The Joy Of Work: A Disabled Man's Quest For A Job

Michael Medina i i

hide captionMichael Medina meets with his job coach, Nina Asay, before a job interview in San Francisco.

Rachel Dornhelm for NPR
Michael Medina

Michael Medina meets with his job coach, Nina Asay, before a job interview in San Francisco.

Rachel Dornhelm for NPR

Michael Medina is nostalgic for the days when he had a job. Just ask him about where he used to work, and he gushes with enthusiasm.

"Stacey's Bookstore. That's No. 1, that's a wonderful ... it's the biggest bookstore I ever been to," Medina says. "A wonderful store. You can work as you want — long as you want."

Medina, 52, has developmental disabilities. He was working as a janitor at the independent bookstore that was a San Francisco institution for 85 years until it went out of business in March.

It's a tough time for anyone to find a job. And for adults with developmental disabilities — like autism and Down syndrome — it's even tougher. Advocacy groups estimate that two-thirds of the developmentally disabled are unemployed.

The recession is making it even more difficult for those who want to find a job because almost every state is considering slashing funding for programs that help to place people with disabilities in jobs.

Joy From A Day's Work

The routine at Stacey's Bookstore was very important to Medina. In fact, when Stacey's cut back on all of its employees' hours three years ago, Medina continued to work his longer shift despite repeated reminders.

"In my room I keep a picture from Michael — look at his smile; he is happy," says Gerta Medina, his mother. She's holding a picture of him at his old job at Stacey's. She's in her 70s and says she worries about her son's future.

"Oh! All the time, all the time," she says. "So that's why I would say a job is important."

She says they both cried when he lost his job.

Help From A Job Coach

Gerta Medina knows it's a tough market, but she's thankful that Michael has help finding a new job. He is a client of The Arc, a national nonprofit that offers support services to people with developmental disabilities.

Today, his job coach from The Arc, Nina Asay, is taking him to the law firm Hanson Bridgett for a job assessment.

Medina is filling in for a coffee attendant. The work includes clearing conference rooms and doing dishes.

Today, he's getting high marks for handling the fluctuating stress level.

"What happens if there are dishes in the sink right there?" Asay asks Medina.

"I put it in my cart," he answers.

"Put it in your cart. Correct," she responds.

Asay says this evaluation will help her figure out the ideal work environment for Medina.

"One person may say they like an office setting, but when you bring them to an office setting, it doesn't quite work out," she says. "So it's really nice that we have this site to assess our clients to see if they can fit in this setting."

Assistance That Could Dwindle

A few days later, Asay accompanies Medina to an interview for a janitor's job at a senior housing center. She gives him a last-minute pep talk.

"And also, if you still can't get it, you can always look to me and I can help with that as well," she tells Medina.

"That way I could ask you for your advice and ..." he says.

"Exactly. Like we did last time," Asay says. "That's what I'm here for, is to help you out. OK?"

But the kind of help Asay offers is at risk.

Peter Berns is executive director of The Arc of the United States, a group that supports about 122,000 people with developmental disabilities in finding general employment. That makes it the largest nonprofit network doing this work. Despite demand, Berns says there hasn't been enough funding to increase those numbers in years.

And now there's a danger of backsliding. The San Francisco chapter alone says it could lose $3 million — a third of its state funding — by September.

"So someone may find that they used to have a job coach to help them, and now the funding for that job coach isn't there anymore," Berns says.

Overcoming Stereotypes

These economic challenges are an additional hurdle. But the biggest obstacle to placing people in jobs is negative stereotypes, says John Kemp of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, a national organization that assists with hiring and retaining employees with disabilities.

"The first response of the unenlightened employer is, 'No way. We have too many complex issues here, too many business processes that they will not be able to understand and execute,'" he says.

But Kemp says there are bright spots. Large national chains including Walgreens, McDonald's and Safeway continue to create opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

And there's some good news for Medina, too. He was just offered a job as a bagger at the grocery chain Trader Joe's. He's already hard at work.

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