Kem Robinson, director of the Engineering Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and coach of a soccer team for special needs teenagers, says that many people are uncomfortable interacting with people with disabilities. So when he heard about Project SEARCH, a national program that helps adults with developmental disabilities get employed, he thought it made a lot of sense to bring it to the Lab, which has a strong commitment to inclusion and diversity.

In 2013 Berkeley Lab brought on four people through Project SEARCH as limited appointment employees, and less than a year later, it has now permanently hired three of them. “A lot of the difficulty with adults with developmental disabilities is getting into the workforce,” said Robinson, whose son graduated from the Project SEARCH program at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. “Project SEARCH is focused on providing a structured environment and oversight—they call it internships—where the employees can acquire both experience and work skills. A lot of time, these employees are very good at tasks or jobs that are difficult for enterprises to keep staffed on a regular basis.”

Project Search-Martha and Shiela

Berkeley Lab’s Shiela Dixson (left) supervises Martha Ortiz, who was hired through Project SEARCH.

Locally, Project SEARCH is implemented through East Bay Innovations, which has also placed employees at the County of Alameda. “We try to get people into a wide range of entry-level positions,” said Katie Sam, assistant director of supported employment services for East Bay Innovation. “Employees are detail-oriented and loyal and have great attendance. As I like to call them, ‘neurotypicals’ are prone to distractions—they’re thinking about what they’re going to make for dinner—while our population is very focused and better able to concentrate, so they have a very high accuracy rate.”

Project SEARCH requires all applicants to have a high school degree. Sam said about a quarter of their clients also have some college education. Still, individuals with disabilities have an extremely high unemployment rate: nationwide, 92 percent of those interested in working are unemployed. Of the 8 percent who are employed, at least 50 percent are earning below minimum wage.

“Individuals with developmental disabilities are an untapped pool of talent who can add to the diversity and culture of the workplace,” said Lady Idos, Berkeley Lab’s program coordinator and staff of the Lab’s Diversity and Inclusion Office. “It’s a win-win because a lot of times, people put important administrative tasks on hold.”

Project SEARCH provides a job coach who is on the job with the person 100 percent of the time in the first month. This tapers down as the employee learns the job, and by the sixth month, the coach is present only about 20 percent of the time. “The job coaches have been a value-add for the divisions, contributing towards an increase in operational efficiencies and providing guidance and support for our new Project SEARCH employees,” Idos said. “They serve a critical role towards the success of the program.”

At Berkeley Lab, all the employees hired through Project SEARCH are working in clerical and administrative positions; besides Engineering, the other divisions that made hires are Physical Biosciences and NERSC (the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center). In the Engineering Division, the person hired, Leah Epstein, “has increased productivity substantially for the division,” Robinson said.

Robinson worked with the Diversity and Inclusion Office, which also brought in the California Department of Rehabilitation to conduct a free, one-hour disability awareness training session for the Engineering Division. “Everyone appreciated it,” he said. “I’ve found that people sometimes tend to avoid interacting with individuals with disabilities. They’re reluctant to embarrass the person, or they don’t want to offend them. They have lots of good intentions, but it all boils down to not interacting with them. Overcoming that is important. The bottom line is, with Leah, there’s no special treatment there, which is what you want to achieve—an inclusion without an underscoring.”

Zaida McCunney, a NERSC supervisor who hired Seleste Rodriguez, says she has been very pleased with the entire experience. “Seleste is so dependable and committed and such a willing learner,” McCunney said. “It’s all about celebrating people’s abilities. We all work differently. I’ve learned so much from my son, who has special needs, and now to have Seleste, it’s a dream come true for me.”

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit