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For 22 years, the state of Utah poured its resources into helping Bret Richmond reach his full potential. The payoff? He graduated to a year in front of the television set.

For Richmond and others like him with profound disabilities, finding a job has itself been a job. A few years ago, his stuck-at-home lifestyle might have have become a life sentence. Increasingly though, people with severe disabilities are trading day-treatment programs and stay-at-home lives for supported employment programs.

Richmond now works as part of an eight-member "enclave" sorting mail at the Discover Card Center.

They're a varied group. Four are nonreaders. All have some degree of mental retardation and a variety of physical disabilities. Several use wheelchairs.

For more than two years, the little band (five people originally and now eight and looking toward expansion) and South Valley Training Co. job facilitator Edie Johnson searched for a job that could be broken into simple tasks they could share. During visits to more than 40 companies, they learned how little faith corporate America has in the ability of severely disabled people to perform in the labor force.

But with Karen Dollmeyer, Discover Card's human resource manager, they finally found an open door. Discover Card had decided to recruit a work force that mirrors the community.

"Jobs aren't like pebbles on the ground for us," said Johnson. "We job share and do what a full-time employee or two would do. Each person is paid for what he does. Without this, we couldn't work because we don't have the capability to do what the average person can."

Richmond, Kim Funk and Maren Sillin sit at one end of the table in the center of the mail room, sorting the mail to go to different departments.

They can read.

Darlene Parkes, who reads a little, processes mail related to bankruptcies. She's been trained in what to look for.

The nonreaders in the group-- Dennis Dantz, Stuart Bates, Richard Hancock, and Debra Olsen-- count the mail into batches of 25, which are recounted and bundled together to form groups of 50.

Dantz worries he will lose track. "The hardest thing for me is if I quit in the middle of the count I have to start over. I count and lose track because I cannot read at all, but I can sound words out. My eyes do not focus on the word I want, they wander."

The entire process seems simple. For this group, it's a challenge. Job coach Codiann Reese sits with them, helping them focus if they get distracted, reminding them of their part in the process of sorting mail. They laugh and joke and tease each other gently, but work is the main event.

They love it. Though their lives are very different, they are like everyone else. They now have jobs and friends and money that they earned.

They are doing-- instead of being done to.

Shannon Stark, 26, will tell you that it's not easy to find work, even when a disability isn't noticeable. He was born deaf and has mild symptoms of cerebral palsy, which hampers his hand control and make it hard to concentrate for very long. His disability is not severe enough to require a job coach.

He works in Discover Card's imaging department, with computers. Over the years, he's held several different kinds of jobs. Finding work with any disability is difficult, he said. People tend to decide what they would be able to do if they had the limitation. From there, they decide what he is able to do-- usually inaccurately.

The public perception of capabilities is much harsher and more limiting for people with multiple disabilities or mental disabilities.

"Traditionally, all we had was day training for people with severe disabilities," said Deborah O'Dell, program specialist for the Division of Services for People with Disabilities. "Then we realized that everyone can do something. In 1985, we got a grant in Utah to do supported employment-- to take people out of workshops and help them find work."

As of May, 650 disabled Utahns were in supported employment. That means they hold jobs and are paid by employers. The support is a job coach, provided by the state or a grant, who trains them and provides ongoing assistance as long as it's needed.

Some people need it for a relatively short period of time.

Others will need the support for years-- perhaps always, according to John Harbert, director of Community Treatment Alternatives, which offers residential and supported employment programs for people with autism.

CTA's Napole Wolfgramm, 24, has achieved "the perfect employment situation." A longtime employee of Su Casa Mexican Restaurant, he no longer needs a regular job coach but is instead mentored by co-worker Jim Holt.

Such "natural support," having another employee serve as job coach, is the ultimate goal for people with disabilities, according to O'Dell. And when job coaches are no longer needed on-site, they are available for consultation.

Wolfgramm washes dishes, buses tables and serves as prep cook. Invariably cheerful, he acts like a newspaper interview is an everyday event. His hands never slow, his grin never falters as he describes life: He has a girlfriend, an apartment, a job he likes. He just completed two classes at Salt Lake Community College. His description of his report card is typically humorous. He got an A in math and a B in basketball. "But the B does not sting me," he quips.

Jerry Smedley, 33, proves even natural support is not the top of the mountain a disabled employeee can climb. Smedley, who has Down syndrome, used to rake yards and mow lawns. He washed dishes and worked as a custodian. Now he's an advocate with the division and the consumer advisory council chairman. The 10-member panel meets quarterly to try to resolve concerns for disabled consumers.

Free to choose

It takes a skilled matchmaker to put the right person in the right job.

Virginia Magelby sounds sad when she talks about her son's first venture into employment.

For the past eight years, 32-year-old Michael has worked for Rainbo Oil, doing maintenance. His job puts him at different stores each day; with the help of his job coach from Columbus Community Center he has learned to get on the right buses. He's always on time. He adores his work.

"It has brought self-esteem to Michael's life," Magelby said. "That's important. He goes to work; he has his job just like his father used to. He gets himself up every morning and makes breakfast, then he gets himself to work. His independence is very important to all of us. It has improved our relationships. He likes making money, but that isn't the important thing. It's the freedom. I wouldn't want him sitting around the house all day. It would drive me insane. I'm proud of him."

