Aug 15, 2012 0 Share

[words] Bookstore: Writing a New Page on Employment

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As a writer who recently moved to Alabama after growing up in northern New Jersey, there are a  few things I wish I'd done up North before I moved down South. For example, I wish I'd gone back to my favorite local diner for one last cup of coffee with a friend from high school. But the regret that tops the list is this: I never had the chance to visit [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey. Why [words]? Because it's a community-based bookstore that offers a vocational training program for young adults on the autism spectrum. 

[words] opened its doors in January 2009, when I was working as a full-time home life coordinator and caregiver for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Washington, DC. In addition, I hadn't heard about [words] and the work it does until earlier this year. Fortunately for me, my family—which includes my younger brother Willie, a 25-year-old on the autism spectrum—still lives in the area. Therefore, I plan to pay a visit to [words] on my next trip back home. As an older sister, a writer with a focus on special needs, and an advocate for individuals with autism, [words] tops the list of my must-see places in my home state. 

At present, [words] has had over 40 young adults and teens with autism move through its vocational development program. The bookstore usually has between five and 10 individuals on the spectrum scheduled to work in the store each week, and most individuals work between two and five hours per week (though some trainees work for longer periods, depending on their ability and desire to do so). [words] pays some, but not all, of its special education employees; those that are unpaid are shorter-term workers that come to the bookstore as part of their schools' job sampling programs. 

The Founding Story

Jonah Zimiles is the co-founder of [words]. Like me, he has a personal connection to the world of autism. Zimiles is a former lawyer who became a stay-at-home father after his son's autism diagnosis, choosing to stay home in order to assist his son in his home-based learning program. But how does one move from stay-at-home dad to full-time business owner? As Zimiles recalls, “After six years, our [home life] situation had stabilized and I was able to consider a part-time return to work. At my wife Ellen's suggestion, I applied to business school and attended Columbia University's full-time MBA day program, from which I graduated with a concentration in Social Enterprise. I intended to work as a consultant to autism non-profits, but shortly after graduation, my wife saw a sign on our town's small bookstore, saying that it was closing in a month.” 

This chance moment—Ellen Zimiles spotting the sign on the soon-to-close local book shop—sparked a flame in the family's imagination. “We had discussed [the prospect of] opening up a vocational training program for young people with autism, and Ellen suggested that we operate [the program] out of a bookstore and that I should run the store,” says Zimiles. This was a tremendous endeavor to take on in addition to parenting a young son with autism. But Zimiles agreed to the new adventure. The couple decided to re-open the bookstore in a significantly larger space on Maplewood's main street. The central, community-integrated location (along with its eye-catching name) has been a significant factor in its success. [words] is close to both Newark, New Jersey and New York City. This combination—a neighborhood business close to a major metropolitan area—allows for a larger consumer base while integrating adults with autism into their home community. 

From the start, [words] has found its focus in providing work and vocational training for adults with autism. As Zimiles notes, “Our desire to operate a vocational training center for young people with autism drove our decision to open the bookstore. Without this motivation, it is unlikely that there would be a bookstore in Maplewood today.” And three-and-a-half years into the journey, there's still an air of excitement around the work. When asked about the best part of working at [words], Zimiles exclaims, “That's an easy question! The best part is getting to know these terrific individuals!” 

Learning Important Skills 

Likewise, the opportunity to work at [words] has been a boon to local adults with autism and their families. When I ask if there's a standard level of functioning needed to qualify for the vocational training program, Zimiles tells me, “We do not have prerequisite levels, but we do bring most of our trainees in through school programs. Our goal is to train young people to learn skills that will enable them to find permanent jobs, but not to supply the permanent jobs themselves. If we did, we would quickly fill up our capacity—we are just one bookstore!” 

Lisa Matalon is a [words] employee who works with student groups of individuals with autism that are referred to the store by their school's vocational development programs. When asked how work at [words] helps individuals on the autism spectrum to hone their skills, Matalon says, “It gives them an opportunity to gain valuable work experience and practice social skills in a comfortable and understanding setting. The employees at [words] are all aware of the extra support these adults may need when learning and performing their job tasks.”

The on-site training and support that [words] offers to individuals with autism is based in a job-crafting model. “[We] assign job responsibilities in accordance with each individual's strengths and interests to the extent possible,” Zimiles explains. “At this stage, our focus is fairly task-oriented; our stress is both on having individuals perform functions that benefit our store … as well as encouraging contact between them and our neurotypical employees to the extent feasible.” Likewise, Matalon's role at [words] includes training employees on the spectrum in the myriad tasks that bookstore maintenance requires. These tasks include—but are not limited to—recycling, receiving and labeling books through the store's software programs, shelving books, assembling shopping bags and other store materials, and ringing up customer sales. 

