A team joins hands at a team meeting.

Project PossABILITY Offers Job Opportunities at CUIMC for Those with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

A new hiring initiative that launched this spring aims to make CUIMC more disability inclusive by matching individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities with employers at CUIMC.

Project PossABILITY is spearheaded by co-director Keith Diaz, PhD. Diaz is an assistant professor of behavioral medicine, the employee leader of CUIMC’s Disability Employee Resource Group, and the father of a four-year-old son with an intellectual disability. 

Keith Diaz

“Like any parent, I’ve thought about what my son’s future will look like,” Diaz says. “It was depressing to find out that around 80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed or don't have community-based jobs.”

According to the National Report on Employment Services and Outcomes, 63% of people with intellectual disabilities like autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy are unemployed. Another 17% work in sheltered workshops, where they are segregated from the community and it is legal for employees to be paid less than minimum wage. Only 20% have a paid job in the community.

As a result, poverty and disability go hand in hand: according to a 2017 report from the National Council on Disability, people with disabilities make up more than half of people living in long-term poverty.

“As a father, I think about those statistics,” Diaz says. “It's a rare few who find meaningful employment, and we know that employment is linked to independence—making our own decisions about what we do, where we go, and how we live our lives. That's what I want for my son and that’s what we hope our project will help accomplish for our community members with disabilities.”

Ten CUIMC departments attended an initial information session on Project PossABILITY, which covered the hiring process for employees with intellectual disabilities. One employee has already been hired in the Department of Medicine through the project’s pilot program.

As part of the program, hiring personnel at CUIMC partner with the Consortium for Customized Employment (CCE), a collective of 14 nonprofit organizations across New York City dedicated to expanding employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. The CCE uses customized employment, a research-based method that matches an individual’s interests and skill set with prospective job openings to place individuals where they are most likely to succeed. Support services, including a job coach, are also provided by the CCE to assist the employer and employee.

Diaz notes that initiatives like Project PossABILITY not only benefit the employee, but the employer as well. The project is as much about fostering inclusivity as it is about expanding the talent pool and creating real value for the University.

“Individuals with disabilities bring unique characteristics and talents to the workplace that benefit employers. Research shows that individuals with disabilities are motivated, dependable, engaged, attentive, have high retention rates, and do great work,” Diaz says. “Why wouldn't we want these people working at Columbia?” 

As co-director of the project, Diaz believes that this untapped talent pool is eager for opportunity and carries enormous potential to address retention and performance deficits. “This is not charity. Yes, it's addressing a social issue, but it's also about improving Columbia,” he says.  

“It is our hope that other departments will be open to exploring this as an avenue,” says Tonya Richards, co-director of Project PossABILITY and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for staff.

“We want to make CUIMC a more inclusive place by creating a sense of belonging for everyone at our medical center,” she says. Richards notes that Project PossABILITY will be the first of similar forthcoming pipeline programs. CUIMC plans to partner with other agencies for the program and others like it in the near future.

Richards and Diaz hope the initiative and those that follow will broaden the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion to also include those who think differently. 

“The conversation about diversity usually focuses on race and gender, but seldom do those conversations talk about disability,” Diaz says. “People with intellectual and developmental disabilities often don't even have a voice or a place at the table.” 

“Neurodiversity is a major part of making a company diverse. Diversity shouldn’t just be understood from the perspective of a person's skin color, or their gender, but also from the perspective of people who think differently.”

Diaz hopes that expanding that conversation and providing opportunities for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities will contribute to changing misconceptions about what people with disabilities are capable of.

“I remember when my son was diagnosed. I was walking around this hospital dealing with the ramifications of being told all the things my son likely would not do,” he says. “I thought, ‘How awesome would it be if a parent walking around this place going through the same thing could see a person with a disability working right here at Columbia?’

“Let’s put people with disabilities in community and public-facing jobs; let’s not hide them away. They can be front and center at this University. That would be send a powerful message to the community we serve and help show this city that meaningful employment for people with disabilities is not only possible but is a good business decision.”


For more information on Project PossABILITY, contact Tonya Richards, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Staff at custaffdiversity@cumc.columbia.edu.