FIRST-CLASS passengers on United Airlines shaking salt on their salmon may never know it, but the person who fills the shakers is someone who not long ago would have been labeled unemployable. She's Roberta Doherty, a severely disabled 22-year-old high school senior and part-time union employee. Many jobs would be difficult or impossible for her. But in the flight kitchen at United Airlines, she and her work - filling the shakers and rolling up silverware in cloth napkins - mesh perfectly.
Miss Doherty is one of 25,000 people with disabilities who are working today because of supported employment - a relatively new concept that enables them to fill regular jobs with the assistance of a job coach. Supported employment is bringing people with disabilities into the mainstream.
``They make more money, have mainstream role models because they're not segregated, their self-esteem goes up, and they become taxpayers,'' says Fred Isbister, program specialist for supported employment for the Rehabilitation Services Administration.
Today all states get federal allotments for some form of supported employment, Mr. Isbister says. In addition, 27 states have been awarded special grants by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to move gradually from the traditional day vocational programs and low-paid ``sheltered workshops'' to programs that will help disabled people become more independent. The idea of supported employment was born when studies in the late-1970s in various parts of the country showed that disabled students could do complex tasks if the tasks were broken down into components and taught thoroughly. It gained strength when the first group of disabled students emerged from newly integrated public schools with high expectations of finding work.
``It was only recently that we even thought people with severe disabilities could hold jobs in the work force,'' says Kathy Moore, executive director for New England Business Associates, which provides on-the-job training for people with severe disabilities. But today, with businesses scrambling to find more workers, fast-food establishments, hotels, banks, laboratories, universities, government, insurance companies, lawyers' offices, and other businesses are opening their doors to people with physical and mental disabilities.
``The employment market is tightening up and we're finding disabled people to be a source of dependable and very productive employees,'' says Jim Kenny, manager-employment east, United Airlines. For the past year, United has been encouraging its managers to recruit disabled people on an limited basis.
What's generally needed to make the transition to work possible is a job coach, a rehabilitation agency worker who provides whatever services are needed to get a person to a job and keep him or her there; training, support, and supervision on the job, educating co-workers, transportation, assistance with self-care outside or on job, instruction in money handling, time management, or support services to the family. Because levels of disability vary, job coaches may be on-site anywhere from briefly to permanently. Also needed is a receptive atmosphere at the worksite; at United, one employee made special tools for Doherty, others include her during breaks and meals.
Colleen Peschl, coordinator of program transfer from school to work at Boston College, was Doherty's job coach for seven months. She showed her how to punch in, perform the assigned tasks, find her locker, and when to take breaks. Ms. Peschl phased out gradually and now is on call.
``We stay as long as we're needed until the employer is satisfied with the quality and quantity of work, from one month to six months,'' Peschl says. ``Some people need a permanent coach.''
Advocates say supported employment need not be a financial burden to an employer. Job coaches are paid for by rehabilitative agencies with government funding, and the programs make up any difference in productivity until the worker gets up to speed. The government money is simply reallocated from programs that serve the same population, day vocational programs or a sheltered workshop.
An unemployment rate of 66 percent nationwide is one of the greatest challenges facing disabled people. The Dole Foundation, a national grantmaker to organizations that provide job training or placement, says that as many as 5 million disabled people between the ages of 16 and 64 could be working if they had the necessary supervision. Sheltered workshops, subcontracted shops that hire disabled people at subminimum rates to do assembly-line work, provide some employment.
``Studies in 1978-9 found that people in sheltered workshops were doing `make work': assembling and disassembling Bic pens,'' says Moore. ``People were making 50 cents a week. After those studies people began to push for training on the job. If people could do the contract work in sheltered workshops, why not in a regular job?''
Moore says that the research caused some soul-searching in the field about the capabilities of disabled, particularly mentally retarded people, and has resulted in somewhat of an about-face. ``We're undoing a lot of education we thought initially was important,'' Moore says. ``The field has changed its mind. We now know what happens to people when they're subjected to long-term segregation. It's not pretty. The statistics show that for people in sheltered employment for more than two years have only have a 26 percent chance of ever getting out.
``Initially there was concern about what this kind of service option would mean for [sheltered employment] facilities. We found great receptivity. They are eligible to compete for the funds to convert workshops to service models more based on supported employment.''
While this concept is still new, many in the field are looking ahead to second-generation kinds of issues: retraining for other tasks on the first job, or taking on new jobs.
Doherty, nearly a year into her first job, thinks she'll stay awhile. She's content. ``Except for all that pepper,'' she says with a grin, screwing the cap on the last of her 500 salt and pepper shakers.
She adds something intangible to the kitchen, says Robert Sobczewski, manager of United's food services and Doherty's boss. ``She brings a soft touch to what are hard and rugged East Bostonians. She walked in the first day with her Chelsea high school jacket and her Reeboks, and became part of the crowd. The first month she was here, they brought in flowers for her every day.''
``What we're celebrating are very, very ordinary sorts of things,'' says Moore. ``The success has been largely determined by the relationship between the employer and the person with disabilities and between the people in charge of training and support and the family. It's been a community effort. It hasn't been fancy technology.''
Supported Work Programs FOR further information, write to one of these organizations:
New England Business Associates Suite 515, 56 Suffolk St. Holyoke, MA 01040
Dole Foundation Suite 850, 1819 H. Street NW Washington, DC 20006
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, US Dept. of Education Room 3225 Switzer, 330 C. St. SW Washington, DC 20202
President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities 1111 20th Street NW Washington, DC 20036