October 19, 2020 | Greenwich Time

GREENWICH — Living with hypotonia — or low muscle tone — has been challenging, at best, for Spencer Connolly. “I can walk and talk but physical (exercise) is really hard,” the 21-year-old said at Town Hall on Monday afternoon. Connolly’s disability makes it so he’s unable to drive. But his challenges go much further than just those physical. The condition has caused him embarrassment, he said. But a new internship program through Greenwich-based Abilis has given Connolly a newfound sense of confidence.

Abilis Still Work to be done


Project SEARCH immerses people with disabilities in three 10-week rotations in different Greenwich Hospital departments. Connolly currently is an intern in the radiology department focusing on sanitizing and delivering blood samples, he said.“It’s only been a month and I’ve already gained so much,” he said. “I was embarrassed. I was afraid to go into public, knowing that I have a disability. I didn’t know how people would react.”

Since the start of his internship at Greenwich Hospital, Connolly said his colleagues there have treated him well. “My coworkers in the hospital treated me with full respect and I’m so thankful for that,” he said. The 21-year-old spoke in front of Greenwich Town Hall on Monday afternoon just before First Selectman Fred Camillo acknowledged October as National Disability Employment Month.

Alan Gunzburg, a Greenwich resident with visual and hearing impairments, is an advocate for people with disabilities in town. He said he knows first-hand what it’s like to struggle with maintaining employment. Gunzburg stopped working as a marketing manager at Xerox 18 years ago as his disabilities progressed. “The toughest part was, first of all, getting to the customer when you couldn’t drive,” he said. “And second of all, going to look for the customer’s environment, when you don’t really see well enough to get around.” Gunzburg said it’s “high time” for local employers to take a broader approach to hiring so people with disabilities can more fully participate in life.

“It’s important for people to go to work. It’s important for people to have purpose,” he said. “It’s important for people to be self-sufficient and to have high self-esteem, and one of the ways of developing that is to work, to have a place to go, to feel wanted, to feel important (and) to make a little bit of money.” Camillo pointed to a Department of Labor statistic that showed people with disabilities experience unemployment at a disproportionately high rate. “Even without a challenging economic climate, the process to identify and secure employment for people with disabilities can range from a few weeks to several months,” he said.

Abilis, supporting more than 225 Greenwich individuals with disabilities per year, has made it a priority to develop job opportunities by partnering with businesses throughout the community. In 2018, Abilis partnered with Greenwich Hospital to create the Project SEARCH internship program that. Abilis leaders have also partnered with Second Congregational Church to develop “Coffee for Good,” where 60 people with disabilities per year will receive training and salaries for working in the community-based coffee shop, once it launches next spring.

The newest Abilis partnership with Greenwich Library was announced last week. It will allow the agency to match clients with more than 225 hours of paid work experience per week. Amy Montimurro, president and CEO of Abilis, said she’s proud of the work her organization is doing and praised the Greenwich business leaders partnering with her nonprofit to give people with disabilities a chance at competitive employment. “There is still work to be done,” Montimurro said in front of the crowd at Town Hall. “Although we are celebrating today, we need to do more for tomorrow,” she said. “There are many people with skills and abilities that need a chance and a job.”

She encouraged any interested business leaders in Greenwich to come forward and open their doors to Abilis’ participants looking for employment. “I know that there are more employers out there ready to make a difference and be a part of changing lives,” she said. “And we at Abilis will continue to work to increase access and opportunities.” Once Abilis places a client at a place of employment in the community, Abilis staff stay with the individual, providing onsite support and coaching, Montimurro said. “We’ll be there every step of the way and then we’ll phase out once they’re successful,” she said. “(Employers) don’t have to do anything, except open their doors,” she said. Community business leaders interested in partnering with Abilis to offer employment should call the organization at: 203-531-1880.