Jobs Boost Fulfillment, Social Integration for People with Developmental Disabilities
There was a time in this country not so long ago when people with mental retardation who wanted to work would be relegated to simple jobs, such as assembly work in a sheltered workshop.
But times have changed and today, people with mental retardation (also called developmental disabilities) are finding jobs in the community that not only earn them money but, more importantly, improve their social skills, the quality of their lives and, ultimately, society as a whole.
Robbie Hearn is a good example of how people with developmental disabilities are filling small but important roles in businesses of all sizes and descriptions and, in so doing, making an important contribution to society and making their own lives richer and more fulfilled.
Hearn is 31 years old. He has a moderate level of developmental disability and lives at home with his mother. He's the captain of the cleaning crew at a KFC in Pflugerville, a job he's held for a year. Robbie works two hours a day, five days a week, making sure the restaurant is ready for customers. His hours may soon increase, as his boss has asked him to start working weekends in addition to his weekday shifts.
Hearn said he likes his job quite well. His boss and the people he works with are friendly and supportive, and the job earns him money that he can use to do the things he likes. But more important than the money, he said, is the feeling he gets from knowing that he's part of a team and doing something worthwhile.
In addition to working, he also attends classes three days a week at the Austin Resource Center for Independent Living (ARCIL). He's been doing that for about two years. Here, he learns independent living skills such as budgeting, basic cooking and cleaning, and some computer skills. ARCIL takes students on field trips – some educational and some recreational – to destinations such as museums, malls and restaurants, to further their familiarization with and integration into the community, and Robbie likes to take part in those.
Robbie has a number of off-the-clock activities. To relax after work, he likes to play video games and spend time with his pets. He's actively involved in his church and likes to sing in the choir. He also enjoys visiting extended family in the Austin area.
In his spare time, he watches television, and cites game shows and sitcoms as his favorite viewing. He's also a sports fan, and enjoys basketball and football. He's a fan of the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks. He said he used to be a Dallas Cowboys fan but now roots for the Indianapolis Colts.
Ed Orozco is Hearn's employment specialist (ES) at Austin/Travis County Mental Health and Mental Retardation (ATCMHMR). As an ES, he serves as a sort of liaison between his clients and employers.
Orozco spoke of the opportunities that are today available to people with mental retardation. "Twenty years ago Robbie would have been, at the least, in a sheltered workshop," Orozco said. "While this would have given him some limited social connections, it would not have given him the chance to make connections with people from all walks of life and to grow as part of the community."
Today, thanks to programs such ATCMHMR's NOW (New Opportunities for Work) program and a growing number of employers recognize the value of hiring people with developmental disabilities. Orozco said the number of people with developmental disabilities who work in a job as Hearn does is still relatively small, but that number is definitely growing.
Orozco said employers and others who work with people with developmental disabilities are slowly coming to realize that the most productive approach is to find natural support systems in the community such as the one Hearn enjoys, "rather than building segregated worlds like we used to."
Hearn's situation is repeated thousands of times across the country, to the benefit of all parties. Businesses that hire people with developmental disabilities get dedicated and trustworthy employees, and this hiring practice also broadens the pool of potential employees. And for people like Hearn, the benefits are almost incalculable.
"Robbie's job," Orozco said, "puts the accountability on him, which makes him feel useful and valuable. He knows he's an integral part of KFC; he's part of the team.
"Working is pure empowerment, and he thrives on that."
— Jeff Carmack
— Photos by Brian Hollingsworth
Published: July 2007