The first time I met Eric Heppard, he sat glumly in the kitchen of his family's Warminster home as his mother, Lisa, talked about how hard it had been for him to find work.

Eric, who is 25 and autistic, wanted dearly to go to a job every day, experience camaraderie with other employees, and bring home a regular check, the way his big sister Stephanie did.

Being unemployed was taking a toll on Eric's self-esteem.

"He says: 'I'm never going to get a job. Stephanie has a job, why not me?' " recalled Lisa Heppard last fall, choking back tears. He'd say, " 'What's wrong with me? I'm a loser.' "

Last December, I wrote about Eric in "Falling Off the Cliff," a four-part series about adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the families who look out for them.

Reader Phil Chant, owner of Chant Engineering in Chalfont, was so moved by Eric's story,  he offered him a position at the company, which manufactures heavy-duty equipment for shipping, rigging, and military clients.

Oh, how I love our readers.

At Chant, Eric works as a shop helper – emptying garbage, sweeping floors, breaking down cardboard for recycling, checking stock, and — hallelujah — smiling.

"He's a hard, thorough worker," said Chant's human-resources manager, Tina Alvarez. "He's part of the family here. We love him! How can you not love someone who's so upbeat?"

Eric Heppard, center, and job coach Kate O’Leary, check in with Chant’s Samuel Bishop to find out what task Eric needs to do next.
MICHAEL BRYANT
Eric Heppard, center, and job coach Kate O’Leary, check in with Chant’s Samuel Bishop to find out what task Eric needs to do next.

As she spoke, Eric confidently pushed a broom around the plant, singing. By now, his 55 coworkers know that he likes Disney tunes ("Let It Go," from Frozen, is currently in heavy rotation).

So, this is a happy story.

But it's also a frustrating one.

There are scores of Erics out there – young men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities who yearn to be included in the satisfying world of work. But it's impossible for journalists to write about every single one of them, which might catch the eye of potential employers.

I met some of these young people at the 2018 high school graduation of students from Bucks County's Intermediate Unit, which oversees special education services.

First, the good news: More than a handful of the 35 jubilant grads had jobs in place. A few were even heading to college. As my colleague Susan Snyder has reported, 270 universities nationwide – including 13 in Pennsylvania and six in New Jersey – offer specialized curriculums for students with intellectual disabilities.

Here's the troubling news: Most of the other grads were still looking for work. I worry they'll find themselves where Eric had been – languishing on the sofa while the skills they honed in school, and the feelings of confidence and belonging they felt there, slowly ebb away.

To improve their opportunities, disability advocates say, job preparedness must begin early in schooling, long before students' entitlement to public education ends at age 21.

This concept, which is gaining national momentum, got a major local boost on June 19 when Gov. Wolf signed the Employment First Act.

It codifies his 2016 executive order that established employment policy for agencies under the governor's jurisdiction (like Education, Human Services, Labor and Industry, and others).

Among other things, the new law requires that competitive, integrated employment be the first consideration — and preferred outcome — of all publicly funded education, employment, training, long-term supports, and service programs for working-age Pennsylvanians who have a disability.

Significantly, the legislation aims for this employment in at least 7 percent of the overall state workforce, says the bill's cosponsor, State Rep. Bryan Cutler  (R., Lancaster County).

"This puts us in a position to lead by example," he says.

Eric, who sometimes has trouble bending, will use a chair as he pushes debris into a dustpan.
MICHAEL BRYANT
Eric, who sometimes has trouble bending, will use a chair as he pushes debris into a dustpan.

The law would also give a boost to organizations that already try to find jobs for people with disabilities.

Like Kencrest, for example, the local disabilities-support provider that partners with Project SEARCH, a national organization that places students with significant disabilities in yearlong internships with large employers. Kencrest participants receive one-to-one job training, work experience, and transferable skills that often lead to employment, either at the internship site or elsewhere.

 "Our placement rate is 89 to 90 percent," says Alli Smale, Kencrest's director of employment and community participation. Many participants have found work and belonging at Phoenixville Hospital, which so strongly supports employment for people with disabilities that it houses a Project SEARCH office on-site. And Kencrest has just launched another Project SEARCH partnership with the pharmaceutical giant GSK in Collegeville.

GSK’s 2017 Project SEARCH participants.
KENCREST
GSK’s 2017 Project SEARCH participants.

Employment for people with disabilities benefits not just men and women like Eric Heppard, who deserve to pursue work that's appropriate to their abilities and fulfills the dreams they have for themselves. It also enhances our workplaces in general, because a diverse, inclusive employee base contributes to their vibrancy and stability.

Before Eric joined Chant, says HR head Tina Alvarez, there was constant turnover in the position Eric now holds. Former shop helpers quickly mastered the job's menial tasks and wanted to move on.

For Eric, the position is a dream gig, one he is steadily mastering with help from his state-paid job coach, Kate O'Leary. In the beginning, she coached him five days a week; it's now down to two. The goal: Eric's total independence.

That's fine by everyone at Chant, which, before Eric, had never employed anyone with an intellectual disability. It's been a joy, she says, for them to watch Eric grow into the job.

"It's hard to believe no one hired him before us," says Alvarez. "This proves there's a place for everyone. We just have to find each other."

Eric and job coach Kate O’Leary, whose coaching has dropped from five days a week to two. The goal: independence.
MICHAEL BRYANT
Eric and job coach Kate O’Leary, whose coaching has dropped from five days a week to two. The goal: independence.