National Disability Employment Awareness Month: Didlake
Thank you to Erika Spalding, Vice President Corporate Communications & Marketing at Didlake for answering a few of our questions. To learn more about the Chamber’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee, click here.
When was your organization founded, and what is its primary mission?
Didlake is a nonprofit rehabilitation services provider based in Manassas. Our mission is to create opportunities that enrich the lives of people with disabilities. We started as the Didlake School for children with disabilities in 1965. A group of residents created the school since free, public education was not available for their children. That changed in 1975 when Congress passed legislation that is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and opened up access to special education at public schools. After this monumental legislation, we shifted our focus to employment. We launched a mailing business that initially employed 16 people with disabilities in a supportive work environment.
Through our Day Support, Employment Services, and Workforce Support and Development programs, we now serve over 2,000 people with disabilities annually throughout Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. As a contractor and leading employer of people with disabilities, we deliver exceptional service solutions for customers while providing a rehabilitative work setting for employees.
How can the community support your organization?
Businesses can help us create an inclusive workforce by hiring an individual with a disability. Through our Employment Services Program, we connect individuals with disabilities with businesses that are hiring and support them on their employment journey. Businesses can also support Employment Services by welcoming situational assessments at their workplace. It typically only takes a couple of hours and provides a valuable opportunity for an individual to experience some of the specific tasks associated with a job. We also encourage local nonprofits to reach out to us regarding volunteer opportunities for our Day Support Program participants, who build valuable skills while volunteering in the community.
Businesses and individuals can also support us by using our commercial businesses. Support can be as simple as printing marketing materials or shipping packages from our The UPS Stores in Manassas (Center at Innovation) and Woodbridge (Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center). Another idea is to go paperless with Didlake Document Imaging. We help businesses streamline their document management workflow, free up office space and increase productivity by converting paper files and records into searchable digital files. We also digitize photos and preserve memories for generations through Didlake Photo Imaging.
What is the best part of your job and why?
Creating opportunities for people with disabilities. As a person with a disability, severe anxiety and claustrophobia that made it impossible to take an elevator, I experienced obstacles in obtaining and maintaining employment early in my career. Many people don’t consider how difficult it would be to interview for a job if you can’t take an elevator. It was very limiting. At that time, I didn’t know that organizations like Didlake existed. Through the support of a therapist, I completed EMDR therapy. My own experience helped me better understand the barriers people with disabilities may face. When I started working at Didlake, I learned about the support available to people with disabilities.
Considering that 26% of Americans experience some type of disability — whether born or acquired — and that at some point as an adult, we will experience disability, whether short-term or long-term, I became passionate about spreading the word about Didlake. Over the past 10 years, we have supported over 4,000 people with disabilities through our Employment Services program. We’ve worked with hundreds of businesses providing education and training as well as support for employees with disabilities.
What is it like operating your organization in Northern Virginia/Loudoun?
We have a long history of enriching the lives of people with disabilities in Northern Virginia. We have developed strong business connections throughout the area through our community outreach efforts, including our participation in the Loudoun and other local chambers. We have led many companies to recognize the benefits of inclusive workplace culture.
Last year, we supported over 140 people with disabilities who live in Loudoun County through our Employment Services program. Didlake is also the Community Rehabilitation Partner for ProjectSEARCH at Lansdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg. ProjectSEARCH is a 10-month internship program for high school students with disabilities. The program readies interns for employment through on-the-job training, where they gain valuable work and social skills. The total workplace immersion provided by ProjectSEARCH facilitates a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training through worksite rotations. We appreciate the support of host businesses, like Lansdowne Resort and Spa, that create these opportunities, leading to a lifetime of successful employment outcomes for the interns.
We recently broke ground on our new headquarters and look forward to being a part of Manassas for many years to come in our new consolidated headquarters campus that will give us more capacity to serve people with disabilities.
What does National Disability Employment Awareness Month mean to you?
While we always strive to foster a more disability-inclusive community, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is an opportune time to amplify our voices. Throughout the month, we will engage in a variety of activities to raise awareness of disability employment issues and cultivate community-wide support of our mission.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected people with disabilities and this year’s NDEAM theme – “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion” – underscores the importance of including people with disabilities in recovery efforts.
What are some favorite things you like to do when you’re not working?
Another one of my passions is reducing hunger so I serve as Development Committee Chair on the Board for Northern Virginia Food Rescue (NOVA-FR). Using a cell phone app, NOVA-FR mobilizes volunteers to rescue food that’s about to go to waste and redistributes it to organizations that serve communities in need. I am also active in the alumni chapter at George Mason University. I spend much of my time on weekends rowing, which is a new hobby I picked up over the summer.
Check out the Didlake website!