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— Mikey shows no shyness when interviewed, but his answers are short and his affect is flat.

How long have you worked here at Vons?

"About three years -- four."

Did you go to school before you came here?


Were you involved at all with Arc of San Diego?


Did they train you for this job?

"Yeah. Buffy."

Is she your trainer?


Can you tell me about your job?

"I like it here. I like the customers. Nice work here."

What do you like about working here?

"Being a bagger. Helping dust. Helping customers."

Can you tell me a little bit about sports and who you like?

"The Chargers lost to Denver."

Do you go to all the games?

"Yeah. But now the tickets are going up."

What do you think about the Rams this year?

"The Rams -- don't like 'em." He shakes his head.

Are people nice to you here?


Mikey lives in National City with his grandparents. Until recently, he lived downtown in Little Italy.

Kathleen Swett, 45, is the director of food services for Children's Hospital. She's hired mentally disabled workers since 1989. "Our people were not doing a good job keeping the cafeteria clean. I heard about the Arc program, and from a purely business perspective it seemed to be a win-win situation. I could take labor dollars and convert them into this program. Here you've got a group of people who take tremendous pride in what they do. They come rain or shine. They don't call in sick [when they're not], they do a great job, with smiles on their faces -- they're great. They've become part of our family, not only in the department here, but in the hospital."

David, 39, was not born mentally disabled. He originally came to Children's Hospital as a patient with measles. Persistent high fevers damaged his brain, diminishing his mental capacity. "I was a patient here a long time ago -- I don't know when I started. I think I was a teenager. I enjoy working here. I've probably worked here for about 15 years. They all like me here, and I'm treated well." David now works in the hospital cafeteria.

"The people are real nice. I also work part time at North Shores Arc. They train you to work out in the community. When you work out in the community, you get a bigger paycheck. I live not too far from Children's Hospital and North Shores-- I live with my mom and dad. I work from 9:00 to 2:30, Monday through Friday."

Liz Nelson, a job coach, has worked for the San Diego Arc at Children's Hospital since January. "I oversee and assist any way I can. I'm here to help and support the workers." Nelson acts like a den mother to the other Arc "clients" working in the cafeteria. Alison and Loretta, curious about the interview, walk over and join Nelson.

"What's going on?" Alison asks. When Nelson explains there will be a story about them, Alison enthusiastically answers questions. "This is a wonderful company to work for. I've worked here since August of '99. The best thing about working here is the free lunch! I also like the color scheme of the tables and stuff. It's probably the colors I'd want to decorate my room. I'm 21 years old. I live in La Mesa with my stepdad, my mom, and my half-brother." Alison is quick to praise Nelson: "She's a better supervisor than our other one ever was." Nelson later adds that Alison is the president of a group called the Independent Club.

Her companion, Loretta, 32, is more reserved. "I've worked here for a long time -- about a year. They rotate [the tasks] every week. I was trained at North Shores. I like to make sure everything is clean." She boasts about correcting another worker's error. "Just a minute ago I had to go change what he did. I had to make sure everything was in order. One thing about this job...I can make more money and do anything I gotta do."

When we're alone, Nelson brags about the workers. "I really love this group. I like working with them." She talks about her studies at Grossmont College. "I'm in the disabled-services management program. I'm trying to get ahold of the language part and address them as 'people-first' rather than 'disability-first.' The whole movement is toward getting rid of the stereotypes and stigmas...to get people normalized rather than different.

"Disability can affect any one of us at any time in our lives. We always think of disabled people as people with congenital defects, who from birth on have had these things, but my brother is a quadriplegic as a result of an accident, so he's in the category of disabled now -- severely. My sister, also, as a result of diabetes, has become disabled. That's what sparked my interest in this whole field, because I need to take care of my family now. I'm in the position with all the dynamics that affect you when you are dealing with that. That's opened up my eyes for the first time in my life towards these things."

After finishing at Grossmont, Nelson plans to pursue gerontology (the study of aging). "One in five people have a disability of some sort. We're all interconnected. It broadens our acceptance of the elderly when we embrace, as a society, what disability is.

"The entire disabled population is taking charge of themselves and their identity. They're moving forward with their own strength and power. There's quite a few people to address and deal with. If you want to talk about prejudice toward minorities, you'll see it toward them more than any other group. They've endured the same struggle and are heading toward equality -- to be accepted."

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