[words] Bookstore Honored as Ally to the Disabled

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[words] Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey, is one of only 10 businesses in the U.S. to receive the first Ruderman Best in Business Award, which shines a spotlight on businesses and employers who have demonstrated exemplary practices in hiring, training, and supporting people with disabilities.

[words] Bookstore co-owner Jonah Zimiles poses with employee Barbara Siegal, who has autism.

Co-owners Jonah and Ellen Zimiles received the award from the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Jewish charity that advocates for full inclusion of the disabled, in recognition of their good work with people with disabilities — especially autism — through job training and general support.

Inspired by their autistic son, Daniel, who graduates from high school on Monday, the Zimiles have strived since 2009 to make their store a welcoming environment for people with special needs. They also provide paid, on-the-job training for young people with disabilities to introduce them to real work experience.

To date, approximately 75 people with disabilities have been through the [words] job training program, and the store currently employs two individuals with autism, Jonah Zimiles said.​

The store partners with local schools to bring in young people who will soon be transitioning to the workplace and sets them up to work two to five hours a week in the store performing tasks matched to their abilities. When opportunities open up, the Zimiles hire their own trainees, and many have gone on to take positions at other companies, including Barnes & Noble.

A former lawyer, Zimiles became a stay-at-home dad to help with his son’s therapy. He also went back to school to earn an MBA from Columbia University with a concentration in social enterprise. The Zimiles recognized that a bookstore’s repetitive tasks were ideal for training people with autism and intellectual disabilities.

“Our employees [with disabilities] excel at certain assignments that often go unaccomplished in their absence and increase all of our employees’ job efficiency,” Zimiles told Best in Business, a supplement of the New York Jewish Week and the Jewish Journal.

In addition to creating employment opportunities, the Zimiles have designed their store to welcome and accommodate people with special needs. [words] features wide aisles that make going through them easier and a sign in the window indicates the store’s support of autism awareness. The Zimiles, whose 25-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, has also worked in the store, provide sensitivity training to their non-disabled staff.

“We offer free programs once a month for kids with autism, including karate, arts and crafts, and yoga, and we have made our store a community hub for information about autism, with both a large book collection and frequent speakers,” Zimiles said. “We have made it known to the autism schools in the community that we welcome school visits from them.”

The Zimiles said they are extremely honored to receive the inaugural Ruderman award, but they recognize that every independent bookstore supports their community in numerous ways every day.

“Our autism program is unusual, but we view it as part of our overall efforts to serve our community,” Zimiles told Bookselling This Week. “We know and are proud that most of our actions are typical of those performed by many of our bookseller colleagues throughout the country. Accordingly, we really accept this honor on behalf of all of the great things done for communities by independent bookstores nationwide.”

According to Ephraim Gopin, the Ruderman Family Foundation communications director, even with the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) coming up next month, most working age adults with disabilities in the U.S. are still unemployed.

“Our goal with the Best in Business campaign is to highlight those employers (large and small) who believe that hiring people with disabilities is the right thing to do and how it can be profitable for the bottom line,” said Gopin. “By holding them up as an example, we can advocate to employers in all sectors to open their doors to everyone.”