In addition, typical training sessions for young adults with autism at the bookstore rely heavily on school job coaches. Trainees on the spectrum usually remain at [words] for the length of a nine-month school year. They receive coaching supports for the duration of their employment, although coaches are primarily present at the start of the job. Job coaches closely accompany young people through the transition period as they begin work at [words], and having their help is a significant part of success. The presence of job coaches allows for smoother transitions, and it gives the bookstore's full-time employees time to support more seasoned workers, serve customers, and carry out their own required tasks. 

Training neurotypical [words] staff members to work with young adults with autism is another prerequisite; all staff members receive sensitivity training courtesy of YAI Network. However, the bookstore staff themselves do not provide specific behavioral supports, and [words] does not employ outside professionals to offer additional behavioral coaching. “Persons requiring such [behavioral-based] support must supply [the support] from their school or employment referral source,” explains Zimiles. This support typically comes in the form of job coaches, who are trained to prompt, guide, and support an individual with autism according to that person's behavioral support plan

Facing Daily Challenges 

For Zimiles, one of the most significant challenges in supporting adults with autism on the job has been, “... Ensuring that the individuals with autism are well-coached, and that they have the opportunity to 'move up' as their skills increase.” This comment sums up the difficulties faced by many employers of autistic adults. All around the country, support professionals are asking:  How can we maintain a solid standard of job coaching while providing more diverse opportunities for people with autism to grow their roles and contributions to our communities? Given that [words] has just one location at present, the possibilities for an individual trainee's role expansion are, necessarily, limited. 

Even with the single location, there are times when it becomes difficult to balance the needs of the customers with the needs of the trainees. Matalon adds her perspective on this workaday quandary within the [words] model, saying, “The biggest challenge is being able to coach the employee while still being able to perform my job. There are times that the store is busy and I can't work side-by-side with the employee.” Nevertheless, Matalon finds the work rewarding. As she says, “The best part is seeing an employee so excited and eager to start working when [he] arrives at the store and so proud of what [he] has accomplished when it is time for [him] to leave.” 

Since [words] is a relatively new vocational training provider in the early stages of its development and growth, Zimiles says that their most “important exportable function is the development of pride and self-confidence.” Learning employable skills at [words] does directly benefit individuals with autism in terms of self-esteem, but it's unclear whether or not the skills they learn at [words] carry over into future work environments. “We constantly get terrific new workers … [and] we constantly lose terrific workers,” Zimiles notes. But [words] does not track trajectory of trainees after they leave the bookstore. As Matalon observes, “All the employees [on the spectrum] I work with come to us through school programs, so unfortunately, I do not know what they do after they complete their [school-based] programs.” 

Follow-up on trainees is a work in progress. Zimiles reports that, “We are in the early stages of developing a referral network; we currently rely on the schools and agencies that refer young people to us.” Creating a referral and follow-up program to help former employees with autism find other jobs when their time at the bookstore ended would be a great next step for the bookstore, and for the adults with autism it serves. 

Taking the [words] Model into the World

When asked if they consider the [words] model to be replicable in other communities, both Zimiles and Matalon respond with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Zimiles adds, “Absolutely! Though Maplewood is an especially welcoming community, other places would also embrace our program. The biggest challenge [to the model] is the current state of the book industry, in which it is a struggle for an independent bookstore to thrive.” [words] is a for-profit enterprise, and therefore receives no revenue in the form of grants or donations. “We wish to serve as a model for other for-profit businesses to employ individuals with special needs,” explains Zimiles. “We want the bookstore to stand on its own as a sustainable business and make sure that it is run efficiently with its budget managed accordingly.”

Yet even with the economic difficulties presented by bookstore ownership, [words] carries on in its community-based work with vigor. Zimiles says, “We love Maplewood and it is an honor and a pleasure to serve our community. Running a small business in a challenging industry is an exhilarating experience. We do hope to serve as a model social enterprise to other businesses.” Matalon concurs, “I love being a part of the Maplewood community. I started working at the bookstore so that I could have a job close by while my children were in school. I figured it would be a part-time job that would just keep me busy during the day, but working with the special needs employees on gaining new job skills has made my job extremely rewarding.” And, judging by the comments of individual employees and their parents, [words] is certainly a part of the community dreaming a new world of work for individuals with autism. Being a part of this community means facing oft-overwhelming challenges, but it also means making meaningful contributions to the field of supported employment. At least, that's the word on the (Maplewood) streets.