Students Work to Increase Employment Opportunities for Neurodiverse People

Two male college students standing outside their dorm.
For their Seeking Justice course project, Damon Kruppa '24, right, and Kevin Hamilton '24, left, researched ways to improve state policies regarding employment opportunities for neurodiverse people.

Damon Kruppa and Kevin Hamilton are drafting legislation to create greater employment options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

For a year and a half, Damon Kruppa ’24 worked alongside his younger sister, Mia, at an inclusive coffee shop in Melrose, Massachusetts, providing customers with their morning caffeine and baked goods. Then, abruptly in March 2023, the café closed. All employees, including several with intellectual and developmental disabilities, were without a job.

“It was the first time I felt that my sister was left without opportunities. I didn’t want to let that happen,” said Kruppa, an economics major and statistics minor.

He started to investigate what barriers were keeping Mia, who has Down syndrome, and other neurodiverse individuals, from obtaining and maintaining fruitful employment. In the interim, he worked with former café colleagues to found INspire Cafe, a nonprofit that provides employment opportunities for people with diverse abilities. Kruppa pieced together a marketing video that was instrumental in raising $60,000 to fund a new café in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The team partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Stoneham and Wakefield and have had numerous pop-up shops as they await a new brick and mortar café that will hopefully open this summer.

Young man standing with his sister, who has Down Syndrome, on a dock.
Damon Kruppa '24 with his sister, Mia Kruppa.

The experience refined and focused Kruppa’s mission to create substantial change in state policies that influence employment opportunities for neurodiverse people. He also began working on his economic honors thesis that focuses on  subminimum wage and other employment barriers.

“It’s been a significant part of my last few years,” he said. “And now we have an opportunity to enact real legislation that will help establish stronger links between potential employers and state agencies who can help bridge the gap between neurodiverse employees and jobs.” 

Earlier this year, Kruppa and his friend and roommate, Kevin Hamilton ’24, invited Collette DiVitto, a Boston-based entrepreneur with Down syndrome and owner of Collettey’s Cookies, to speak on campus. DiVitto also has a nonprofit focusing on disability employment and advocacy. A few months later, DiVittos’ mother, Rosemary, contacted them and asked if they would help research potential legislation to improve employment access for people with disabilities; a focus of DiVittos’ advocacy work.

“The timing was perfect because we were just about to start our Seeking Justice Community-Based Learning project,” Kruppa said.

Seeking Justice

The Seeking Justice course at Holy Cross gives seniors with a history of high involvement in community engagement an opportunity to broaden how they think about service and consider the root causes of needs addressed by nonprofits where they had previously volunteered.

“It gives them space to reflect upon what they have learned about social justice during their time at Holy Cross and to think about how they will seek justice with their future personal and professional life choices,” said Michelle Sterk Barrett, course professor and director of the College’s J.D. Power Center for Liberal Arts in the World.

In developing their CBL Project, Sterk Barrett challenges students to think about using different skills that they have to serve, such as organization, logistics and planning, or research and advocacy; however, this is the first time she’s had students propose drafting new legislation.

“It’s a great intersection of their interests and skills, and it ties into passions that they will continue to have after Holy Cross. Their depth of knowledge and the broad networks that they have already built are what has laid the foundation to make this possible,” she said. 

It was the first time I felt that my sister was left without opportunities. I didn’t want to let that happen.

Damon Kruppa '24

Kruppa and Hamilton say it was natural for them to partner on the project. Hamilton, Student Government Association co-president and a political science and Spanish double major with concentration in peace and conflict studies, has experience with grass-roots advocacy and political campaigns, having served as an elected official and member of the Board of Library Trustees in his hometown. His knowledge of the process and interest in disability rights helped move the project from discussion to action, according to Kruppa: “Being able to bring Kevin into this has been instrumental in developing an effective policy."

Hamilton pulled from the skills he learned as an intern for his state representative to research other states’ policies. He also remembered his experiences through the spring break immersion program volunteering at various L’Arche International sites — communities that connect people with and without intellectual disabilities — and the barriers to employment residents might have experienced.

“It made sense for me to do follow up work on disability rights and advocacy,” he said.

The research

Throughout the semester, the pair met with state legislators and others with disability policy experience, including the Institute of Community Inclusion at UMass Boston and the Arc of Massachusetts. After gathering information, they started drafting legislation, which focuses on increasing employment opportunities for neurodiverse people. 

“We’re really trying to find a way to bridge the gap between different employment and training programs that human services agencies might offer and connecting them with employers,” Kruppa said. “We've been in the thick of it the past couple of weeks trying to build on previous legislation, look at what other states have been doing and figure out how Massachusetts can make a difference.”

One idea is to replicate other states’ Employment First initiatives, in which employment is considered an option for people with disabilities rather than a state placement into a specific workshop, day or segregated program.

Young man standing with his sister, who has Down Syndrome, in front of a white banner with red and blue writing.
Damon Kruppa '24 with his sister, Mia Kruppa, at the National Down Syndrome Society's advocacy conference.

“We can create a large coalition of state agencies and look critically at the policies already in place and how they can be refined to meet the needs of the individuals and the employers,” Hamilton said.

Once in place, the state group could act as a liaison and offer support and training to neurodiverse individuals and corporations that might be hesitant to hire them due to various potential complications, such as being cognizant of how many hours employees can work and not risk losing benefits, such as Medicaid.

“It's all about making the employers aware of these different needs and accommodations and trying to offer support, whether it's through increasing wages for job coaches or facilitating that connection with some sort of monetary component so they feel confident in adding more people with neurodiverse disabilities in the workforce,” Kruppa said. “This is why it’s important that we help create a comprehensive and flexible policy.”

They know their work will not be complete by commencement, and they’re OK with that.

“It takes a village. Once we have the initial draft of the bill ready and are able to start spreading awareness and having broader conversations, we think it will take off from there,” Kruppa said. 

He’s seen it happen with INspire Cafe: “We have a strong community behind us that will be able to take it to the next step. We’re just happy to have been involved and be part of this really cool opportunity to make change.”