Jim Roberts, founder of Gourmet Entertainment in Los Angeles, was frustrated.
A maker of delicate alignment gauges for satellite television dishes, Roberts frequently relied on his teen-age sons and their friends to assemble his intricate products. But their attention spans were short and the quality of their work fluctuated. Because the components were different shapes and sizes, Roberts thought that blind workers might be able to do a better job than his sighted crew.
"With 50 pieces, it was a very complicated and sophisticated job," said Roberts. "The workers at the Foundation for the Junior Blind assembled about 1,300 units with a zero error rate."
Across the country, business owners such as Roberts are turning to handicapped workers for help by contracting with sheltered workshops or hiring people directly.
While it may take a bit longer to train a mentally handicapped employee to do a particular task, rehabilitation experts say that once properly trained, most handicapped workers can keep pace with other workers.
Although the Assn. for Retarded Citizens, a national organization, recently adopted a policy encouraging American business owners to hire handicapped workers directly, there are still thousands of sheltered workshops seeking contract work from businesses around the U.S.
"We consider the sheltered workshop a developmental step," said Dr. Sharon Davis, director of research and programs for the Arlington, Tex.-based association. "Our ultimate goal is to have people in competitive employment."
Davis said many business owners don't realize that there are state and federal funds available for what so-called supported employment.
The support takes several forms. One popular option is for handicapped workers to be accompanied by job coaches who help teach them the skills needed to succeed. Some job coaches stay for a few weeks, others remain with the worker for longer periods of time.
Many states provide rehabilitation dollars that can be sent on job coaches, Davis said. There are also federal on-the-job training funds available to reimburse business owners who hired handicapped workers.
"Employers are reimbursed for 50% of the wages paid for the first 160 hours of employment and 25% of the second 160 hours," Davis said.
The stipend offsets the cost of the extra time needed to train a handicapped worker, but Davis said once employees learn the skills required, they are expected to work just as efficiently as their fellow workers.
The association estimates that 75% of the country's mentally retarded adults are unemployed, yet many of them could find and maintain jobs with the right kind of support. Currently, handicapped workers are assembling sewing machines, making military uniforms for enlisted women, creating wind chimes and crafting wooden wine racks. Others fold and pack boxes, stuff envelopes, work as cashiers and at a myriad of other full and part-time jobs.
"Once they have been given the chance, handicapped workers do really well," said Santa Bonaparte, family and membership support coordinator for ARC's Northern Virginia chapter.
She said there are at least a dozen workshops operating in the Washington metro area, some through public programs and others organized by private, nonprofit groups. One goal is for workshop graduates to move into the community and work for all kinds of companies.
"We love to have business owners welcome them into their businesses," said Bonaparte. "When they do, both the employers and the employees are happy."
Carole Jouroyan, director of the Glendale Assn. for the Retarded, said her workers at the Self-Aid Workshop in Glendale offer a perfect resource for small-business owners.
"We can train people to do just about anything with the right kind of supervision," said Jouroyan. "Our disabled workers love to work and take a great deal of pride in their work."
In her workshop, employees do a lot of folding, collating and stuffing for local printers. They package nuts and bolts in plastic bags and assemble elevator parts. They recently glued yellow ribbons to hundreds of tiny American flag pins for a local Chamber of Commerce event.
When dealing with a sheltered workshop, explain exactly what you want done. You will be asked to bring over a sample of the project because the workshop coordinator must conduct a time study in order to set a price for the job. In Southern California, most workshop workers earn about $5 an hour, which is above minimum wage.
But business owners still save money because they are not paying the overhead costs or benefits for the contract workers.
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