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Print Craft: Apparel Decoration with a Cause

(June/July 2017) posted on Tue Jul 25, 2017

This New York organization is paving the way for not one, but two worlds: the print industry and the autism community.

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By Kelsey Johnson

Meaningful Work
Many workers come to Spectrum through partnerships with local school districts. People with disabilities can stay in high school until the age of 21, with the last three years of secondary education focused on obtaining vocational placements. Spectrum offers real-world work experience to students for an hour or two at a time. The rest of Spectrum’s workforce is comprised of three full-time employees and 17 part-time employees. Spectrum pairs its staff members with employees from the Nicholas Center, an education-focused partner organization created by the Spectrum team and headed by Spanakos and Sugrue.

Consistency and behavioral rigor are the keys to Spectrum’s success as well as the engagement and continued happiness of its employees, says Howe. Each aspect of production, whether it be screen printing, embroidery, or DTG, has been broken down into parts so that employees have jobs that fit their unique abilities, such as loader, washer, burner, folder, packer, catcher, or emulsifier. Employees follow clear, photographed instructions so that they have a consistent and repetitive job that effectively contributes to the overall production process.

Noah trims cut-away backing after embroidery. Courtesy of John Martin Photography.

High Impact, High Quality
The biggest challenge Spectrum Designs faces is the perception associated with having a disabled workforce. Howe says that, very understandably, people wonder if the quality of the product will suffer because of the mission of the organization. Spectrum refutes this by following a code of extremely high quality control, paying special attention to “all of the regular things that happen during a screen print that sometimes you can get away with,” such as off-contact issues, Howe explains. Spectrum Designs works to not only provide jobs for people with disabilities, but also to champion its workforce’s ability.

Some of Howe’s favorite moments on the job come when clients don’t realize Spectrum is a nonprofit organization, or anything other than a typical shop. Spectrum has clients who choose the company simply because they’re nearby and can easily pick up their T-shirts. They work through the whole process with Spectrum’s customer service team and art department without realizing they are benefitting a company with a cause.

John hang-tags completed T-shirts. Courtesy of John Martin Photography.

For example, Guitar Player magazine placed an order for 10,000 shirts in two weeks without realizing Spectrum operates out of a 1500-square-foot facility. When the client came to pick up the shirts, she was blown away that the order was done on time. “That’s the moment,” says Howe.

Leading the Way
In the autism community, children are often the population that receives the most attention. But, as Howe points out, those kids will eventually grow up into adults, a shift that the autism community is working to address.

“Servicing the adult population and finding a niche for them is a huge deal,” says Howe. In the past, the work structure for people with disabilities tended to fall under what Howe calls “sheltered work” – 20 or 30 people with disabilities working together in a factory or shop with one nondisabled manager overseeing the group. But the focus is shifting to an integrated model that involves people with and without disabilities working side by side.

While other organizations have had to change or alter their structures with this goal in mind, Spectrum Designs was ready and waiting. Spectrum’s core tenets from the start – that all employees should make minimum wage or above, be integrated and part of a community, and help each other grow – lined up perfectly with the industry shift.

In other industries, successful businesses may keep their secrets close to heart. But in the autism world, everyone is working toward the same goal. Spectrum Designs is no different. The nonprofit keeps seeing exponential growth year after year, and is not afraid to share its successful business model with the community. As Howe says, Spectrum Designs serves as “a beacon shining toward the future.”

Read more from Screen Printing's June/July 2017 issue.


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