Opportunity Miami
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Opportunity Miami

How the neurodiverse can help shape Miami’s economic future, starting in tech and hospitality

By Nancy Dahlberg

Q&A with Commissioner Raquel Regalado

Raquel Regalado, the first Miami-born Hispanic woman elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission, is a lawyer, a Spanish language radio host — and the proud mom to two neurodivergent teens.

She’s become a passionate advocate for equity for the neurodiverse, starting as a school board member, where she focused on early intervention and helped create an autism-intensive communication academy in an underserved school. Now several county elementary schools offer sensory rooms for children with special needs. As a commissioner, she’s focused her work on creating employment pathways for the neurodiverse, starting in the massive hospitality industry and fast-growing technology sector. Neurodiversity includes those on the autism spectrum, like her own offspring, but also those with ADD (attention deficit disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), epilepsy, Downs Syndrome, traumatic brain injury, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Opportunity Miami spoke with the commissioner about her neurodiversity work and its importance to Miami’s economic future. Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for brevity.

How did you get interested in championing neurodiversity?

My daughter Isabella received her autism diagnosis a few days before her sixth birthday. And at the time, she was at a charter school, and they told me that she couldn’t stay there. When I was looking for another school, I had a lot of issues at the school district finding programming that I thought would help Isabella. I decided to run for a position on the school board and won (2010). (Shortly after, her son Sebastian was also diagnosed on the spectrum.)

I did a lot as a school board member, particularly for academics and early intervention, but I felt that we weren’t talking enough about adulthood and what happens after the school district. Now I get to do this work with the county, and I’ve been doing it for two years. My children this year both become seniors in high school, so I’m not only an advocate for it, but I’m actually living through this phase that I’ve been talking about for a few years now.

In an era where everyone’s talking about inclusion and equity, unfortunately, we focus only on gender and ethnicity, and I would like folks to consider intellectual diversity and what neurodivergent children and adults bring to our community and bring to our workforce, just like all other forms of diversity.

What has been some of your recent work with the county?

We started in my first month on the County Commission, training county employees and focusing on access to county facilities that neurodivergent people didn’t have. We started with our library program. We trained all the employees. We did social stories for every single library, we did a kit for parents, and really invited parents and caregivers to come to these spaces. The idea of going to a place where people have to behave and be quiet is daunting for a caregiver. However, now we have signage, we have quiet spaces, and the staff is well trained in neurodiversity.

We then proceeded to our police department, and we’re very excited that we’re wrapping up our police training. The police piece was very important because we have so many autistic men in particular that are arrested because the police officer doesn’t know that they’re neurodivergent. We’re now moving to transit and parks. We did emergency services. Now in our hurricane kit, there are resources for neurodivergent children and adults. When we talk about shelters, now we also provide information as to the best shelters if you’re neurodivergent. We started with all the county departments and the idea is to then package that and provide it to other communities. We’ve also done teacher training for public schools, charter schools and private schools.

Then little by little, I’ve been adding employment opportunities to all our programming at Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade County’s internship program, for example, now also includes opportunities for the neurodiverse.

The next big step is employment opportunities, and we just launched a program with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. They were amazing. They already hired five neurodivergent adults to be their cleaners. We’re very excited about that. We were able to be there for their first day. We’re working with more partners, and we’ll be rolling out a lot more soon.

You said earlier that an inclusive community goes beyond gender and ethnicity. Where do you think Miami is now in terms of having a workforce that’s inclusive of the neurodiverse?

The good news is that as I’ve talked to folks about this issue, there’s a genuine interest. One of the first things we have to do is de-stigmatize. A lot of people don’t know that adults with disabilities want to work, and they can have employment at different phases of their lives. I think normally when we when you think of adults with disabilities, you think of Goodwill or you think of a Publix because that’s where you’ve seen them at work. I’d like folks to consider many other options, but also to consider that there are certain areas where they will excel at. We’re looking at hospitality, for example, as one area where right now there’s a tremendous opportunity and a need for workers. We’re working with (the nonprofit) Eaterseals and other groups that have culinary trainings. Yes, they’re going to need coaching and a little bit of redirection, but they have a tremendous work ethic. And their parents want them to work because after 22, they kind of fall off a cliff — they had all these activities at the school system, and then there’s nothing.

