Company reimagines workforce by employing people with special needs - 'They deserve a chance'

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  • For people with special needs, having a job gives them a key sense of purpose.
  • They frequently evolve to be the most reliable and hard-working staff members, says a Cape Town business owner.
  • Anyone can make a difference in the lives of those with special needs, even those without businesses, she says.

When thinking about hiring people with special needs, employers generally have reservations – but one business owner in Cape Town says it's a decision she took more than 10 years ago, and one she will never regret.

"I'm often asked why I did it. It just seemed like the right thing to do," says Julie Tobiansky, owner of Merrypak, a well-known packaging company in Cape Town.

At the time, Julie met a family whose daughter was completing her last year of schooling at Bel Porto, a special needs (SN) school in Lansdowne, Cape Town. For many children with SN, their opportunities end with their schooling when they turn 18. While SN education has received attention over the years, there is a lack of workshops and integrated work opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities.

READ MORE | Single dad opens up about why he adopted his daughter, who has Down Syndrome

Since Merrypak involves a lot of hand-packing and hand-finishing work, Julie offered the daughter a chance to help out during her school holidays. This eventually led to her being a Merrypak employee for several years.

Within about two years, Merrypak employed around 30 people with various intellectual disabilities. Julie developed a whole department that centred on supervised handwork. Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown meant that many employees lost their jobs – but the company still has staff with SN working in different departments.

One employee, in particular, receives huge praise from many staff at the company. Shaheed Peck, who has borderline autism, works in the machine room and has been a dedicated Merrypak employee for eight years.

"We've become so fond of him. It's a blessing to have him working with us," says Karin Lottering, Shaheed's supervisor. "Shaheed has great respect for others. He has never said anything bad to anybody."

special needs,autism
From left: Garrin Lottering (Karin and Garreth's son), Karin Lottering, Shaheed Peck, and Julie Tobiansky.
Image: Zakiyah Ebrahim

Fully dedicated to his job

Because Shaheed, 33, is so focused on completing his tasks, he often has to be reminded to take his lunch break. As the interview takes place, this becomes evident as Shaheed is eager to get back to work.

He tells News24 he enjoys his job and working with his colleagues. His favourite task is "breaking out", which involves removing the waste and shapes from cardboard sheets and placing them in bags.

Garreth Lottering, his manager, says Shaheed always reminds other staff members what not to do. "When we have meetings, he's attentive and listens to what I need from my team. If he finds waste material that's not allowed to be thrown away, he will report it to me. He's like a walking camera to me," Garreth jokes.

Shaheed also enjoys recycling, a hobby he picked up at a young age, his mother, Ruwaydah Peck, tells News24.

The changes that come with a job opportunity

When Shaheed completed school at Bel Porto, he was placed into a protective workshop close to home in Lansdowne. But months later, he became unhappy and stopped attending. This became stressful for his mother as he would spend his days away from home collecting recyclable materials that he could take to the scrapyard.

Eventually, Ruwaydah got in touch with Shainaaz Parker, an occupational therapist at Alexandra Hospital Outpatient Services, who got Shaheed a placement at Merrypak.

Through various assessments, Shainaaz identified Shaheed as a suitable candidate for the open labour market. He was placed on a trial period as a volunteer at Merrypak and later signed a contract with the company.

special needs,autism,good news
Shaheed and his family. Pictured from left is Ruwaydah (mother), Wardah (sister), Abdullah (father), Raghmah (sister), Shaheed and Fatimah (sister)
Image supplied

"As a supportive employment occupational therapist, I have witnessed SN adults accomplish so much in the open labour market setting," says Shainaaz. "Many of them are not given a chance because society sees them as 'different'."

But work is such a fundamental occupation for adults, says Shainaaz.

She adds:

Having a job is meaningful to SN adults. It gives them structure, routine and a purpose in their daily lives. And this impacts their performance and confidence greatly, as they see themselves included in society.

'It isn't a scary thing to do'

Many employers might be afraid of the stigma, quality of work and the need to provide extra supervision to SN adults, says Shainaaz. But Julie's experience has shown that it's doable, and employers can end up with the most committed staff if they adjust their expectations.

"It isn't a scary thing to do," she says. "Businesses should be more open to it because they are almost always the most dedicated, committed and hard-working because they are grateful to be working. When they do their job, they do it to the best of their ability.

