By Matthew Rodriguez

Throughout its 95 years, Ability First has worked to help those with disabilities live a fuller life. 

“Our mission is to provide programs and services to help children and adults with developmental disabilities realize their full potential throughout their lives,” said president and CEO Lori Gangemi. “That’s really the heart of what we do; helping people reach their personal best, whatever that is for the individual.”

Ability First began as the Crippled Children’s Society of Southern California, serving children affected by polio. In the 95 years since its inception, Ability First has continued to serve adults and children with developmental disabilities, through camps, afterschool programs and job training programs. Every year, throughout all of their different programs, they serve about 2,000 families, with clients aged 5 to sometimes even 80 years old.

“The individuals who we work with (have) intellectual and development disabilities,” Gangemi said. “They may have a physical disability as well, but the primary diagnosis that they have is something more developmental, which means it’s onset before the age of 18 or an intellectual disability.”

One of Ability First’s major programs is its job placement and development program. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has made strides to help people with disabilities enter the job market. 

Last year, the United States saw the highest unemployment rates that it has seen in a decade with more than 10.2% of people without a job in July of 2020. The rate has since dropped dramatically to 6.3%, but it is still nearly double the rate in 2019.

While the economic downturn affected many across the United States, it especially affected those with disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, persons with disabilities are less likely to be employed, have higher unemployment rates and mostly work part time. In 2020, only 17.9% of persons with a disability were unemployed compared to 61.8% of persons without a disability.

However, even with the economic downturn, Ability First has kept its clients working throughout the pandemic.

“We have pretty much been able to keep people working throughout the whole time,” said Gangemi. “As far as new jobs in the community, we had 37 last year [where] we placed new people in new jobs.”

Ability First’s clients work in Pasadena-based manufacturing facilities, one of which produces three-hole punches for the government. The company recently acquired the factory last year through a merger with FVO Solutions.

One of their employees and clients is Javier Rodriguez.

“He’s really our go-to guy in manufacturing,” said Rob Wahlstrom, senior director of operations and facilities. “There isn’t a job function we do here that Javier isn’t really good at. Some of the jobs are fairly complicated… It’s not an easy job to get done right and to meet the quality requirements for the government. It’s been a great transformation to see in Javier over the years.”

According to Rodriguez, he feels comfortable and more independent thanks to his job. He is one of six employees at the plant with a disability, many of whom wouldn’t know had one unless you asked.

“If somebody came in and walked through the factory, they’d think it’s just another factory operating,” said Wahlstrom.

To Gangemi and Wahlstrom, to see employees and clients like Rodriguez succeed brings joy to their heart.

“Working in this field, every day you get to see that you make an impact on people’s lives,” said Wahlstrom. “I think all of us like to feel that what we do leaves the world in a little bit better place. Working with Ability First, you get to see that every single day.”