The sewing machines at the Peckham factory in Lansing, Michigan, churn out 300,000 garments a month for the American military, from long underwear to fleece jackets. About 1,200 employees work two shifts a day to meet production deadlines. That's not an unusual feat, except that 85 percent of the sewers and other workers at Peckham live with what staff here call a “significant” disability. Workers have blindness, deafness, emotional trauma or other mental illnesses.
“We employ a lot of people that either cannot work a full work week or their disability just doesn’t allow them to do the job,” says Director of Manufacturing Ed Terris.
Peckham is a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and employing people with disabilities. It makes use of what’s called “assistive technology” - the process of enhancing technology to allow disabled people to interact with it.
Productive use of disabled workers
Each worker here also gets a mentor to help maximize his or her goals, not only at work but in the rest of life, as well.
“With the wraparound services that we provide and the coaching and training, and the assistive technology that we employ, we give people opportunities to do this type of work that they may not be able to experience in a typical working environment,” said Terris.
Terris points to a worktable where Chuck Ayotte sits. Ayotte is legally blind but employed by Peckham to trim loose thread from fleece jackets, which eventually will go to troops in Afghanistan.
Ayotte can work at the plant because Peckham developed equipment that allows disabled people like him to operate machinery.
He feels for loose threads along the seams of the jacket and places the thread next to an air hole, which sucks the thread in and safely shaves it off. “You could put your finger right here in the machine and you can’t cut yourself,” Ayotte said.
Large workforce that is untapped
There are 20 million disabled Americans between the ages of 18 and 64, the years during which most people work. But nearly 80 percent of these lack fulltime, year-round employment.
Advocates for the disabled say that’s partly because employers don’t make accommodations for disabled workers in the workplace.
Greta Wu, senior vice president of Human Services at Peckham, said chronic unemployment can be a worst-case scenario for many people living with disabilities.
“You don’t get to work, you don’t get to enjoy that you are contributing to the society,” she said. “But when you do have work your self-confidence is built up, your self-esteem is increased, you feel good about yourself.”
Amy Rose Heyboer, who has suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for much of her life, came to Peckahm three years ago.
Employee is role model
Before she found Peckham, mental illness caused Heyboer, who is in her 20s, to move from job to job. It took a toll on her, she said, both emotionally and financially.
“Back when my employment status was not as great as it was now, I just thought that it was something wrong with me,” said Heyboer. “That I’m not doing my job right because I’m not motivated, because I’m lazy, because I’m a procrastinator, because I am no good at this. So that was self-esteem issues for sure,” she said.
Heyboer’s supervisors here quickly moved her from one assignment to another, though, to keep her attention from wandering. Now she’s supervising other workers.
“It really started to turn with me that this may not be my fault,” she said. “This place was really pivotal in that because there are other people here who do recognize that ‘Okay, she’s having issues, but it’s not her fault. How can we adjust it so that it works for her?’ And that’s really nice.”
Peckham is funded in part by a federal government program that buys products and services from nonprofits that hire the disabled.
Advocates for the disabled say that unless more companies change their hiring practices and workplace environments, millions more disabled will remain shut out of the American workforce.