Whatever happened to

by Jeff Marinelli

::: Remember those public service ads? Hire the Handicapped? It was a source of humor for a lot of people. Even though I have a disability (I can’t hear well) and I take no pains to hide it, I've had times where someone’s told me: "Hey! Hire the handicapped! It's fun to watch 'em fumble around!" (Obnoxious laughter. Slap on back. Blast of beery breath.)

I also remember seeing a poster showing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of America’s greatest presidents, often ranked by presidential scholars with Washington and Lincoln in the top 3. The black and white photo showed him in his battered campaign fedora, flashing his famous grin as his pince-nez glinted and his cigarette holder pointed jauntily skyward.

It was a rare photo, one of the few that showed the President in his wheelchair. The headline read: "Hire the Handicapped. Your parents did."

I’m off to see William Castiglione, director of Ontario ARC. We meet in his office. Bill’s a nice guy, and I like him. I’ve spoken with him several times over the years on disability-related issues. He’s been the director of our ARC since 1980.

He tells me that Ontario ARC is 50 years old this year. ARC used to mean “Association for Retarded Children”. Our ARC started in Geneva, when a group of parents began to talk to one another about their kids. Parents are the first ones to realize their children’s potential, even if their abilities might be limited by a disability. Maxine Abbey, in whose honor Abbey Industries takes its name, was hired as the children’s teacher. ARC no longer keeps its original meaning... it’s just ARC, serving people with disabilities. For one thing, the participants ages are all over the map now, and while the majority of the participants at ARC are developmentally disabled, the role of ARC has expanded to serve people with a wide range of different disabilities. It’s an organization that’s evolved to fit the needs of the people it serves. In doing so, it shows an innovation of purpose that I think sets an example for other businesses and organizations.

I enjoy my conversation with Bill. He's full of enthusiasm for the work that ARC does, and for some of the potential opportunities in the future. I ask him how the economy has affected his workers and their jobs at Abbey Industries. He says; "It's hurt us. My long-term positions (for his program participants) are all going overseas." Now, I'm not in favor of using legislation to solve every kind of social problem, but I find it a bit hard that an American business wouldn't voluntarily take some steps to protect the job of a disabled worker from foreign competiton. A huge amount of employer support that does exist in Ontario County, however. Bill says that our ARC has over 200 community sites where his participants can find employment, training or volunteer opportunities... and this is outside the work that goes on inside Abbey Industries itself.

I ask if I can have a look at the workshop... the last time I was here was about 7 or 8 years ago. I want to know if things have changed much. Bill said: “Yes they have... the last time you were here there was a lot of manual work. Now a lot of the stuff we do is automated.” Adaptive technologies play an important part in any sheltered workshop; Abbey is no exception. Bill had previously shown me a device on my last tour that enabled workers who couldn't count to fill boxes with small parts. It was a little device clamped to the tabletop with a wooden dowel that protruded upward. The worker was trained to stack the items to the top of the spindle... and that was the correct amount without counting.

Bill has the Director of Work Center Services, Michele Wistner, give me a tour. At first glance, it's pretty much like any production facility... save for a number of wheelchairs. Hearing and eye protection are evident. Michele tells me: “We have a safety committee here, and we follow all OSHA guidelines.” On my left is a work area for people who can’t stand or can’t stand for long periods. A number of workers are sitting at tables sorting things. Some are in wheelchairs, the others on folding chairs. Michele tells me to stay inside the yellow safety lines painted on the floor as she takes me over to one of their new machines: a bottle filler. It wasn’t in operation at the moment, but she showed me a small pressure activated switch that could be placed on the floor or on the machine deck depending on whether the worker had the best use of their hands or feet.

Abbey Industries does quite a bit of document shredding for Ontario County and several area attorneys. This operation provides work for a woman who, with an aide’s help, is able to feed paper into the machine’s hopper. A large pile of shredded paper from a previous shift will be sold or recycled. Regarding this type of outsourcing, our ARC has a very good partnership with Ontario County. In fact, the County recently gave a building to ARC that they weren't using anymore. Bill plans to move some programs there.

I notice products from several national brands represented on the work floor. Michele also points out some non-disabled workers hired from a temp agency working next to ARC’s own workers to help keep production current, which surprises me. Most of the workers smile at me. Many people with developmental disabilities are curious and friendly. I'm concious of being watched everywhere I go. A young man steps out into the aisleway to shake hands and say hi. “Nice to meet you” I tell him. He gives me a seraphic smile and goes back to work.

