PAHO provides workplace experience for students with autism
Eric, Tim and Matthew, aged 18-20, are all students at Ivymount, a school in Maryland for children with developmental disabilities. The school recently signed a partnership agreement with PAHO to provide students with a meaningful work experience in a disability-friendly but real-life workplace.
“I considered PAHO to be an excellent place to do this,” says Maristela Monteiro, PAHO’s senior advisor on alcohol and substance abuse and coordinator of the initiative. “Don’t we have policies on inclusion? Don’t we have initiatives on respect and kindness in the workplace? Don’t we want to give back to the community we live in and work? Don’t we all need to learn to work and live with differences?”
On their first day at work (July 9), Eric, Tim and Matthew—along with three job coaches and two other school staff—were introduced to over a dozen PAHO staff, viewed the animated video WHO brings health to life, got to know their offices and supervisors, obtained their badges and ended the day with lunch in the cafeteria. Quite a full day!
The agreement took some time to be signed given its unique features and needs for accommodations on both sides. The school provides transportation and job coaches with background in special education. The coaches guide students as they work on assigned tasks and learn social skills required in a workplace, while also assisting PAHO staff in their interactions with the students. Each student has an office space, access to email and a computer, and a badge.
Prior to the students’ starting date, all PAHO staff received a general orientation and brief training session on disability awareness, which was also extended to country offices, where interest in similar initiatives could arise as PAHO learns from this experience.
The students will be coming to PAHO headquarters one day a week for the next three months (extendable, if all goes well). Their initial duties will include filing and scanning documents, preparing folders for meetings, entering data into SharePoint or other programs, delivering mail on their assigned floor, and using the Internet to send emails or search for specific information upon request. As they demonstrate their abilities, they may be assigned other tasks.
“We benefit by getting things done that we usually do not have time to do; they benefit from the learning experience in a real-life working environment,” said Monteiro. “All involved benefit from learning to be flexible, respectful and tolerant. We all help build an inclusive and more humane society—for our children and grandchildren, our parents, spouses and friends.”
Monteiro says her interest in coordinating the effort grew out of her personal experience with autism spectrum disorders, her training as a public health expert, and the growing prominence in PAHO’s work of issues related to mental health, disability, human rights, diversity and inclusion.
“For me, there could be no better place for this initiative. I got the support of many, went from door to door explaining, and organized meetings with the school and PAHO staff to promote the idea and to draft an agreement that was finally signed,” she recalls. “It took us about eight months, and I want to thank all the supporters I had along the way who did not let me give up.”
Monteiro believes that PAHO staff can learn their own life and work lessons from hosting the Ivymount students.
“We need to value what people can do instead of expecting people to do what they can’t,” she says. “Differences are at the core of what the human condition is. If we accept the notion that we all need to be same, we are destroying the diversity needed for our own survival as human species.”
This may sound more like philosophy than public health to some, Monteiro acknowledges, but she sees it as leadership by example. “To me it means that PAHO is willing to take a new step towards becoming an inclusive and innovative organization, ready to break barriers to make good things happen, to accommodate differences and serve as an example to many. I am proud today, as a PAHO staff member and as a citizen, to be part of this initiative.”