The Ottumwa Courier

October 31, 2013

It feels good to work

By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA — With October, which is designated as disability awareness month, wrapping up, specialists in Wapello County thought it would be important to tell the community about the people they serve and how they find employment.

Rodney Bostic is the training employment specialist for Tenco, a supported employment agency for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. He’s also a job coach who helps his assigned individuals find work, train in the job and then maintain that job.

He works with Chuck Bonnett, 48, of Ottumwa. Bonnett is going on six months in his position of kitchen assistant for Hy-Vee North.

He and his job coach were in the dining area of the supermarket Wednesday. Bostic stops in weekly to confer with his client and with managers to see if there are any issues that need work. A job coach will work with a client as much as necessary.

The Tenco Industries that is best known, perhaps, may be the can redemption center, a “sheltered workshop,” where individuals do simple tasks based on their abilities. They can generally work at their own pace. Their salary is subsidized. But Tenco officials have said that’s not the ideal situation for the clients.

“Tenco is hoping to teach our consumers the skills they need to get out into the community,” said Bostic, “and to be more independent.”

So what is Bonnett’s disability?

“I’m not disabled,” he began (which seemed to catch Bostic by surprise) before he amended, “I don’t feel disabled.”

Now that was a sentiment his job coach understood. Bonnett’s a good client, pleasant, hardworking and positive. Employment is more than a paycheck for many special-needs workers, Bostic said.

“It’s self-esteem,” he said.

Bonnet is much more independent than some of his peers. He has his own apartment, where he gets regular visits from Crest Services, an agency that helps people with disabilities become part of their community.

After years in the workforce, Bonnett does make decisions for himself. At first, he was busing tables all of his three workdays.

One day, when a dishwasher didn’t show up, the kitchen manager asked Chuck if he’d be willing to help. His job coach was not there that day.

“I said I’d try,” Bonnett said. “I just load the plates on the rack, slide it into the dishwasher and the dishwasher does the rest. She [the kitchen manager] said, ‘You’re fast and you’re good!’ That made me feel real good.”

Bonnett now runs the dishwasher once a week and buses tables on two days.

“I like the work,” he said, then added, “I love the work.”

Jobs aren’t easy to come by in Wapello County. Finding the right place for someone with special needs was a challenge.

“We searched for a job for him for six months. We wanted to find a job he’d be in for some time. Longevity is key,” Bostic said.

Bonnett and his coach went to a state agency for guidance, Vocational Rehabilitation. Voc Rehab specializes in finding work for individuals with disabilities. And like Tenco, they want people placed in a job they’ll be successful at for the duration.

“We focus on what you can do,” Bostic said.

It makes more sense to focus on strengths and pursue activities that can be done well, he added.

“Chuck is very social, and he knows a lot of people ... and they know him,” said Bostic.

It’s possible that sometimes Bonnett is a little too social, so that if he’s talking to people while performing a complex job, he may start making mistakes.

“I got distracted,” Bonnett said about some positions he’s tried.

But at least he and his coach knew which assignments were not a problem for the client. Before being hired, job coaches ask Wapello County employers if a client or two can come in and see what they’re good at. It’s called an assessment. There are workplaces that refuse. But some welcome the possibility of adding another friendly, hard-working person to their team, Bostic said.

Hy-Vee South invited Bonnett and Bostic into their store to try various positions. It turns out even if customers were chatting with the outgoing Bonnett while he was busing tables and wiping them down, he would do fine.

However, both men pointed out, to “do fine” doesn’t mean just showing up. The store did not create a special “disabled-person job.” Bonnett does the work required of him or anyone else in the position. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers, landlords and public venues to make things accessible via “reasonable accommodations” so a visitor, tenant or employee can be there. Paying someone to sit around is probably not going to be considered reasonable.

Bostic said that’s OK because Bonnett doesn’t do much sitting around anyway. During the times he was without a job, he wasn’t as happy as he is now, Bostic said.

Like many of Tenco Industries clients, there’s more to be gained from a job than a paycheck.

In fact, if it was just about money, this disabled man could just collect his full social security disability check.

As it is now, the same worker who comes to help him do a healthy grocery shopping also drives him to the social security office. There, he gives them his pay stub so that if necessary, they can reduce the amount of his social security check.

“Six minutes,” Bonnett told Bostic.

“What’s that, Chuck?”

“Six minutes. I start [my shift] in six minutes,” he said, showing Bostic the time; it was 10:54 a.m. on Wednesday, and those dishes weren’t going to wash themselves.

To see reporter Mark Newman’s Twitter feed, go to @couriermark