Once we tell people that there’s a population of adults with neurological and physical disabilities, and 85% of them do not work, that’s a shocking number for people. If we had 85% of any population that didn’t have jobs, we would say we have to do something immediately. Normally when we talk to folks about the issue, they want to help. They want to know what to do next. How do you train them? What can they do? So that’s the part that we’re working on with university partners and different schools that are doing this work, and then also explaining to folks that this can happen at any age. For example, the WOW Center has seen individuals start working for the first time in their 50s.

I want to make Miami-Dade County the center of this movement so that we can prove the concept and show people that this can actually be done, how we can do it, and how other communities can emulate the work that we’re doing here.

There’s a lot of opportunity in our emerging tech ecosystem, right?

One hundred percent. A lot of these folks have amazing abilities when it comes to technology, coding, data analysis — I use my son as an example. He wasn’t very interested in taking a computer class, but he loves technology, so I had him do it. In his class full of neuro-normal children, he excelled. He learned to code faster than anyone else. He took an animation class and also did wonderfully, and now he’s headed for a career in computer science, and he loves it! We have to talk to parents about exposing their children to these classes and providing pathways. And what we’re working on is certificate programs that enable these adults to be trained.

Right now, we’re working on a pilot with Miami Dade College that would have kids coming from public schools to the certificate training. And then, as part of that certificate training, we’re creating a cohort, and internships are embedded with some wraparound services so that they can try out the jobs on two different occasions as they reach the end of that certificate training. And then we would have the commitment from the corporations to do those internships and then to offer them permanent jobs when they’re done with their certificates.

We’re looking at information security, computer science, and business analysis related to tech. We know that there’s a big need, and they have an aptitude for it.

The idea is to give parents a pathway: A — your child can be employed. And then B — this is what you need to do in high school, these are the classes they need to take, and then these are the classes that they need to take and this is the certificate that they need In order to have this job. We think that it’s going to be a great pilot to prove that we can train this workforce.

In what ways could a more inclusive ecosystem benefit the tech ecosystem that we’re building in Miami right now?

Obviously, we need workers and they have an aptitude for it, they have a tremendous work ethic. One of the things that’s important when we talk about neurological diversity or intellectual diversity is that they bring a unique perspective, and especially in the area of tech, they have a tendency to be very creative. I can tell you from my personal experience as someone that lives with two people in the spectrum, they have changed me more than I have changed them. My children see the world in a very different way.

The neurodiverse have a unique perspective on life and on work, and that fits with tech. It makes them a great asset to a lot of these companies coming to Miami-Dade County.

Do you have any models that you use in your work?

To learn best practices, we’re looking at a model that Microsoft uses (Microsoft Neurodiversity Hiring Program) and have been working with them on two programs. We’re also working with Film London (media agency) that is providing more remote working opportunities for adults with disabilities. We also have local organizations here that are doing this work at a smaller scale, and we’re working with them also.

What we’re doing is creating an ecosystem map so that parents can see what are the different organizations, what are the vocational programs, what are the opportunities. And then we’re also creating a Google map so that folks can see what businesses are employing adults with disabilities, and they can support those businesses with their pocketbooks.

What are some of the things that employers can do to get started?

We’re going to be shooting training videos similar to what we did for our employees in Miami-Dade County. We’re going to be working on these different capsules that first will educate [employers] so that they can decide if they want to participate. And then we’re going to be providing them access to different incubators where they can go and see this work being done and get into one-on-one conversations about concerns, success stories, and best practices. And then on the county side, I am creating incentives for employers that are doing this work.

We’re going to be requesting data [from employers and caregivers] so that we can start matching people together. So you’ll see more about that in the coming months as we launch and roll out the employment program.

One of the issues that we’ve had historically is that vocational training for adults with disabilities has been happening in a vacuum. And that’s what I learned at the district didn’t work. This time around, we’re actually starting with the employer — figuring out who’s interested in hiring these employees, and then we’re aligning the vocational training to those jobs. We’re focusing on two main industries: hospitality and tech.

What is your vision for an inclusive Miami workforce in 2040, and how do we get there?

Number one, I want employment of adults with disabilities to be one of the metrics. Historically, we haven’t included this population in the employment metrics. If we include this population, it really changes the conversation as to what we offer, and how committed we are to inclusion and diversity and equity. We need to establish goals as a community. We have to commit to it.

We need to first talk about abilities, not disabilities. People bring different things to the workforce, and my life’s work will be to get folks talking about what neurodiverse people have to offer and providing them with those opportunities. There’s a tremendous need in hospitality and tech.

In 20 or 30 years, I hope that we’ll have a workforce that includes adults with disabilities, and we won’t be able to imagine what it was like without them.

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