LACONIA — After his father died many years ago, Clyde Trask, now 53, had no place to live and no one to live with. A local family took in the young man who had an intellectual disability and a winning disposition – a friendly and outgoing personality that would carry him for decades.
Today, Trask lives on his own in an apartment not far from Café Déjà Vu, the Court Street breakfast and lunch restaurant where he’s worked as a dishwasher for 27 years, filling soup pots, busing dishes, scouring pans and cleaning floors. But his influence extends beyond readying the kitchen for action: Trask trains dishwashers, fills in when others get sick, and greets and jokes with customers who know his name – as well as his hobbies and passions.
To the café’s owner, Brenda Martel, he’s a godsend, a reliable employee whose smile is contagious. “It’s his willingness to work. He’d be here every day if he could. Once in a while he gets sick, but not very often. If I want to know anything about the sports teams, games and players, he’s my go-to person. The customers certainly enjoy talking sports with Clyde.”
At a time when unemployment is skirting record lows and a variety of industries are searching for staff, people with disabilities are securing roles that support business and expand their social presence. The transformation is identity-boosting and life-changing. It’s also a far cry from the past: before and during the 88 years of the Laconia State School, which closed in 1991, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were sheltered and shuttered there, far from the public eye and business arena.
Today, their workforce and community presence is undergoing a renaissance – along with their opportunities for attaining a normal life. Lakes Region Community Services helps people with disabilities train for and find jobs, and supports them during and outside work with assistance in daily life, such as shopping, cleaning, banking and getting to clubs, committee meetings, and continuing education classes.
In Concord, Dover, Portsmouth and southern New Hampshire, Project Search, a national training and apprenticeship program founded by a nurse at a Cincinnati children’s hospital, is helping people with disabilities sample various jobs and see what they like and where they might shine. That's a strategy geared to identifying niches and lasting career paths, not just a paycheck or a way station.
“Our personal identities are really wrapped up in work,” said Brian Collins, executive director of Community Partners in Dover, a community mental health agency that helps Strafford County residents with disabilities find and prepare for career-track jobs through Project Search. Community Partners also hosts job clubs for people with disabilities to share their work experiences, swap advice, and troubleshoot how they might respond in various situations. “You end up establishing relationships with co-workers are that are really important for people,” Collins said, “sometimes more important than the work itself.”
According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the number of working Americans with disabilities age 16 to 64 has grown by 11.6 percent over the last 10 years – a jump that experts partly attribute to workers from the Baby Boom generation acquiring disabilities as they age on the job, or take up second-act careers. In 2018, 20.6 percent of disabled Hispanics, 19.5 percent of disabled whites, 17.1 percent of disabled Asians and 16.3 percent of disabled blacks had paid employment. Today, people with disabilities comprise roughly 3.1 percent of the nation’s workforce age 16 to 64.
Trask’s line of work is part of a larger employment profile. Last year’s labor department data shows that people with disabilities are more likely than people without any disabilities to work part-time, and in one of several sectors: in sales or service jobs; in retail or restaurants; in office support, construction, production, transportation, natural resources and maintenance positions.
The traditional "Four F’s" – which stand for "food" service and prep; "filth" for waste removal and janitorial work; "filing" for desk jobs; and "flowers," including growing, picking and arranging produce and flowers – remain the stereotypical employment options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said Andrew Houtenville, associate professor of economics at UNH and research director of the Institute on Disability.
Advancements in adaptive technology, such as screen readers and voice-to-text and text-to-voice software that is now embedded in most personal computers, are broadening opportunities for people who are visually and hearing impaired. Touch screens that rely on icons without words don’t require literacy, and are allowing people with disabilities and employees who don’t speak English to work successfully in Walgreens distribution centers, scanning items to fill online orders; but that doesn’t translate to stores, Houtenville said, where clerk positions still require reading and answering questions. A widespread movement toward universal workplace design has helped make levered door handles and sit-to-stand desks common at many job sites – but those mostly benefit people with physical limitations, including aging workers, he said.
At this point, it’s too early to tell how far technology will allow people with disabilities to advance in their industries, and what kinds of careers will open to them, Houtenville said.
Integrated workplaces have produced striking successes, but there can be losses when states do away with sheltered workshops, such as pencil-making workshops that exclusively employ blind people – something that was a standard 15 years ago. Sheltered workshops “also end up being a place of community,” and collegiality can be sacrificed when people with disabilities move to environments where they feel socially isolated among fully-abled co-workers, Houtenville said. “A new community has to be developed at the employer, and that takes time and may not happen as much.”
For Trask, work has translated to wide-ranging activities and a web of social connections – features known to boost happiness, self-esteem and mental health.
Outside his job, Trask volunteers at St. Andre Bessette Parish, where he helps run the coffee house. He also heads up a self-advocacy group for Lakes Region residents who are disabled. “We like to sit around and chat,” he said. He’s also active with People First, a statewide group for disabled New Hampshire residents that meets in Concord. “We set up training for people with disabilities,” he said.
After work, Trask goes on his computer, posts on Facebook, and watches hockey, baseball and basketball in a sports-themed apartment that Bobbi Latulippe, his personal assistant from LRCS, helped him decorate. Latulippe also helps Trask as needed in getting ready for work, shopping, banking and cleaning.“If he’s having any troubles or problems, I deal with that, too,” she said. “I help him with life issues.”
At Café Déjà vu, Trask’s winning smile and warm demeanor have earned him a slew of admirers, including regular customers who buy him clothes and presents, and a former employee who takes him to sports games.
Tony Felch of Laconia has known Trask for years and taken his friend to some Winnipesaukee Muskrats baseball games.
“A lot of times we text back and forth," said Felch. "If you ask him about sports he knows everything and everybody. I usually come in on Friday and Sunday. If I come in on a different day, I say ‘Happy Friday, Clyde,’ and he says, ‘You can’t fool me!’"
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com