CUIMC Inclusive Hiring Effort, Project PossABILITY, Receives City Award

Columbia University Irving Medical Center

The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and the Consortium for Customized Employment have recognized CUIMC for its inclusive hiring program, Project PossABILITY, with a 2022 Customized Employment Award. Project PossABILITY, which launched in 2021, connects workers who have intellectual or developmental disabilities like autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy with employment opportunities at the medical center.

To date, the program has helped hire and onboard three employees, one each in the Department of Surgery, the Department of Pathology, and the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health in the Department of Medicine. Project PossABILITY was created by the CUIMC Disability Employee Resource Group, led by director Keith Diaz, PhD, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at VP&S. Diaz co-leads Project PossABILITY alongside Tonya Richards, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for staff at CUIMC.

Tonya Richards and Keith Diaz
Tonya Richards and Keith Diaz

“People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are an untapped talent pool with enormous potential,” Diaz says. “Research shows that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have high retention rates, are highly productive, dependable, and motivated, and have strong work quality that is as good and often better than their non-disabled co-workers. They are hungry for work, are good at their work, and stick around longer.”

But according to the National Report on Employment Services and Outcomes, 63% of people with intellectual disabilities are unemployed. Another 17% work in sheltered workshops, where they are segregated from the community and often paid less than minimum wage. Only 20% have a paid job in the community.

Diaz, the father of a five-year-old son with an intellectual disability, wants to do his part in improving those statistics. “People with disabilities need more than charity, they need jobs,” he says. “Not only can hiring individuals with disabilities improve your workforce, but it can help address a major societal issue: the marginalization of individuals with disabilities.”

The program has been a success so far, and the Project PossABILITY team plans to greatly expand hiring efforts to other departments.

“Project PossABILITY and the Disability Employee Resource Group have added tremendous value to our community by advancing CUIMC’s workplace inclusion and accessibility efforts,” Richards says. “It is our goal to create and sustain dozens of placements within the next three years to help diversify and strengthen our workplace through varied perspectives.”

CUIMC was one of two honorees at this year’s Customized Employment Awards, alongside Contento, a Harlem restaurant. Past award recipients include the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, The New School, and corporate partners like CVS, Shake Shack, and Trader Joe’s.

The annual awards are hosted by The Consortium for Customized Employment, a collaboration among 14 agencies in New York City that help adults with developmental disabilities obtain and thrive in mainstream jobs. The consortium was founded by Job Path in 2012 and has since collaborated with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in stewarding employment opportunities around the city. The consortium is a community partner for Project PossABILITY.

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