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NEI Employment Program for People with Intellectual Disabilities Celebrates 10 Years

At NIH animal facility, employees with disabilities give their all and receive more than a paycheck
March 10, 2016
Butler working in the cage wash area.

Butler working in the cage wash area.

Andrew Butler may be one of the hardest working people at NIH. He has to be, because he works at the Building 49 Central Animal Facility at the Bethesda, Md. campus—home to the many rodents and other laboratory animals that are a vital part of NIH research. Andrew’s daily shift in the cage wash and facility support area starts at 7:00 am each day, but he arrives promptly at 6:15 am. Even after Winter Storm Jonas tore through the East Coast on January 22 and snarled the NIH area for most of the following week, he reported to work on time every day except for that Monday, when his supervisors advised that he stay home.

Butler happens to be one of several workers with intellectual disabilities at the Building 49 animal facility, which serves labs at several institutes and centers across the NIH campus, and is managed by the Veterinary Research and Resources Section of the National Eye Institute (NEI).

Butler, who has autism, graduated from Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Md. in 2006 at age 21. The high school has an inclusion program that integrates students with and without disabilities in the same classrooms. It helped connect Butler to job training resources and to his job coach Vicky Geiger, of Rehabilitation Opportunities, Inc. When Butler graduated, she quickly found him a volunteer mailroom position at Shady Grove Medical Center, and later helped bring him to the NIH and the Building 49 facility. She is still working with Butler and his parents eight years later.

Butler is quiet and not one to sing his own praises. But Geiger say he is “very proficient” in his work. His parents, Charles and Cathy Butler, describe him as happy and an inspiration to his friends.

The NEI-led animal facility established a program for employing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) ten years ago, and now employs five people with IDD including Butler. In December 2015, the facility’s management team published an article about the program in Laboratory Animal Science Professional, the magazine of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science.*

Their goal? “We want to get the word out that people with IDD continue to be an underutilized resource who can markedly improve your workforce,” said Robert Weichbrod, Ph.D., chief of animal program administration at NEI. Weichbrod is senior author of the paper, along with James Raber, D.V.M., Ph.D., animal program director for NEI and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Skilled and dedicated

At the Building 49 animal facility, hiring people with IDD has been mutually beneficial for the facility’s day-to-day operations and for the new employees, the authors explain.

In their article, they point out that animal care and use programs typically have challenges recruiting and retaining staff. They note a recent study by the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute, which found that two-thirds of surveyed laboratory animal care and use programs in Massachusetts reported “hiring difficulties” for most of their positions. The study also found annual turnover rates of 50 percent to nearly 80 percent for employees in entry-level positions (e.g., in cage washing and assembly) and mid-level positions (e.g., veterinary technicians).

Entry-level jobs at these facilities tend to offer low pay, which is one reason they are hard to fill. These jobs can also be physically demanding and stressful, with the potential for daily operations to grind to a halt if someone is absent or not keeping up with the workflow. Employees also face several occupational risks, such as potential injuries from heavy machinery, animal bites and scratches, and possible allergic reactions to fur, dander, and animal waste. There are many safety procedures and other protocols that need to be followed precisely.All staff also receive rigorous, ongoing training in animal welfare. (Please see below for more about protections for animals used in NIH-funded research.**)

Hall holds up mouse cage in front of her.

Hall examines one of the mice in her care.

People with IDD are often overlooked as potential employees. An analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisors found that only one-third of working-age Americans with disabilities were employed from 2010-2012, compared to more than two-thirds of Americans without disabilities during the same period.Weichbrod and his co-authors say that the key to changing that statistic is to look past a person’s disabilities to his or her unique skills, attitudes, and life experiences. Their team members with IDD “have a remarkable commitment to the job that is rarely seen in the workforce,” Weichbrod said. “They come in early, or when they’re not feeling well, or when there’s inclement weather. They are extremely proud of the work they do.”

During Winter Storm Jonas, Katherine Hall spent three nights in Building 49 sleeping on a cot. Hall, who has Asperger syndrome, is a licensed veterinary technician at the Building 49 facility and has worked there since May 2015. (She is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Autism Society of Northern Virginia.) Working with animals is a significant perk for Hall, who takes care of mice and rats at the facility. Her duties include feeding, cage changing, and doing health checks to report illnesses, births, or other issues.

Prior to joining the animal facility staff, Hall worked for a veterinary hospital in Alexandria. The hospital was “a small space with a lot of chaos going on all the time,” she said. “Here, it’s more working with animals than working with customer service. I’ve always loved animals, and I kind of understand them better than people. I really enjoy it here.”

