How Melwood’s abilIT program is changing the game for disability-inclusive employment – and why you should care

This content is sponsored by Melwood.

Montel Medley spent several months applying for jobs after graduating from Towson University with a dual degree in mathematics and computer science in 2019. But despite being qualified – and the high volume of entry-level IT jobs available – he struggled to find success in interviews and secure employment.

It wasn’t until he completed Melwood’s abilIT program that he was able to land a job as an associate data scientist with MITRE, a leader in national security and technology solutions.

Unfortunately, Montel’s experience is not unique. There is staggering unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities, including neurodivergent people. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice that of people without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For 60 years, Melwood – a leading employer, advocate and preferred provider for people with disabilities in the DMV – has been tackling this issue, challenging perceptions and launching strategic initiatives, partnerships and programs to build a more inclusive workforce and economy.

Melwood’s abilIT program is one example of this. abilIT is a 14-week program that pairs innovative, highly technical training with personalized soft skills instruction. abilIT empowers participants with the skills they need to build lifelong careers as competitive technology professionals through job search assistance, placement and on-the-job coaching. It also equips participants to sit for numerous certifications that weigh heavily in the tech sector, including CompTIA A+, Network+ and Security+ certifications.

“What we’ve done with abilIT is we’ve leveraged Melwood’s 60 years of personal and professional development training to help somebody be ready to succeed in the workplace. In partnership with Cybrary, we’ve paired that with technical training that the industry and employers will respect,” says Scott Gibson, chief strategy officer at Melwood.

“I learned a lot of things that I didn’t learn in school, so I was able to add to my resume and expand my knowledge, which helped me in my application process with MITRE,” Medley says.

In addition to preparing for and completing his CompTIA A+ certification, Medley learned how to tailor his resume and prepare for the types of questions he could anticipate in interviews.

“This is tremendous economic empowerment…when you’re earning a living wage, when you’re not facing underemployment, then you have the dignity of options when it comes to housing, transportation and investing in your own interests and personal development,” Gibson says. “Moreover, it is building a viable workforce development solution.”

The success of Melwood’s abilIT program would not be possible, however, without its partners – employers who are eager to hire its graduates, such as MITRE.

“Melwood can design a program that prepares people, but if there’s not a willing partner or employer at the end of the journey, then we may have built a path to nothing,” Gibson says.

Despite the systemic barriers people with disabilities face and a new energy and emphasis on diversity issues in the workplace, people with disabilities are consistently left out of discussions about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

MITRE Vice President for Strategic Engagement and Partnerships Jim Cook says he believes one of the challenges organizations have in incorporating disability into DEIB conversations has to do with accommodations. As a father of a child with a disability, Cook said he has seen accommodations viewed by others as unfair advantages, but “the exact opposite is true.”

“If we’re striving for equity, we’ve got to make sure that we’re providing each person with the right tools and environment to succeed and show their strengths,” says Cook. “Unfortunately, many companies view accommodations as an inconvenience instead of an investment.”

Cook says that employees such as Medley bring immense value through new ways of thinking about data problems. During the interview process, Medley was commended for sharing an answer that no one had thought of before in response to a question that, prior to Medley, only had three answers. He presented a fourth option, impressing the leadership by taking a different approach and expanding their view of the question and possible answers.

“Having diverse employees not only delivers a better result, it also helps others learn new perspectives and challenge their ways of thinking,” says Cook.

Cook says companies who want to expand their workforce to be more inclusive and hire individuals with disabilities would benefit from partnering with experts such as Melwood. He explains that Melwood not only provides training for people with disabilities, but training for potential managers and colleagues to successfully work with people with disabilities.

“What we’ve seen, especially in the neurodiversity space, is that the training managers are doing to learn how to engage people who are neurodivergent actually benefits the way they manage and work with all of their employees, in terms of providing guidance and facilitating greater employee engagement,” says Cook.

Gibson says that Melwood is looking forward to serving the applicants of the abilIT program this fall and spring.

“More than 80% of our program participants graduate from the program, which is a very high completion rate …and then they’re going on to strong employment outcomes at organizations like MITRE, GDIT and federal agencies,” says Gibson.

Interested applicants can find more information about Melwood’s abilIT program at https://melwood.org/abilit/ and employers interested in partnering on candidate pipelines and team trainings can contact Scott Gibson at sgibson@melwood.org.

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