Abbey Industries employs a full-time worker and several consultant types to manufacture adaptive devices. Michele shows me something they're quite proud of that was built there. It allows a woman who is normally confined to a wheelchair to stand upright to operate her machine.
I notice a number of awards on the wall as Michele explains: “This is the third year in a row that Abbey has won this particular manufacturer’s Supplier of the Year Award. I had previously asked her if she sees much “public-relation feel-good stuff” from companies looking for image enhancement. She allowed that there’s still some, such as a company rep visiting the floor who mentioned to her how well the “kids” were doing, (of the workers I saw that day, most appeared to be in their 30’s or older) but as far as this particular company and its award program, Michele says out of all the company’s suppliers, Abbey consistently produces the best results within the client’s budget. The client visits Abbey and makes the award presentation, then takes all the workers involved in producing his company’s products to dinner at The Inn on the Lake. Michele points out the occasional frustration of taking guests to a restaurant like that when they can’t read the menu.

I’ve asked Bill and Michele the same question: “If there were no ARC’s or group homes, what would all these people be doing? Bill says: “Most would have to fend for themselves somehow if their families couldn’t keep them... during agricultural times, a few might have been able to find a job on a farm, maybe, but the others...” Bill also comments on the graying of his workforce and that many of the group homes will have to eventually be configured for geriatric residents.

I ask Bill about the group homes in Ontario County... whether the neighbors put up a fuss when they see one going in. He says: “Occasionally a few people are upset, and we’ll go and talk to them... sometimes they’re worried about assesments and whether there’ll be any kind of trouble.” Bill tells me about a group home they wanted to put in Geneva. He says that with a lone exception, everyone on the block was opposed to them coming in. He was in the living room of the home’s neighbor... a little old Italian lady. She’s in her 70's and was sitting there crying. She tells Bill: “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but you want to move 5 retarded men in next door to me and I’m scared.” Bill also notes that whatever the opposition is up front, once they’re in and part of the neighborhood, he never hears anything bad. Nothing. Most disabled folks end up being pretty good neighbors after all.

Bill shrugs this stuff off. "I'm not being arrogant, but they can't keep us out. If we decide we need a home someplace, we have every right to go in there." There is a legal rule about density... an ARC can't build 5 homes in a row, for example. Bill says he's just careful where the homes go, so they can pre-empt a challenge based on that argument. Bill and his head of maintenance personally inspect every home every year to be sure it’s in good condition. “Our goal is that our homes are as nice as any on the street,” Bill explains. I attended an open house at a new home around the corner from where I live a few years ago, and it was indeed very nice. A house is a building, but a home is where you live. (as an aside to Bill’s ability, one of his key volunteers and a Board member tells me that Bill always remembers every one of his participant’s names. He is not a regular visitor at the homes, but when he goes, he knows the name of every single person who lives there)

Except for a wheelchair ramp, and a van in the driveway (each home has one), most homes are no different than any others. A strict protocol governs the storage and dispensing of medicine, so each home has a secure storage cabinet for prescriptions, but that’s about the only sign you’d see that it wasn’t your house or your friend’s house.

Bill drily recounts a tale of an Ontario County real estate agent who announced: "I won't sell to retardeds and I won't sell to Italians." Now, people are free to think whatever they like, and they do. But that someone in this day and age would be that ignorant of both basic public relations and legal liabilities to make such an astonishing statement just proves that when it comes to people's perceptions of disabled people in our community, there's still a lot of work to do.

So, should we hire the handicapped? Is it really fun to watch them fumble around? To my astonishment and chagrin, someone actually said that to me while I was halfway through writing this article. This is a person I know well and thought would know better. He made the remark about another non-disabled person who was doing something with us, out of his hearing (But not out of my ability to read his lips). This person knows and understands the nature of my own disability perfectly well, too.

If I’d called him on the carpet about it, he would have been offended. (This kind of stuff stopped bothering me personally long ago… some people just never change, no matter how much education you give them) I’m thankful for the opportunities that exist for our disabled neighbors to live and work next to us here in Ontario County, and many of them do, affecting our community sometimes in profound ways.

I came to understand something about people with disabilities long ago… about their real place in the big scheme of things.

They have a job to do, an important one. They’re here to take the measure of other people’s compassion and empathy. Invariably, quite a few folks fall short in that department. The ones that do won’t recognize themselves if they read this either… I guess it goes with the territory. Of all disabilities, the lack of caring about others seems the most dangerous at times… I’ll tell you plainly, and I’m sure I speak for my other disabled friends too… if we could be free of our disabilities if it meant taking that one, we’d stick with what we have. And be content.