Dream job

The NEI program for people with IDD began thanks to a chance encounter at a Special Olympics event. Weichbrod, whose late daughter Gretchen was a Special Olympics athlete, has been an ardent participant in the organization’s events and fundraisers. In December 2005, he was at a Special Olympics holiday party when an Olympian bowler and runner named Joe Wu struck up a conversation with him and asked about job opportunities.Weichbrod was impressed with Wu’s self-confidence and enthusiasm, and as it happened, the NEI facility had a need for additional staff. So with the help of senior facility management and Priority One Services, Inc., which handles human resources for the animal program’s contract staff, Wu was brought in as a volunteer to work on the loading dock, handling deliveries of feed, bedding, and other supplies and equipment. After a trial period, he became a paid contractor, and advanced to other facility support positions.

Coworkers stand in front of shelves with boxes.

Wu, Weichbrod, White, and coworker Daniel Owusu at the loading dock.

“It’s been my dream job,” Wu said.Wu’s experience became a model for taking on other staff with IDD. Although not everyone starts on the loading dock, new people coming through the program generally start as unpaid volunteers. Recruitment occurs with assistance from community resource providers. These are organizations that receive state and local funds to support employment for people with disabilities, in part through job coaches like Geiger. The coaches know the abilities of the candidate and learn about the needs of the workplace; they help to manage expectations, performance and satisfaction on both sides. If there’s a good fit, the candidate is hired as a contractor. There are regular check-ins with family members, the job coach, management, and human resources, including an annual review required by Maryland law.

Meanwhile, Special Olympics events remain a focus for socializing and bonding outside of work. Wu continues to compete in the games, though he’s moved on to weightlifting and snow-shoeing. Owen White, who has worked on the loading dock for two years, competes in bowling and bocce ball, and coaches basketball.

Program staff are frequent spectators and guests at these Olympic events, said Alexine Chevalier, human resources administrator for Priority One Services. “Our support for each other goes beyond the workplace,” she said. “There is a dedication from management and families that makes the program very close-knit.”

Challenges and solutions

What advice do Weichbrod and his colleagues offer for other workplaces interested in recruiting people with IDD? One step, they say, is to get involved with community groups such as Special Olympics and Best Buddies. These groups and the families they serve can help employers make connections, advertise job opportunities, and share success stories.

Laboratory of Animal Science cover, December 2015. Untapped potential.

Cover of Laboratory Animal Science Professional featuring the story about NEI’s animal care and use program.

The authors also advise seeking help from non-profit organizations working to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities. For example, the organization Seeking Equality, Empowerment, and Community for People with Developmental Disabilities (SEEC) provides vocational services for people with developmental disabilities in the DC area. SEEC and the Ivymount School in Rockville, Maryland co-sponsor and manage a one-year internship program at NIH called Project SEARCH, designed for young adults with IDD who are high school seniors or recent graduates. The goal is for interns to develop the tools necessary for employment, and skills needed for self-determination, management and self-advocacy. While most of the interns work at the NIH Clinical Center, some have worked in NIH’s animal care and use programs, including the Building 49 Central Animal Facility.For federal employers, the Department of Labor has an online toolkit that offers training and best practices for recruiting and retaining people with disabilities. It followed a 2010 Executive Order by President Obama directing the federal government to become a model employer of workers with disabilities.

The NEI program’s managers are candid about the many challenges to employing people with IDD. Time and resources must be invested for special training—not just for the person with IDD but also for other staff working with individuals who have disabilities. But these costs can be balanced by lower employee turnover and recruitment costs. If there is a need to adjust job responsibilities, employers should expect to allow more time for people with IDD to react and adapt, the authors say. People with IDD may also have more difficulty adjusting to new staff or losing a trusted coworker. But these close relationships can also build confidence and skills, and make the entire workforce stronger.

“As friendships, camaraderie and confidence evolve, I’ve seen people come out of their shells and show expanded and previously unseen capabilities,” Weichbrod said.

In Andrew Butler’s case, coworkers quickly discovered that he has an uncanny talent for math. “If you need to do anything with numbers, you go to Andrew,” said Andrew’s supervisor Hugues Tagne-Mkam. “He’ll give you the answer quicker than a calculator.”

*Reference: Weichbrod et al. “Untapped Potential: Animal Care and Use Programs Adopt Alternative Training and Recruitment Strategies for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.” Laboratory Animal Science Professional, December 2015. Pubmed

**NIH and animal research
Animals have an important role in NIH-supported research. Many of the medical treatments and tests available today that improve and prolong life for both humans and animals were developed through animal research. That includes the discovery of insulin for diabetes, development of vaccines for polio and rabies, and the invention of CAT scans. In ophthalmology, research on animals has led to corneal transplants; to sight-saving drugs for diabetic eye disease, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma; and even to a bionic eye for people with the childhood blinding disease retinitis pigmentosa.

All animals used in federally funded research are protected by laws, regulations, and policies to ensure the smallest possible number of subjects and the greatest commitment to their welfare. To receive NIH funding for research on animals, investigators must provide a rationale for the species and numbers of animals to be studied, as well as detailed plans for minimizing distress to the animals. Laboratory-raised mice and rats make about 95 percent of all animals used in research. For more information, please visit

Story by Daniel Stimson, Ph.D.
Photos by Bill Branson