Cooking up careers for people with autism, disabilities

Published: Feb. 3, 2020 at 3:46 PM EST
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The unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is twice as high as those without.

One program is offering young people with special needs a chance to cook up a future career, and the recipe is proving to be a success.

Chef Wendy Zacca runs a smooth kitchen. The majority of her workers are students with developmental disabilities.

"I've never set limitations, I treat them as if they were typically developing, and it seems to work for us," said Zacca, chef instructor at Easterseals South Florida.

The students, ages 14 to 22, are part of a culinary arts high school program that teaches them independent living skills.

"It's a predictable environment, so our students understand where they are going, what they're supposed to do," education services director Camila Rocha said.

Last year, the unemployment rate for people with a disability was almost three times the rate of those without. This program aims to change that. They focus on the individual's strengths with the goal to provide real-life work experience after graduation.

"My job is to make sandwiches for the military," Easterseals employee Stuart Martinez said.

Martinez landed a job with Easterseals after graduating in 2013.

"It's a lot of work, but I'm really good at it as well," he said.

These young people not only feel a sense of responsibility but a major sense of accomplishment.

"Allow them to work in the kitchen with you, allow them to clean the floor, allow them to wipe down the counters, let them be productive," Zacca said.

"Organizing, cutting up vegetables, gathering and organizing ingredients," student chef Carlos Ramos said of his duties.

Knowing they can do it gives them the confidence they need to move forward.

The culinary arts program in Miami is funded by the Children's Trust and as you can imagine has a long waiting list.

Camila says if you don't have a program like this one where you live, reach out to the public schools in your area and see what vocational programs they offer.



REPORT #2716

BACKGROUND: Special needs is a term for a wide array of diagnoses, from those that resolve quickly, to those that will be a challenge for life, to those that are relatively mild, and to those that are profound. More than 54 million American men, women and children have a physical, sensory or intellectual disability, according to the National Organization on Disability. The U.S. Census Bureau says about 20% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 64 suffer some form of physical, mental or emotional impairment, and many of them are outliving their parents thanks to improved care medical technology. One out of 9 children under the age of 18 in the U.S. today receive special education services. And, over 75 percent of special needs adults are without employment. (Source: and

PARENTING AND SPECIAL NEEDS: Some of the many challenges of parenting a special needs child can be learning about the disability; researching, locating and accessing effective treatments and resources; coping with the emotional and physical demands of caring for an individual with a disability; and even getting to the innumerable appointments with medical providers, therapists, advocates, and school personnel. A recent study found that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism had levels of stress hormones comparable to soldiers in combat. Parents of children with special needs are often exhausted and frequently become depressed. Typically, the most beneficial support and information parents receive is from other parents of children with special needs, like in a support group. A group of parents at Boston University founded a peer support network to help parents connect with other faculty and staff who are caring for a child with a disability. The network created a secure website where parents share their stories and invite other parents to contact them for support, resource information, and guidance. (Source:

PARENTS - PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE: Most parents don't anticipate having a child with disabilities. Experts recommend being open-minded to accept the new reality and to appreciate the child's unique gifts. Focus on learning as much as you can about the options that will best meet your child's needs and desires. It's also recommended to create a financial plan by identifying and prioritizing goals; making a list of assets vs. expenses; and review and monitor the financial plan regularly. It's important to explore educational/vocational training opportunities for adults with special needs. Local community colleges are a great resource. Most have classes geared toward students with special needs or at least offer services to help those students to succeed. Finally, parents with the means have been known to start their own businesses to ensure that their young adult with special needs will have a good job when he or she reaches adulthood. (Source: