Some Assembly Required

— At 8:30 on weekday mornings, several small buses drop off 200 passengers at 9575 Aero Drive. The buses move at a brisk pace even though most of the passengers need some assistance getting off. By 9:00, the passengers are at their work stations, anxious to begin a day of learning and production. The Arc (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens) of San Diego, a nonprofit corporation, trains and hires retarded citizens of all ability levels -- some with severe learning limitations -- to take care of themselves. In the last four years, more than 60 retarded people have transitioned from the Arc into jobs in the community.

"Everything we do is designed to improve a skill. We believe individuals have the capacity to learn," explains executive director David Schneider, 54. "If we can find the key to unlock their learning potential, then they can build skills, obtain fluency in the skill, then apply that in a variety of situations." The association trains people in skills as basic as eating and grooming and as advanced as working at a public job site.

Schneider points to a group of "clients," as they are called, assembled in a waiting room. "They'll be going out into the community. We have five or six job sites where they go every day. They're paid a wage based on their productivity. It might be rolling silverware [in napkins] for the Red Lobster or doing litter abatement -- things like that.

"Everyone is on our payroll, and everyone that works in our training program is paid based on their own personal productivity -- on a piece rate if the activity has a capacity for piece rate, and if someone is doing mopping, then it's hourly." The association makes sure their workers are paid fairly and are not exploited. Clients work an average of six hours per shift.

"Let's say we get a job in; we need to put three items in a bag and staple it on a card, and it's going to be sold in a retail store. John [director John McKee] will have to go out and survey at least three employers that do a similar job and determine what they're paying people for that. Let's say that that job earns $10 an hour; that becomes the basis on what each client will be paid. Then John has to take three nondisabled people, and they have to do that task. We have a computer-software program that's approved by the department of labor, and from the elements in the task, we can determine how many units a nondisabled person can do.

"For example, if a nondisabled person could do a hundred units in an hour, and the rate is $10 an hour, then you would be paid 10 cents a unit. So the individual [Arc client] gets paid the same rate; they get paid 10 cents a unit. If they do a hundred, they get $10. If they do one, they get 10 cents. The training is designed to allow a person at any skill level to come to work, learn tasks, grow, and then every six months we have to do new time studies on every employee and every job. So there's a constant adjustment. If you're improving your skills, your pay rates go up; if you have a condition in which you're deteriorating and your productivity goes down, then your rate goes down."

The variety of services the association provides is reflected in its appearance. Built in 1991 and located in an industrial park, the building looks like a typical high school, with modern structures grouped around a courtyard. A small store inside sells refreshments and convenience items -- manned by clients. The largest building is a warehouse where products are loaded, unloaded, and stored for shipment. Next to the warehouse, Arc clients do various tasks in a workshop.

Inside the workshop are pallets stacked with canned goods, cardboard cartons, and flattened cardboard. Schneider points out a group of clients seated at the workbench. "They're punched in and getting their work assigned to them. Throughout the day we will do maybe five or six different jobs...as simple as assembling a keyring to taking foreign labels off of cans and relabeling them to assembling multi-piece units that are then blister-packed for a commercial client."

Director John McKee, 53, explains a nearby group's assembly: "They'll sit down and take the pieces that have to go in here; they'll load the unit; it'll then be placed in a tray and then sent to another section; then another group will go in and do the actual blister-pack sealing. Each of those steps has a value, so the individual who is counting out the pieces and putting it into the blister is getting paid X amount of money for each of those blisters. And the same for the individual who's putting it on the machine and actually doing the sealing."

At the edge of the warehouse are loading docks. A high-tech network is employed for distribution with automated, computerized shipping stations and online access to UPS, FedEx, and the other major carriers, which enables Arc to compete at the highest levels of assembly and distribution. Schneider is proud of their work during the last Super Bowl in San Diego. "We assembled all the products and materials [the NFL] gave out. When it came time to set up at the convention center, Arc's staff managed that entire process. [The NFL had] a variety of gifts they gave out to people -- backpacks, pins, hats, etc. That's just one of the things we've done."

With the economy booming near full employment, it follows that more retarded people would find jobs, but Schneider isn't sure San Diego is there yet. "I don't know if we have seen any significant improvement in employers accepting individuals without skills. We have cyclic placements. Before the holidays, there's usually more potential positions available; then after the holidays, there's layoffs. We still have to make sure the employer feels comfortable that we can support the person [we place] and that we'll help train the person. Our staff goes in, they learn the job, then they train the person to do the job, then we stay with the person until they're able to do the job effectively."

