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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Disabled Individuals Serving the Community (interview)
John Savage is Director of Employment Services with Alternative Community Training (ACT) in Columbia, Missouri.    The goal of ACT is to assist individuals with disabilities to live and work in their communities and have access to social and recreational opportunities.  The focus of ACT Works’recycling program is to provide people with disabilities an opportunity to work by recycling obsolete electronic media materials.

What exactly happens to a videocassette when it arrives at ACT?

The work is done by individuals with disabilities. Even the heavy machinery, forklift, and other warehouse equipment are operated by individuals with disabilities who have passed their safety training and show that they have the skills to perform the work.

When donations arrive, they are sorted and separated by material.  ACT also recycles CDs and DVDs, which are made out of polycarbonate.  VHS and DVD storage cases are made out of polypropylene.  The videocassette shells are made out of polystyrene (as are CD jewel cases).  Any paper products are also separated and sent to a local paper recycler. 

When a video tape is received, it is taken out of its storage case and the “gate” is taken off of the tape.  The tape film is then cut and spooled into the VHS cassette.  The tape is then run through a machine (the only one of its kind in the country) which punches out the screws that hold the tape together.  The interior pieces of the tape are then removed, and the outer shell of the tape is ground into small pieces.  The ground plastic is then sold to a manufacturer for use in making new products.

What are the challenges and benefits of training people with disabilities to work in the community?

The biggest challenge is the perception of what people with disabilities can actually do.  We all—myself included—have a mental image of what it means to be a person with a disability.  But the reality is, everyone (with or without a disability) is a unique individual.  We all have our own skills, abilities, talents, and things we wish we could do better. 

Opening the door to opportunity so that people can be seen for their abilities and not their barriers can initially be a struggle.  But once that door is open, and an employer can see (and some already see it, or see it quickly) that anyone with the right skills and abilities can be the “right person” for a job, it generally creates a more diverse workplace where everyone benefits. 

Sometimes an accommodation made for a person with a disability improves productivity for all workers, or opens a business to a new customer base.  Sometimes the change is attitudinal, with people being more open to diversity in general.

How did you get involved with ACT? What’s your favorite part of your job?

I worked in Illinois for about 15 years providing community living services for individuals with disabilities.  Due to budget constraints, my position was cut.  I had always thought that individuals with developmental disabilities had limited opportunities for employment in Illinois, and I was intrigued by what ACT was doing with their employment services.  I was fortunate that ACT’s executive director was willing to take a chance on me.

The favorite part of my job is people having success.  Recently, a person who used to work in our recycling program stopped by. ACT had assisted him with finding a job in a local business last year.  Since then, he had moved to a nicer neighborhood that was closer to his work, he’d gotten a promotion, and was enjoying life as a member of the Columbia community.

He stopped by my office to say “thank you” for believing in his abilities and encouraging him.  I love those moments when I am just living my life—shopping or doing something around town—and I run into a person we used to provide services to, but now they are just living their life and doing well.  It’s great to catch up and find out how they are doing.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

I think it’s about letting skills and abilities drive opportunities, not just trying to pigeonhole a person into a set list of tasks.  The attitude that people with disabilities can only perform basic entry-level duties is just not true.  Given an opportunity and the right training, supervision and support, people can accomplish many things.

Do you have a mindfulness practice, and if so, how does it help you with your work?

Several years ago I was sitting in a training session at a conference listening to a presenter, and I realized that I’m pretty happy in my life.  Does that mean that every day is easy sailing and that some things don’t upset me?  Of course not.  But it means that when I adjusted my inner dialogue to a default setting of “things are generally pretty good,” life got a lot easier and more positive, and so did my interaction with others and my attitude about work.

One thing to note about this story:  in March of 2014, ACT learned that the definition for the service which funds our ACT Works program has changed, and ACT will no longer be able to provide the same type of long-term on-site paid work experience that has been the cornerstone of the recycling program for over 20 years.   While the services will be evolving, we are looking at this as an opportunity to really focus on ensuring that all individuals we serve truly have every opportunity to be as fully participating members of the community as they want to be. 

[Update January 2015:  ACT is now charging to recycle materials.  See]


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