JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Garrett Comilla strides into a Johnson City Food City store behind a row of shopping carts, ready to get back to his top priority — bagging groceries and serving customers.
“This is my first job,” Comilla, 21, said. “I like it. I bag and I help customers out. I go outside and I get carts.”
Comilla is “an outstanding young man,” store manager Derek Adkisson said. In fact, like dozens of other Food City associates with developmental disabilities, Comilla fits right in with his co-workers and pulls his weight — and then some.
“He’s been with us going on two and a half years and during that time to see him advance and grow, it’s been very rewarding,” Adkisson said.
Having employees with a range of gifts and abilities is woven into Food City’s culture, Senior Human Resources Specialist Sarah Spahr said. Spahr works with multiple agencies in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky who help place clients, coach them early in their tenures and then, preferably, let them blossom.
“It works best when job coaches just help them get started and we can get them to the point where they’re fully capable,” Spahr said, adding that the 50 or so stores in her district average about two associates who initially came through agency placements. “We have so many jobs that can match people’s abilities. We can find whatever works well for them and it’s not any different than if we hired anybody else.”
That approach is music to the ears of Jordan Allen, Deputy Commissioner of Program Operations at the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Development Disabilities (DiDD).
“After their placement and stabilization in a job, the goal is to fade supports completely in as short a time as possible,” Allen said. “For a long time, I think there was an assumption that people in the workplace would need to maintain some level of support throughout their work life. That is patently false.”
Comilla actually came to Food City on his own — with a little nudge and encouragement from his mom — but stories like his that include initial state support are playing out across the state of Tennessee. Those stories are benefiting everyone involved, Allen said.
“Those who haven’t already experienced the virtues of hiring persons of all abilities … there have been studies one after another that show the production value of hiring people with disabilities into the workforce.”
Food City, Walgreens, CVS and Auto Zone are among the employers who have seen the benefits and are enthusiastic participants in a network that includes the state, private providers and schools.
“Usually all it takes is a hire or two before they come back to us and say, ‘gosh, I had no idea what I was missing,'” Allen said.
Work participation on the rise
DiDD currently serves about 10,500 adults in two different programs. About 7,500 Tennesseans who were receiving services prior to 2016 are grandfathered into a program with less of a hard mandate on employment services. About 1,000 of them are employed.
“Employment and Community First Choices” (ECF) serves 3,000 adults (21 and over) who entered services since July 2016. That was when a rule went into effect from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) mandating that programs serving developmentally disabled adults focus on inclusion in the community and employment.
As Tennesseans age out of school, all of them move into the ECF program, which TennCare administers. At last count, 25 percent of ECF participants were employed. But that’s up from 16 percent in just three years, and nearly 80 percent of others are in an activity path leading them toward it.
The department works with providers throughout the state in a continuum of services that begins in high school with vocational training. It continues through career exploration with local vocational rehabilitation centers, and transitions into service from agencies like Core Services, Dawn of Hope and others that provide further job training, placement and coaching.
The main objective, Allen said, is for people to have options to achieve their self-defined dreams and goals. He added that “anyone, regardless of their level of functioning or their skill set can and should be employed if they indicate to us a desire to do so.”
The evidence bears that out, and the folks at Food City can vouch for it. “We have so many jobs that can match people’s abilities,” Spahr said. “We can find whatever works well for them and it’s not any different than if we hired anybody else.”
Tennessee’s approach helps, she said. Companies can receive tax incentives for participating when DiDD is involved. And when employees are settling in, “some aren’t the quickest to speak up and say, ‘hey, I need a little help with this,’ but they will to their job coach, so that person can act as a liaison.
“The beauty of these partnerships with some of these agencies is it really shows our management team, ‘this is doable.'”
A culture worth keeping
With Comilla working diligently behind him, Adkisson said the developmentally disabled employees he’s worked with are “a huge help. They’re willing to do anything that’s asked of them.”
Comilla said he enjoys returning items to store shelves when customers choose not to buy something they brought to the register. Stocking may be in his future. One thing that almost certainly will be is a growing camaraderie with co-workers.
“We have a very family-like culture with our associates to begin with,” Spahr said. “People like Derek join right in with all of it. A lot of them may not be real social when they come in but usually the independence, getting out of their shell, they become more social.”
Just as work supports eventually fade, DiDD’s Allen said he’d like to see something else fade throughout society when it comes to the growing inclusion of people with disabilities.
“The last thing we want to do is continue to support a stereotype that people with disabilities in the community are cute, or there’s this benevolent aspect to the community as a whole accepting people with disabilities in social groups or in work settings,” Allen said.
For one thing, people in situations like Comilla’s become taxpayers, something Allen stresses to legislators. For another, the societal evolution toward inclusion causes people to think about what’s important to them as citizens.
“We are deriving as a society, in general, the benefit of all different kinds of additions to churches and social organizations and the workplace. By being inclusive and realizing and acknowledging the value that each person brings to both their local and their broader communities, we open ourselves up in general to different conversations when it comes to setting policy and deciding on budget approvals and how we spend our money.”