By law, clients must be 18 or older. For many of them, the Arc is the next step after special-education programs in the public schools. The association provides a prevocational process and graduates clients to the workshop. The final transition is working outside in the community. Schneider adds, "We have a separate division [on Market Street] that places people in the community."

Schneider discusses the changing definition of the term "mental retardation." "Parents would like to have their children diagnosed specifically -- a syndrome of some kind, and there's 750 different ideologies for mental retardation. Some are specific like Down's syndrome...Prader-Willi syndrome, Williams syndrome, Tourette syndrome -- there's literally hundreds. The most important thing is to put the person first. We don't say 'him' or 'they'; we talk directly about the person -- an individual with mental retardation."

The American Association on Mental Retardation defines "mental retardation" as "substantial limitations in present functioning, characterized by significantly subaverage intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with related limitations in two or more of the following areas: communication, self-care, home living, social skills, community use, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics, leisure, and work." There are four levels of functional limitiations: intermittent, limited, extensive, and pervasive. Schneider adds, "Mild, moderate, severe, and profound were terms used until 1992 by this organization -- they're still used in general. That's when they released this new definition, and it took them six or seven years to develop it. The new definition is more focused on the functional deficits of the person as opposed to some IQ measurement. It used to be measured strictly by IQ.

"Now in the schools, mild and moderate retardation is fading away. Those people may not be eligible for services. The learning disabled are another group that's come into the picture. They usually have IQs that are higher than people classified with mental retardation. To qualify for services, you have to be classified as mentally retarded and that means an IQ below 75. That's still the definition and what the government uses."

The term client -- those who are trained and work at the Arc -- is also modifying to "consumer." But Schneider prefers his own terms. "That change is the result of rewriting some of the federal regulations. That was when the 'client' was an individual who required someone else to do something for them. A 'consumer' is actually an individual with the capacity to make decisions. The consumer is consuming the service, so the federal government said, 'Okay, we're going to empower people, so part of that is making them the consumer.' In reality, I like to call the individuals in the work training program 'trainees' -- because that's what they are. And individuals who are in programs where they're not acquiring the skill at the level where they would be considered a trainee are participating -- they're 'participants.'"

Schneider is constantly interrupted by his trainees. A young man named Andy keeps saying, "Hi, Dave!" and Schneider patiently greets him and asks what he's doing in his class. Throughout the morning, several people will talk to Schneider, who knows them all by name and situation. He asks each person specific questions about their progress.

In discussing his path to Arc, Schneider reflects on his past employment. "One of my jobs was to form an insurance company; in doing that, I had to get involved in rehabilitation, because in 1974 the State of California was bringing on board the concept of vocational rehabilitation for helping people who had been injured. I believe the most important thing a person has is their ability to work. Vocational rehabilitation interested me, so in 1984 I retired from the insurance industry and started working with a firm that had vocational rehabilitation clients. Eventually, I became president of that company and then I went to school and got a degree in rehabilitation counseling and as part of that process saw people at work in the Arc of Fresno. I said, 'This is phenomenal!'

"Studies show that people with vocational rehabilitation -- individuals who are injured at work -- can't complete their healing process until they get a settlement.... Medically, they're healed; they're ready to go back to work, but psychologically, they can't survive in the workplace until they get that award. It's chronic pain syndrome, it's secondary gains -- it's a variety of things, but it's real. Then you go to a place like Arc, where people are severely disabled, and they just want a chance. They're just happy to have a chance to be part of the community. Talk about rewarding! Come out here on payday when everyone walks by and shows you their paycheck."

After working at the Arc of Stanislaus, Schneider eventually became executive director. His current position in San Diego opened up four years ago.

"Each person in here has a written plan that identifies the goals they want to move toward. Our job is to help them find the path to help build on that."

But desire to change isn't all that's required. "The biggest barrier we have is transportation. We can train people to work in the community, and there's a job available but no transportation. Public transportation in San Diego is very poor. I talked to a guy yesterday who was an hour late because he missed the trolley. Would you spend one and a half hours on the bus to get to a training facility or to work?"

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