Ripples of Inspiration
I first met Joe when I first began working in the field called "supported employment". I was beginning a third career path, working with individuals with disabilities. Joe was in his 40's, an African American man who was born with Down Syndrome. Joe had worked as a cleaning person at a shopping mall in Milwaukee for several years, but the job came to an end when the mall was torn down to be redeveloped into a different kind of shopping center. Joe wanted to continue working, and he was assigned to me to help him connect with a new job. I got to know Joe and he was a delightful person, and he really enjoyed listening to music, especially classic rock. Joe was very quiet, and could not read and write, so he needed help applying for jobs, and that was my role, to help him in the job search process, to try to make connections and advocate for him.
I had been working with Joe for a few months when I came across an opportunity. I was actually trying to connect someone else with a job at a school, but she was not right for the job, but I saw a possibility for Joe, and talked with the principal about it. She introduced me to the custodial person, and we talked about what Joe had done and what he could do to help her. The school was a large building, built in the 1950's, and had tile baseboards that had a 1/4 inch top that collected dust. Whenever the custodian buffed the floors, dust would settle on the top of the baseboards, and it was not easy to remove it. The dusty baseboards annoyed the principal--who liked the floors shiny and buffed. The job was perfect for Joe. We set him up with a spray bottle and rags, and a plastic milk crate to sit on. He would spray the baseboards and wipe off the dust, and they would look great (until the floors got buffed again). We decided that it would be all right for Joe to listen to his music while doing the baseboards, so he wore his Walkman and listened to his tunes, and he was delighted. He was doing a job that needed to be done, one that made both the custodian and the principal very happy when it was done well, and he made some extra money that helped him buy more music. Joe loved to go to work, the custodian was very happy to have him doing a task that was hard for her to do, and the principal was delighted that she didn't have to see those dusty base boards and yet had nicely buffed and shining floors.
When Joe had started at the job I had offered a "disability awareness class" to the teachers and staff, to help them be more comfortable with Joe. This allowed them to understand why he would be allowed to have the headphones on while working, and helped them get to know him and treat him as a valued part of the staff.
I learned that one of the teachers was out on maternity leave when Joe started the job. The custodian told me that she had given birth to a little boy with Down Syndrome. When she came back to school she didn't bring in baby pictures of her new son, and didn't talk about him. The other teachers were a little uncomfortable and didn't know what to say. It wasn't like the normal routine of seeing pictures of a new born and saying how cute he was. No one knew quite what to do the first two days.
On the third day, the new mother saw Joe cleaning baseboards outside of her classroom. He was smiling and humming along to his music as he worked to make those baseboards sparkle. She went to the custodian to ask who this guy was and what his story was, and the custodian said "Joe is my right hand man. Since he's been working for me, Ms. S--- is off my back about those baseboards, and he brightens my day with his smiles and his great attitude." The teacher learned more about Joe, how he had been working for five years before getting the job at the school, and about how independent he was, taking the bus to and from work on his own.
The teacher brought in pictures of her child the next day, and proudly showed them to her coworkers, breaking the ice and letting her and them talk about her child, and her hopes and dreams.
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