June 26, 2017 | The Hour

It could be that any new movie theater opening is going to draw hundreds of job applicants, but for Valerie Jensen, the 500 resumes that hit her desk in 2014 at the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield amounted to a preview of a problem that persists — too few employers willing to consider people with disabilities for openings in their ranks. Newly updated federal figures last week show an improvement in the percentage of people with disabilities holding jobs — but only a slight increase and statistically on par with job gains in the overall population.

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Among working-age adults and teens in the United States in 2016, just 27.7 percent of people with a disability had jobs, as estimated last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those with jobs, more than a third worked part-time, compared to an 18 percent rate among the population not reporting a disability. The official unemployment rate among those with disabilities was 10.5 percent last year versus 4.6 percent in the general population — the discrepancy primarily the result of the vast majority not looking for work, whether due to the severity of impairments, advanced age or simply being discouraged in the search.

“Many adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities ... are either unemployed or underemployed, despite their ability, desire and willingness to work in the community,” said Erica Klair, director of marketing and communications for Abilis, which provides support from offices in Greenwich and Stamford. “Through our job coaches, our goal is to find the right business fit based on interest and abilities, to allow individuals to learn and develop skills prior to entering the competitive work environment. We have had some great success here with local businesses employing our clients.”

While the U.S. reported just 1 percent of those with disabilities as having looked for work in the past year without success — termed “marginally attached” to the workforce — Jensen agrees that figure misses the actual number of people with disabilities who would work if the opportunity were open.

She opened the Prospector Theater in 2014 to provide just that opportunity, with the theater employing 110 people today and coaching them up with skills they can take to their next job, if they so choose. “After a while, we realized that (employment) number is just a number — it is only looking at active job seekers,” Jensen said. “A lot of people have become so discouraged they say, ‘Forget it — I’m not getting a job (and) I am stopping looking for one.’ “When the applications continued to pour in, people were telling us very real, very heartbreaking stories about how the job market had been closed to them,” she added. “It was at that point we realized the problem was so much bigger than the 110 jobs we were creating.”

Jensen and her spouse Greg Jensen shouldered the startup cost of the theater, with Greg Jensen co-chief investment officer of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund based in Westport. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers must treat qualified job candidates who have disabilities equally with other applicants, with that mandate extending to any history of a disability, such as a debilitating disease now in remission. ADA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees with disabilities, unless doing so would hit them with significant expenses or undue hardship.

Southwestern Connecticut has no shortage of nonprofits and government entities that can provide job coaching, transportation and other services for people with disabilities who want to work, to include Greenwich-based Abilis, Ability Beyond in Bethel or Stamford offices of Easterseals and ARI of Connecticut, whose initials signify “always reaching for independence.”

It is a phrase that sums up the goal of Prospector Theater and by extension other advocates — and Jensen says there are no shortage of groups that call her organization to learn how it goes about grooming workers for their duties. The nonprofit has developed its own programs over time — the Prospector runs a rap class for employees organized by Mike Santini, director of development, who says the sessions hones participants’ abilities to project and modulate their voices with tempo and rhythm, and instill the confidence to speak in public.

“We are teaching transferable skills so that someone can go out and be an accomplished public speaker,” Santini said. “We are an innovation lab — we are doing things that no other business has ever done.”