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Opinion: Unemployment may be dropping in Colorado, but for at least one vulnerable group it’s rising

Here's a challenge to all business owners and business leaders in Colorado: Seek opportunities to employ people who have disabilities.

In April, May and June of last year, Colorado’s unemployment rate was well over 11%. Thankfully, as we have started to come out of the pandemic, that number has fallen considerably, down to 6.2% as of May. Soon, I hope, we will return to pre-COVID numbers — between 2.5% and 3%.

However, there is a population in our state with unemployment figures that are not decreasing, and in fact, are on the rise.

Lloyd Lewis

Here is the sobering truth: Today, 80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed.

As president and CEO of Arc Thrift Stores — one of the state’s largest employers of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) — this is deeply troubling, but sadly nothing new. 

Despite the advances put forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination based on a disability and affords similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there is much work to be done.

And it starts with a challenge I would like to propose to all business owners and business leaders in Colorado. It’s a simple one: Seek out opportunities to employ people in our community who have disabilities.

I know from over 15 years of advocating for the disability community — and as a proud father of a young man with Down syndrome soon to be entering the job world — that employing people with IDD is a smart business strategy with big time benefits.

At Arc Thrift Stores, we employ 350 people with IDD at our 31 stores across the state. These amazing individuals — some of whom have Down syndrome, autism, or other intellectual or physical or developmental disabilities — are our Ambassadors. They work in many different positions in the stores, including as donation coordinators, clothing hangers, and room attendants. 

But more importantly, Arc Ambassadors serve as examples of the organization’s mission in action — to have people with intellectual and developmental disabilities gain self-respect, self-determination, and independence in their communities and professional workplace.

Perhaps you have been to one of our stores and met some of these remarkable people. Maybe you have met Seth at our JCRS Shopping Center store in Lakewood who is a wiz on the cash register. Or Beth at Green Mountain, who handles the production line like a pro and is always quick with a smile. Or Myles at Central Park, who may be singing R&B while he stocks shelves at our Central Park Store. 

If you have, I am sure that you consider yourself lucky.

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I know I do. As a CEO, I want a team of people working for me that is dedicated, loyal, and that bring their hearts to their job every day. I can say that about all Arc employees, but this is most true about our Ambassadors. These are people who are dedicated to providing great service and willing to assist customers and co-workers with their whole hearts.

By employing people with IDD, we are giving these deserving and capable people purpose and encouraging a positive sense of self-worth. But the truth is, they give back so much more. 

Frankly, it’s difficult to be frustrated at your job when the person working alongside you who happens to have Down syndrome wears a contagious smile and believes that this is the best job they have ever had.

Employment diversity, equity, and inclusion — in both the public and private sectors  — means accommodations, connections, and awareness, and it means breaking down barriers.

As we begin to slowly return to the New Normal in this post-pandemic age, and as we begin to need to hire new employees, I am issuing a challenge to my fellow CEOs and business owners. 

Take this leap of faith and seek out and employ a person  — or two or more!  — with a disability. I promise that the rewards outweigh any downside.

Because the truth is, employing people with IDD is smart strategy and only makes us all more successful. When employers create a culture of belonging, they gain competent, dependable employees and help workers with disabilities to stretch their limits. 

The dividends that are paid back to a company – and to the community – are beyond measure.


Lloyd Lewis is the president and CEO of Arc Thrift Stores.


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