Filling A Need With The Mentally RetardedFilling A Need With The Mentally Retarded
Businesses contract HARC clients to perform low-level administrative functions
January 1, 2007
By DIANE WEAVER DUNNE, Hartford Business Journal Writer
At one time, hiring a mentally retarded adult was mostly about a business being a good community citizen. That’s not the case anymore.
The benefit is now mutual, with businesses depending on the clients of Greater Hartford Association for Retarded Citizens to perform necessary yet low-level administrative functions. It’s an arrangement that has proven to be a reliable way to get a job done that many adults don’t want. Or a job they won’t stay in for very long.
But HARC clients do these jobs for years, and often with a smile.
“They are very reliable and they have a really good attitude,” said Joanne Opitz, the administrative manager at the law firm Reid and Riege, which contracts four HARC clients.
HARC’s supported employment program was intended to provide mentally retarded adults with the opportunity to acquire social validation by participating in the work world.
Getting into the job market can be tough. But for adults with mental retardation, it can be nearly impossible.
HARC places about 125 adults with mental retardation at 17 businesses in the region, including six law firms. Another 10 businesses employ HARC’s clients on either a seasonal or temporary basis.
Off-site supported employment isn’t new; HARC launched its community-based work program more than 25 years ago with clients working at a car wash.
But the jobs aren’t just washing dishes or doing laundry. Some HARC clients work at law, accounting or architectural firms where they perform a variety of administrative functions. Cigna, Hartford Hospital and Otis Elevator also contract for their services.
“They [HARC clients] are integral in the day-to-day running of the firm,” Opitz of Reid and Riege said. “We find the HARC people to be a very good asset for us. They assist us with a variety of tasks, from setting up the conference room for luncheons to stacking paper in the copy room. They definitely make a very big contribution to Reid and Riege.”
HARC clients solve what would likely be a revolving door of new hires performing those jobs, said Wendy Boney, a full-time job coach for the HARC clients at Reid and Riege.
Two of the HARC clients have worked at the downtown law firm for more than a decade. Dawn M. Kron has worked there for 12 years and Anne Cloonan for 10 years. They agree that while they enjoy their work at the firm, they particularly like the people there.
The fact that the HARC workers show up every day, year after year, is the type of dependability not normally associated with the kind of jobs they fill, solving an important job retention issue for some businesses.
One reason HARC workers keep coming back is the way they are treated. “The people here are really genuinely nice people and they treat our guys like anybody else,” Boney said.
The HARC workers agree. “I love it here,” said Kron, who lives in a West Hartford apartment and takes the bus to work each day. “I feel confident here.”
She is now learning computer skills as a way to add to the clerical functions that she provides the firm.
Employing adults with mental disabilities signals an important mindshift in the business world and in society. During the early 1970s, adults with mental retardation were often warehoused in institutions where the conditions were often appalling. Generally, they were provided little to no daily stimulation.
The inclusion of HARC clients in the work world is something the nonprofit’s president and CEO, Dr. Stephen Becker, is particularly pleased about.
“HARC is proud to have broken the glass ceiling, resisting the practice of job-typing our workers into specific jobs such as kitchen and maintenance work,” he said.
“What is most gratifying is the response from employers that our workers fill an important niche,” he added. “With ever increasing complexity required by administrative assistants, there is a need for entry level functions to perform routine tasks … Companies that welcomed us primarily for altruistic reasons now openly share that they couldn’t function as effectively without us.”