Real Work Yields Real Progress at Hanover
It has been three years since United Developmental Services (UDS) approached the Hanover Co-op with a novel idea. UDS is an agency based in Hanover, NH, that works with people with developmental disabilities, helping them "to live proud, productive, and satisfying lives in their local communties."
The UDS proposal was simple: if the co-op could provide a "real work" experience for its disabled clients, UDS would set up a work crew and guarantee that work would be done well and on time. Further, UDS would pay worker's compensation for the crew.
This idea of trading labor for on-the-job training has yielded unexpected results. The most important result is the one not mentioned in the original UDS contract: all of us -- clients, customers, employees -- have learned a simple truth. There's no telling what a person can accomplish if given the right amount of time, patience and good natured support.
The work world for adults with mental retardation has changed drastically in recent years. At first, UDS maintained a sheltered workshop where clients were paid to work at the agency, usually at piece-rate jobs such as mailings or simple assemblies. That didn't equip people with the skills to deal with the outside world, so work enclaves were developed in which UDS teams were hired by local businesses. Now the trend is to hire individuals who can work with a minimum of supervision.
The co-op project is a hybrid. It's a work crew of three adults supervised by a job coach. "We don't normally like to group people at a work site," said UDS director Bruce Pacht, "but the work crew works so well at the co-op, so why change it?"
The work crew's coach is Sally Page, a UDS trainer for the past 16 years. By 8:30 a.m. each weekday, the crew is busy cleaning the employees' lounge, emptying the rubbish containers (and recycling the glass and cans), pricing and loading groceries, and stocking shelves.
Whenever possible their work is held to the same standards and expectations of any employee in the co-op. Crew members punch the same time clock, do similar work, enjoy the same coffee breaks and lunch hours as other employees.
Sally Page's philosophy is that people should be treated the same, regardless of their abilities. "People who work feel good in all aspects of their lives," she said in an interview with the Valley News. "Once our people get jobs in the working community, there is a tremendous growth in all areas of their lives. You can't measure it."
Two success stories
This mainstreaming in the workplace has led to some interesting case histories.
Steve Cohen, an outgoing and often outspoken 22-year-old with Down Syndrome, graduated from the UDS work crew in 1988 and was hired by the co-op in a supported employment program. Steve worked in the specialty foods section under the guidance of Melinda Meyerhoff, a former school teacher, who was impressed with Steven's ability. "He has a great time here and feels good about himself," she said, "which is why he is able to accept discipline and criticism and learn from it."
The highlight of Steven's career came when a photo of him was added to the display at the entryway to the co-op. (The co-op's custom is to hang a "head and shoulders" photo of each employee, all the better for members to know employees.) Steven was especially proud of this photographic rite of passage and made sure that both sets of his grandparents viewed his photo when they came to the co-op.
Last fall, encouraged by his growing sense of independence, Steve and his mother decided that he was ready to move to Albany, NY, where he could live in a supervised apartment program.
In his place, Jack Roche, 42, was hired as a part time employee. Like Steve, Jack graduated from the UDS work crew and he, too, mastered new skills much faster than expected. Jack's domain is the breakfast cereal section, where he prices merchandise and stocks the shelves.
Again, a pattern emerged. Jack's progress was spurred by being teamed up with an understanding and perceptive partner, Ken Smith. Ken Smith has been Jack's mentor for the last two months. "Jack used to spend about a total of an hour and a half a day with me. Now it's 45 minutes -- most of the time he's on his own unless he has a problem and comes to me for help.
"Jack more than pays his way for the simple reason he loves to work. He likes to help people, and if he's done with his cereal section, he'd like to help someone else." The discipline ofwork can't be minimized either. "You can't be hard on them," Smith said, "but everyone has to know that work has to be done and done well."
Customer reaction to the work project has been positive. "Most people say the project is a great idea," says Smith. Sally Page concurs, though at first there were some awkward moments as customers grappled with the "right" words to say to the work crews.
That's perfectly natural, according to Ken Smith. "I'm sure some customers aren't sure who's teaching whom," he joked.
Crews at other co-ops
The Hanover Co-op's experience with employing people with developmental disabilities has been a success. It's an experience that could be repeated in other co-ops, provided some crucial ingredients are present:
- A forward looking agency that actively recruits outside businesses and is willing to assign its staff to the daily supervision of work crews. UDS, for example, is the only agency of its kind in New Hampshire that does not have sheltered workshops, since they abandoned that concept years ago;
- A few good mentors at your co-op who can take time to be support people as the work crew becomes more independent;
- A dose of realism. People with developmental disabilities have varying levels of aptitude and can't always be trained for the particular job the co-op has available. (That's true ofthe "regular" workforce, too.) Flexibility is an important attitude to have at the outset.
Or, as Sally Page says, "Not every organization can do this; it requires a certain amount of bend in the organization."
The bending is certainly worth it. "The co-op is giving people room to grow," Page says, "because here and at most successful job sites there is a sense of commu