"They're not distracted by other things: they're focused on the tasks they've been given. There are no grey areas with them, and that's why they're amazing workers. I would love for other businesses to consider people like them to join their workforce."

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Another Merrypak employee with autism, who works in a different department, is non-verbal and one of Julie's fastest workers. His job entails barcoding, and he does this so efficiently and accurately that Julie didn't consider letting him go when retrenchments took place. "He gets along with everyone," she says.

Julie adds that they have created an ideal world where everybody is accepted for their abilities, and their disabilities don't come into play. "And I feel that by creating that utopia, it spreads out into the world. Our staff goes home into their communities, and they see special needs differently. Now it's almost like a badge of honour because they're seeing something that's quite special in a positive way."

Interviews may not show their true potential

Importantly, employers must be mindful that SN adults don't interview well, says Julie.

"Even if they do have the capability to do slightly more sophisticated tasks, they're not going to get those jobs because they don't look good in an interview. So, as an employer, you need to look at how you can assess whether that person might have potential without relying on an interview."

People are afraid of people who are different. But there are good, kind-hearted and caring people who are written off because they're different, says Julie.

Shainaaz's advice to employers is to provide SN adults with an opportunity, first on a trial basis (volunteering), and then to gradually place them on a contract with regular working hours, and start them off once or twice a week.

Placing SN adults in the open labour market

Shainaaz explains that for a person with SN to get a job placement, an occupational therapist will conduct a work assessment of their work skills and work habits to establish their work performance.

"We assess many components, such as personal presentation, social presentation, ability to follow instructions, task planning, task completion, attention and concentration, work endurance, and motivation," she says.

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After the assessments, they, along with the family, determine the most appropriate placement for the SN adult.

"During the process and placement, we provide continuous support to the SN adult, family and work site, known as supportive employment," she says.

They also do regular follow-up visits to the work sites to support both SN adults and the employer.

Sadly, in South Africa, resources for those with SN are limited, says Shainaaz. "This highlights the need for intervention, including research and funding, which is necessary for lobbying with various stakeholders."

The positive spin-offs

Employing staff with SN has had unexpected positive spin-offs, says Julie. One of these spinoffs is that people's spirit in the workspace is uplifted.

She explains:

If you work next to somebody who's excited to be at work, it's going to brush off on you. You're going to start feeling a sense of enthusiasm every morning because they're excited to be here and see you.

Karin reiterates this. Shaheed is the first person with SN she's interacted with, bringing her a whole new perspective on life. "People with SN deserve to be given a chance. You will see the difference it can make to your inner soul. Despite their disability, they are special. They don't know less than what we know.

"People like Shaheed can do everything we can do but may need a bit more time or guidance to get there," she says. Ultimately, however, they want to have their independence and have the same wants and dreams as all of us.

Garreth adds:

If you take the time to listen to Shaheed, you'll realise he has a lot of wisdom to share. He can teach us all how to make and save money.

For a long time, Shaheed has been encouraging his colleagues to use rewards cards so they can earn cash back and build points. He's also passionate about persuading people to sign up for a MySchool rewards card and donating to humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers.

good news,special needs
Shaheed works in the machine room at Merrypak.
Zakiyah Ebrahim

Small changes, big impact

Small business owners might think their business has limited employment opportunities for those with disabilities. But you don't need to have a big company to impact the life of someone with SN, says Julie. For example, a person who's baking from home, whose business starts to take off by getting more regular orders, may need an assistant to pack the biscuits.

"Someone with special needs could sit and pack your biscuits," says Julie. "And if you employ them for just an hour, once a week, that one hour to that person is huge. They've got a job. They've got purpose."

READ MORE | South African Autism community says 'government has overlooked us for long enough'

If Shaheed didn't have a job, he would likely still have been wandering the streets during the day, says Ruwaydah.

"He would've come home only to eat and sleep. I've seen people with the same challenges as Shaheed, who have nowhere to go, and I see them every day on the roads, begging because they have no support structure. It's so sad. With Shaheed being at Merrypak, I couldn't have asked for better."

Taking that first step

"What can I do to help somebody with a disability?" is a question we all need to ask ourselves, says Julie. And the options are endless. It could be as simple as asking someone with SN in your community if they'd like to wash your car on a Saturday afternoon while their sibling supervises them.

"If we could all do that, then there would be nobody hiding behind closed doors because they would be out in the community," says Julie.

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