As guests piled into Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami Wednesday for the premiere of a compelling short film about people with disabilities and autism in the workforce, a connection was felt between all.
I am Like You showcases a selection of Miami Dade County Public School students who are trained and talented bakers, some of whom now work at Publix and Winn-Dixie, and happen to have disabilities.
The short film, directed by Arturo Sande, was filmed by his class at the Center of Cinematography Arts & Television, and edited by a high functioning autistic person, Brendan Santidrian. As the title states, the film is a way to showcase the talents of a very special group of adults who work hard and want to live independent lives.
The film begins with the back story of how Robin Matusow, who ran a Miami-Dade Schools adult disabilities program, was asked to develop a program to help autistic and disabled students find jobs in the real world.
The J.R.E. Lee Baking Program was created as a part of a superintendent’s initiative. Matusow found Pedro Diaz, a renowned and experienced baker, who felt that he had a predisposition to teach students with disabilities how to bake.
“We knew that a program was surely needed,” Matusow said. “After the first week, it was like a match made in heaven. We absolutely knew it would work and thrive.”
The courage of students and parents to try something new and put up with total changes in their environment shows that they really want to work. The six-month production of the short film showcases just that.
Diaz created a special color-coordinated recipe method for his students to understand and learn how to create a whole gamut of baked goods such as cookies, cakes, Cuban flan, and many others. He taught them with “patience and love,” the program’s motto.
“I saw Robin and it was an instant connection,” said Marc Pulver, a student in the program. “Then I came into the class and I was wowed with Pedro Diaz on his love and understanding of everybody with disabilities. Pedro Diaz is blind in the fact that he doesn’t see our disabilities; he doesn’t notice ‘Oh, you can’t do that, you’re disabled.’ He sees everybody as equal, as everybody is. Some of us have roadblocks and need a little tug along the way like a bird with a sore wing needs a little tug, but eventually it flies on its own.”
In the film, each student is introduced with something they will bake from scratch. Also, they and their parents praised Diaz and Matusow for the students’ vast improvements in behavior and sociability, as well as their eagerness and independence.
The program gives these parents hope that when they are no longer around, their children will be able to work independently and have meaningful lives.
“Without the program, [my son] was sitting at home after he graduated from school,” said Georgia Lue, whose son, George Pink, is in the program. “It’s a good program for them to go out there and build self-esteem, skills that are not just in baking, and motivation.”
After the movie, a panel discussion with experts within the disabilities community shared the progress and expansion of new projects, what it is like to be a parent of a disabled child, and how employers must change their perceptions of the disabled.
Sue Ward, Miami staffing specialist at Publix, has the mindset that the disabled are valuable investments. “Our families are all touched by people with disabilities and they know what it’s like. We have no special program for people with disabilities. We hire the best person for the job, and often it is someone with disabilities.”
Silvia Planas-Prats, mother of an autistic child, created Miami Is Kind, a nonprofit that employs these students to make gluten-free macaroons. Through her work, she hopes to disprove the notion that the disabled are inept.
“It’s about seeing the opportunity,” Planas-Prats said. “Employers have to visualize and not have the stigma that disabled cannot work. What you want are employees that are humble and honest and care about the company. For people with disabilities, they look for a job to stay. They are grateful and loyal and make the company great.”
The point of the premiere is to debunk the myth that disabled and autistic adults cannot work. Disabled does not equal unable, and there is a very willing population of workers who are ready to be employed, the panelists said.
“The most important thing for families to understand is that they have a person at home with abilities, and that the sky's the limit,” Planas-Prats said.