Photo by Ruta Smith

Outdated laws that funnel South Carolina adults with intellectual disabilities into low-paying jobs can make it difficult to gain experience needed to lead independent lives, advocates say. But one North Charleston distillery and a Cayce brewery are among the companies that have set out to build inclusive workplaces as lawmakers push reform to try to shift the mindset around ability and employment. 

“No. 1 is: We typically don’t have the same expectations for people with disabilities, and we assume that someone is going to have to take care of someone with a disability,” said Sandy Jordan, director of employment programs for AbleSC, a nonprofit helping adults with disabilities live independently. “We don’t necessarily give them a chance to learn the skills they need to be independent.” 

Sandy Jordan, director of employment programs for AbleSC

Advocacy groups like AbleSC are fighting for change in the workplace for adults with intellectual disabilities through programs like Hire Me SC, a campaign promoting an inclusive workforce with equal-opportunity employment.

“Sheltered workshops,” supervised work centers where adults with intellectual disabilities are allowed to work for less than federal minimum wage, exacerbate the employment problem, according to Jordan. 

“Sheltered workshops are usually provided by the disability and special needs board. These providers have contracts with local businesses and give these menial tasks for people with disabilities to do,” she said. 

The 80-year-old federal Fair Labor Standards Act allows these businesses to pay less than the federal $7.25 per hour minimum wage.

“This was created in 1938 — that will tell you how old and outdated it is. The intention of it was that people with disabilities would receive training to go out and work in the community. But that’s not what’s happened,” Jordan said. “Typically what happens is folks enter these sheltered workshops right out of high school, and they stay there for the rest of their lives. So obviously, that keeps folks reliant on government benefits and assistance.”  

There’s said to be bipartisan support for a reversal of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and two bills before Congress — the Raise the Wage Act and Transformation to Competitive Employment Act — attempt to address wages for adults with disabilities.

“I really feel like it’s going to have to be legislation that’s going to push that law out,” Jordan said. 

Status in South Carolina Employment First is a U.S. Department of Labor-supported initiative that provides “a framework for systems change that is centered on the premise that all citizens, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life.” So far, 32 states have adopted this legislation. South Carolina is not one of them. 

A bipartisan bill to adopt Employment First policies in South Carolina was filed three years ago by S.C. Rep. Neal Collins, R, Easley. 

“Originally, we introduced the bill to encourage government agencies to consider hiring adults with disabilities,” said Collins, who explained that the bill doesn’t have hiring mandates, but would require a commission to regularly update the General Assembly on the employment status of South Carolina adults with disabilities. 

The state House of Representatives voted to create a study committee to evaluate the need for new employment policies in South Carolina. The committee’s May 2019 report found what Jordan and Collins expected it would: South Carolina employers are struggling to fillpositions, and Employment First policies could address industry needs by providing a framework that would help remove employment barriers for adults with intellectual disabilities.

The report found, “The first step is to adopt legislation that establishes that South Carolina is an Employment First state and establish a commission that can help guide us in the right direction.”  

The bill was not taken up during the last legislative session, but Collins plans to file the bill again this month, before lawmakers return to Columbia in January.

“Hopefully we’ll have some movement, but you never know in the legislative world,” he said. 

Orangeburg Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a key Democratic sponsor of Collins’ bill, did not respond to requests for comment.

When lawmakers prepare to take up an Employment First proposal, they’ll find the numbers speak for themselves. 

Just 32.6% of the more than 700,000 South Carolina adults with intellectual disabilities are employed, one of the lowest rates in the country, according to the Employment First Study Committee Report conducted in May 2019. 

“We have the sixth-highest unemployment rates for people with disabilities, so there’s a lot of other states that are doing better than us,” Jordan said. 

Lending a steel hand 

AbleSC partners with more than 40 organizations statewide to drive change as part of its Hire Me SC campaign, leading to increased collaboration with local businesses like Steel Hands Brewing in Cayce. 

After Steel Hands managers expressed an interest in hiring employees with disabilities, Jordan said she connected them to the Babcock Center, a Columbia-area disabilities board. 

Mike (L) celebrated his one year anniversary at Steel Hands in November

“(The hiring process) started two or three months after we got the canning line,” said Steel Hands packaging manager Sean Coleman, who explained that he and head brewmaster Doug Smith both had experience teaching people with disabilities. 

An AbleSC representative visited Steel Hands to make sure it was a safe working environment before placing a new employee named Mike at the brewery. 

“It took Mike about two or three weeks to get comfortable, but he’s been a great employee for us. Very reliable,” Coleman said. “Our employees were excited about it. They love him and they love working with him. He has little things that he connects with with everybody.” 

A key drawback of sheltered workplaces, advocates say, is a lack of upward mobility. Coleman said additional responsibilities are a possibility for Mike, but it isn’t part of their short-term plan. 

“It would be a play-it-by-ear situation — he hasn’t expressed interest in that. At Steel Hands, if you want to grow in the business, you can do that,” Coleman said. 

Mike marked his one-year anniversary at Steel Hands in November, and the brewery plans to hire another adult with a disability in the future.

“We don’t have a timeline on it right now, but we do plan on hiring someone else with special needs within the next six months to one year,” Coleman said. 

The mission 

The mission of Beyond Distilling in North Charleston is to empower adults with cognitive disabilities, who will make up 50% of the staff when the distillery opens in 2021.

Co-owner Kerianne Krause, a behavior analyst, moved to the Charleston area when she was 16. In 2018, she called friends Tyler LaCorata and Ryan Sadis, who were working at a New York distillery at the time, with an idea to partner on a new operation that would employ adults with disabilities.

“We just found that there was a huge discrepancy with services from when they’re younger to when they get older,” said Krause, who also owns an applied behavior analysis therapy company called Building Independence Together in Summerville. 

“That conversation turned into, ‘I wonder if we can mesh that all together and make it into our own space,’” she said, “‘One with an inclusive workforce so that people with intellectual disabilities could feel like they had a place to work and like they were contributing to their own independence.’” 

Beyond Distilling’s three products — gin, rum and high-corn bourbon — will be what the customers see, but behind the scenes, the partners will train employees with disabilities who will make up half of Beyond Distilling’s workforce.

“We’ve been working on a program book that will make it so that everybody is trained in a way that works.

“If you need help, we’re going to teach you how to do it because then maybe next time you can do it independently,” Krause said. “We’ll break it down into smaller tasks and teach them to fluency. Once they’re able to do it fluently, they should be independent on the tasks.” 

In South Carolina, applied behavior analysis therapy is not covered by financial assistance for adults with intellectual disabilities over the age of 21. Beyond Distilling’s first employee will be a former member of Krause’s Building Independence Together community, and she’s looking to hire more employees in the near future. 

“We as a society actively exclude people with disabilities,” she said. “Our goal at Beyond is to make the environment inclusive, meaning nobody has to change who they are to work for us.”