But it wasn't always so easy.

When Michael, whom his mother describes as having mild retardation, graduated from school, vocational rehabilitation tests found he was best suited for kitchen work. He trained in those skills at Columbus and after six months got a job at an area hospital.

It wasn't supported employment; he didn't have a job coach.

The job lasted exactly four hours.

"It was a different kind of dishwasher (than he'd trained on), and nobody showed him how to run it. No one helped him at all, and the poor kid didn't know what to do. They let him go that day.

"I felt so sorry for him when I picked him up. I was as crushed as a he was," said his mother. "Then he spent two months sitting at home, waiting to get into a workshop. He just sat home and watched TV."

Kevin Cronkright, 23, knows about jobs that don't work out. He was first placed in supported employment at a local restaurant. But the pressure of trying to keep up with the dishwashing during the lunch crunch was overwhelming. What Wolfgramm loves frustrated Cronkright.

The young man, who has autism, found his niche at the Sandy 9 theaters, where he is an usher and helps keep the theaters clean.

It comes down to a question of skills and interests--and choices.

"It's a real challenge to find a job that fits. We talk to a lot of employers who are very empathetic to what we're trying to do, and yet, we've tried to avoid some of the standard jobs," said Harbert.

(Wags refer to those jobs, once believed to be the only option for people with severe disabilities, as "food, filth and fauna": working in kitchens, as custodians and doing lawn care.)

"We never tell someone where to work," said Larry Stevenson, manager of LDS employment services at Welfare Square. "They have to have choices if it's going to succeed."

Gary Winters, who directs the LDS Church's employment programs, agrees.

"The hardest thing about placement is assisting an individual, disabled or not, to get the right job to meet his or her needs and the employer's, too.

Room to grow

David Provost was so popular with the management at Dan's Foods that they took him along when they opened a new store.

But the job held no future.

"He wanted to progress and really couldn't there," said his mother, Joan Provost.

When Provost, 32, started looking for a new job, he had to compete just like anyone else, although he had a job coach.

Provost, who has developmental delays that resulted from lack of oxygen at birth, was hired by Salt Lake County as a mail clerk. He and his new bosses agreed they would give him six months to learn the job and see what he could do. At the end of the probationary period, the job would be opened for bid and he could apply-- along with everyone else. Instead, at the end of six months they took him off probation and made him a full-time employee. He now has health insurance and retirement benefits.

It's pretty obvious, according to supported employment program operators, that being a part of the work force is an invaluable quality-of-life issue for people with severe disabilities.

Supported employment is about doing real work with tangible results. The best jobs include room to grow.

"Our mission is full participation in Utah life," said James Harvey, program director at CTA.

"That means community-based work, integrated classrooms. The whole experience. Employers are learning they benefit, too."

"Managers are always saying they wish all their guys worked like this," said Julie Hinkins of CTA. "They always work, they're always on time, they always show up."

Disabled employeees, anxious to work, are as much role models to co-workers as the co-workers are for them.

Just ask Justin Erickson, who has worked with Cronkright for more than a year.

"He works better than most of us," Erickson said. "He always keeps himself busy. He's really changed my perspective."

Paul Sagers knew the company that hired his daughter, Brooke, 43, would be lucky to have her.

Brooke has a dual diagnosis of manic depression (completely controllable with medication) and mild retardation.

With the help of a job coach provided through Columbus Community Center, she learned to do filing for the state Health Department. Now the job coach just checks in once or twice a week.

"Brooke's very reliable," her father said. "She's doing something that would probably drive you and me batty, but she is more accurate than we would be because she really cares. Brooke takes a great deal of pride in her work and doesn't cut corners.

"I am very proud. Here is my daughter who has used all of her capabilities. I have other children who are very successful. But can you imagine what they could do if they used all of their potential? If I did?"

A young man who worked for Joan Provost and got to know disabled workers marveled that "they don't have an attitude or show turfism."

"There is something life chaning when a person who has received learns he has something to give," Stevenson concluded.

A matter of survival

In the end, inviting people with severe disabilities into the workplace is more than the right thing to do, said O'Dell. It can be a matter of survival. The surviors include the families, as well.

Sagers knows he and his wife aren't going to be around forever. Brooke's independence-- she works and has her own apartment --fills him with joy.

"I know I shouldn't worry, but I do," he said. "We have three other children who adore Brooke and include her in activities. They'll always be there for her. But I dont' want that responsibility to be placed on our other children."

People aren't always nice to folks who are disabled, he said. And Brooke, like the others, feels the sting.

She told him she doesn't like it when people call her mentally retarded. "It doesn't show any respect."

He asked what she'd think if everyone said "developmentally disabled."

"That would be OK," she said. "Nobody will know what that means."

"The world is much better now," Sagers said. "She was not nearly as well accepted as a child 30 to 35 years ago. We had a hard time even getting a group home back then. But the world is still cruel.

"I can just do what I can do. As long as I'm here, I'm going to take her shopping. And love her. Everyone knows that she's my pet."

Sagers thinks that without the job Brooke would be depressed, perhaps even institutionalized. Brooke's parents would not have the freedom to work.

"It is much better for society to spend this little bit on supported employment than on hospitalizing her," he said. "There are other people who could be placed out in the community with the right programs if we only had them."