RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is dedicated to celebrate the contributions of people with disabilities to the economy and workplaces. A company in Riverside is leading the way when it comes to training and hiring workers from that community.
Patrick Avant gives the thumbs up after completing another fire helmet and setting it on a rack filled with other helmets. At 33 years old, this is the first job he's ever held and one he earned after completing a work-study program through Phenix Technology. Inc.
The company manufactures helmets for firefighters and first responders worldwide. In June, it was awarded funding through the California Department of Rehabilitation to expand its operations by hiring individuals with disabilities and to grow its work study "Opportunity for All" program.
"We bring in a number of different people with different degrees of intellectual disabilities, we put them in a classroom half the day and they get work experience the other half of the day," said Angel Sanchez, CEO and EmployAbility Champion at Phenix.
Sanchez says unemployment among individuals with intellectual disabilities are twice as high as those for individuals without a disability.
"There's kind of been a stigma associated with hiring neurodiverse candidates and we're trying to eliminate that, and best way to do that is one employer at time," he added.
Kimberly Castaneda is one of the four candidates participating in the ten-week work study program, accompanied by her job coach.
She, like Avant, is hoping to land her first job, which can be difficult for those with intellectual disabilities to find.
"This really is the solution to the workforce problems that we face today. Just in the Inland Empire alone, we have around 18,000 people living with autism that are ready to work," said Sanchez.
Avant is proof that those with intellectual disabilities are more than capable of performing the job.
More than a year after he was hired, Avant is helping to train others. The income he earned at Phenix led to him purchasing a new a truck for himself.
"I got a Silverado that's cherry red," said Avant.
Part of the program includes reaching out to potential employers like American Medical Response, which is looking to hire a candidate from the work study cohort.
"So having an individual that can do inventory, working and interacting with the crews everyday to ensure that our ambulances are ready for deployment for our teams," said Janellw Nayman, with American Medical Response in Riverside County.
Sanchez says they also work with employers to train their existing workforce on developing a welcoming and inclusive culture for those with disabilities.
"We're seeing incredible gains in efficiency, in quality, attendance - in everything that you look for in an ideal employee, we found in this community," he said.