Autism: Opportunity found when focus shifts to abilities, not disabilities

In the kitchen at Pizza Bank in Kirkland, you'll find Spencer Shin, hard at work.   Spencer non-verbal and living with autism and although he may not have much to say, his actions reveal he's a hard worker who loves his job.

Liz Calouri owns Pizza Bank and is also Spencers boss.  She says hiring people with disabilities is a great feeling because the work offers value, not just for the person doing the job, but also for their families and the business.

Spencer started working at Pizza Bank in high school,  a job he got through the non-profit organization, Provail.

Provail President and CEO Michael Hatzenbeler says, "It takes a lot of work to help individuals and families and employers see what the possibilities of employing and individual with a disability could be.

Provail was founded in 1942, by a group of parents looking to find work for their kids with cerebral palsy.

Today, Provail partners with more than 300 businesses throughout King and Snohomish County, employing more than 400 people with disabilities throughout the community.

Tyler McKinnon is 22-years-old and has been working at Cafe Veloce in Kirkland since he was in high school.  Provail assigned him a job coach who helps Tyler stay on task vacuuming, cleaning tables and taking down chairs.   The coaches also offer positive encouragement.

Tyler's mom, Liz McKinnon says the opportunity to work helps Tyler be more independent.  She says 20 years ago this wouldn't have been possible and that she feels "blessed that we're in this time where companies are open to have people with disabilities work and have support."

In Washington State, kids with disabilities receive services and support through the public school system starting at the age of 3.  When they turn 21, they "age out" of the system and often that support stops.

In 2012, Provail launched it's school to work program to bridge that gap.  They now team up with the Lake Washington, Shoreline and Northshore School Districts helping young adults with disabilities transition and find a job.

Liz Calouri who owns both Pizza Bank and Cafe Veloce says for her business, hiring Tyler and Spencer was a win-win.  Calouri says, "They're just like us.  They like to get a paycheck, do a good job, super friendly and like the positive feedback."

Hatzenbeler says the biggest thing we can do is raise our expectations for the role that people with disabilities can play in our community.  He says,  "We tend to assume there is a lot they can't do, and get focused on what they can't do.  If we can shift our focus on how they can contribute and how they can connect and be part of the community, I think we're going to open up doors not only for them, but for all of us."