page.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation determined the main reasons why employers don’t hire workers with disabilities include a lack of awareness about how to accommodate them, concerns over associated costs, and fear of legal liability — all of which a non-profit partner can offset and address.

“When you partner with a non-profit organization, they provide support staff to train people,” Taggart says. “They identify people [with disabilities] within their population that are work-able and work-ready, so it takes the onus off garden centers to find people.”

Besides local organizations that serve people with disabilities, Bettcher suggests contacting your school district to see if they help students with disabilities transition into the workforce. Chicago’s transition program provides one-third of We Grow Dreams’ employees; the other two-thirds just apply directly.

Usually, people with disabilities apply to jobs because they have a connection — likely friends or relatives of employees or customers, Wood says. Typically, that friend or family member acts as a liaison to help them transition into the job.

But, unless companies have a mission to serve this population or a specific connection to someone with special needs, most are reluctant to recruit employees with disabilities.

“The extra steps involved keep independent garden centers from doing it,” Bettcher says. “[This type of] employment works best through some type of network or association.”

Alternatively, IGCs can contact Smile Farms, who will identify a local partner agency to provide employees and set up a Smile Farms facility on-site.

Although integrating employees with disabilities into your workforce is extra work, employers who have done it know the benefits outweigh the efforts. In a study published in Social Work Research in 2000, every manager surveyed who had experience supervising employees with disabilities said they’d be likely to recommend this population.

Brooke is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.