A Job for Raymond Babbitt

by Michael Bernick on February 26, 2009

The Arc of San Francisco, located on 11th and Howard, is the center of life for a range of San Francisco adults with developmental disabilities—cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome and a variety of learning disabilities. Arc offers health services, housing assistance, recreation, but most of all the adults come here looking for jobs. For nearly 45 years, from the 1950s through the early 2003, the Arc operated a sheltered workshop, a separate workplace in which workers with disabilities performed basic tasks such as packaging and mailing. In the past decade, though, the sheltered workshop has become an economic and cultural artifact. Today at Arc, and other developmental centers, the emphasis is on workforce inclusion, jobs in the mainstream workplaces.

According to Terry Goodwin, the Arc Director of Employment Services, Arc participants currently are employed at large grocery stores such as Safeway and Trader Joe’s (courtesy clerks and baggers); neighborhood retail stores such as Noah’s Bagels and Starbucks (operations and maintenance); and the city’s major law and advertising firms, such as Morrison & Foerster, Sedgwick, Detert, and McCann, Erickson (facilities set-up and mail room).
“Employers usually find our workers to be better employees
in certain jobs than other workers” explains Goodwin. “Our workers often are more reliable and steady, grateful for the job.”
As you might imagine, even in good economic times, each Arc job placement is an uphill effort. Even in good economic times, the Bay Area labor market is highly competitive, with tens of applicants (and often more) competing for each job. Arc’s employment services are key in identifying job openings, and providing support for job retention.
Arc’s employment effort is funded in part by the California Department of Development Services (DDS). DDS is now under a mandate from the Governor’s office and State Legislature to cut its budget by an additional $100 million by September 2009. This Friday, February 27, DDS is holding a hearing at the State Office Building in Oakland on ways that the Department can save money. Hopefully, the employment services can be spared.
Beyond state funding, though, the success of Arc’s workforce program depends on the participation of the City government in hiring workers with disabilities. In 2008, the Advisory Panel for City Employment of Persons with Disabilities in San Francisco, recommended a variety of recruitment and preparation measures to bring workers with disabilities into city jobs. According to Alan Fox, Arc’s Deputy Director, these recommendations are beginning to be taken up by the Mayor’s Office. They do not require any city funds.
Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s copying has been a leading advocate of workforce inclusion for persons with disabilities. Orfalea points to the unusual skills that workers with disabilities bring to the labor market, and cites Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant in the movie Rainman, as an example. “Raymond couldn’t do most jobs, but he could have found a job making use of his amazing calculation skills, for example as an actuary.”
Indeed, though the Oscar-winning Rainman over the years has been praised as an upbeat movie of acceptance of disabilities, the message it sends about workers with disabilities is condescending and out of date. Raymond Babbitt’s choices might have been more than costly institutionalization or being cared for by his brother. He might have achieved some life, some financial and personal independence, some role on his own. And what is true of Raymond is true of the hundreds of thousands of adults today at Arcs throughout the state and nation, for whom care and warehousing is no longer the answer.

Michael Bernick, San Francisco attorney, is the former director of the state Employment Development Department. His most recent book is Job Training That Gets Results: 10 Principles of Effective Employment Programs.

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