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Recognizing an ‘untapped resource’

Clinton Cotton honored at event celebrating developmentally disabled workers

By , Columbian Business Editor
7 Photos
Clinton Cotton jokingly makes a store announcement into his watch, which he pretends is an intercom, at the Fisher’s Landing New Seasons Market, where he works as a dishwasher and performs other duties. Cotton, who has Fragile X Syndrome, was recognized as employee of the year at Wednesday’s Clark County Disability Employment Awareness Month Celebration.
Clinton Cotton jokingly makes a store announcement into his watch, which he pretends is an intercom, at the Fisher’s Landing New Seasons Market, where he works as a dishwasher and performs other duties. Cotton, who has Fragile X Syndrome, was recognized as employee of the year at Wednesday’s Clark County Disability Employment Awareness Month Celebration. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Few people could love their job more than Clinton Cotton, an employee of the New Seasons Market at Fisher’s Landing, loves his. And few could receive as much love back in return from fellow employees and customers who enjoy the charming man his father calls a  “human magnet” who exudes joy everywhere he goes.

“I like working here a lot,” said Cotton, a 29-year-old former Columbia River High School student who was born with fragile X syndrome, a genetic syndrome that causes intellectual disability, especially among boys. “Yes I do.”

Cotton, whose duties include washing dishes, food preparation and customer service, was singled out as employee of the year during the Clark County Disability Employment Awareness Month Celebration on Wednesday at the Heathman Lodge. The recognition comes as no surprise to those who know him at New Seasons. Besides being a responsible employee, Cotton is seen by his peers as the friendliest face in a store that bills itself as the friendliest in town.

“It’s so rewarding to have someone like Clinton who enjoys his job and the people around him,” said Marta Majewska, longtime manager of the store at Fisher’s Landing, who departs this week to manage a New Seasons in North Portland.

Jacques Cotton, Clinton’s father, has become accustomed to recognition of his son that goes back to his days at Columbia River High School, where he was a popular and talented drummer in the school band and a cafeteria employee. “I used to be somebody,” quipped  Jacques, who raised his son as a single parent. “Now I’m Clinton’s dad.”

Cotton is one of hundreds of adults with developmental disabilities in the Clark County workforce. Social workers help them find jobs, a task that can take many months or longer. But disability advocates say these workers can be among the best and most reliable in a company’s workplace, often taking on simple and repetitious jobs that are unappealing to many workers. Like Cotton, they can become valued employees and find meaning in their lives, while earning a paycheck that reduces public costs for services and living expenses.

People with developmental disabilities are “an untapped resource” for employers, said Mary Strehlow, developmental disabilities program manager at the county’s Department of Community Services. “We see everybody as being employable,” she said. “Some have greater challenges than others, but all of them want to work.”

Breaking stereotypes

Clark County and social service agencies serve about 400 people with developmental disabilities enrolled in employment programs, and just under half of those are currently employed,  said Strehlow. On average, there are 48 young people a year coming out of special education programs and entering the job market, she added. Local programs serve nearly 2,400 adults and children with developmental disabilities, although officials believe the population of people with disabilities could be twice that large, under the assumption that many people with disabilities are not connected to the service network.

The county contracts with social service organizations that find jobs and provide support for people with developmental disabilities. Employment consultants in the social service agencies check in regularly with the employees and employers to smooth out any issues that develop on either side of the relationship.

Many Clark County employers have stepped forward over the years to offer jobs to people with developmental disabilities, said Strethlow, who has worked at the county program for about three decades. Prior to the long economic downturn, about 70 percent of those with disabilities who wanted jobs were employed, she said. That employment number dipped to as low as 35 percent during the recession and has been steadily increasing during the recovery, she said.

Several employers were singled out for recognition at Wednesday’s awards ceremony. PeaceHealth, the county’s largest private employer, was recognized as the top employer of people with developmental disabilities among organizations with 50 or more employees. The Orchards YMCA Child Development Center, which has promoted a long-time employee with a developmental disability to teacher’s assistant, was named small employer of the year. Ryonet Corp. was named innovative employer of the year.

Those who work with employers say that the community is becoming more open and informed about people with developmental disabilities but that the very phrase “developmental disabilities” can create a stigma. Donna Gunnels, an employment consultant with Trillium Employment Services in Vancouver who provides support for workers with developmental disabilities, said she uses the term “alternative learners” to describe such people. The category is broad enough to encompass people with a range of developmental challenges, from dyslexia to disabilities that require the use of an “alternative communication device,” she said.

Gunnels encourages employers to examine their company goals for creating a diverse workforce and to consider their hiring of workers with disabilities as one element of adding diversity to their workplace. “I think I have the best job in the world,” she added. “Breaking down stereotypes is one of the best things I can do.”

‘Like everybody else’

Jennifer Stephens, 44, has worked at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center since 2006, and her job has changed many times over the past nine years. Her duties have included stocking supplies in the hospital’s emergency department and filing patient charts. When the hospital completed its transition to electronic records, she went back to emergency services to perform office work and to stock supplies.

Stephens was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2. She moved back and forth between her mother’s and her father’s homes, attending three high schools. She’s worked at McDonald’s and at a day care center. Now she lives with her husband, an employee in Clark County’s facilities management department, and their dog in a three-bedroom home they own in Battle Ground. She commutes by C-Tran paratransit van to Southwest Medical Center three days a week, working from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Award winners

Winners at the 15th annual Clark County Disability Employment Awareness Month Celebration:

Large Employer of the Year: PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center

Small Employer of the Year: YMCA Child Development Center (Orchards)

Innovative Employer of the Year: Ryonet Corp.

Employee of the Year: Clinton Cotton

Dennis Campbell Outstanding Service Award: David Hanawalt, 24-year director of the Employers Overload Supported Employment Division

More information

For more information on hiring workers with developmental disabilities:

Clark County Developmental Disabilities: Mary Strehlow, program manager: 360-397-2130, ext. 7825;

Stephens says she loves working at PeaceHealth and hopes over time to work on projects with other departments. Generally speaking, she says, “employers get the wrong impression about us. People with disabilities are not really a high risk, but (people) think that because of all the old stereotypes. They think we aren’t worth the time.”

Kelley Frengle, PeaceHealth’s director of human resources for the Columbia Network, says the health care provider has five employees with developmental disabilities, down from a peak of 10 employees. They work in jobs including stocking supplies, food services, weight management and emergency services, she said.

“This is not at all a burden on an employer, no matter what size the employer is,” she said. “Any employer, small or large, has tasks or duties that need to be done at a skill level that could be performed by a developmentally disabled worker.”

Chris Bergman, 22, grew up in Vancouver and attended Columbia River High School — “Home of the Chieftains,” he said quickly in a phone interview. He worked during high school at Burgerville and at Target, and it took him about a year to land his current job, at Ryonet, in March of this year. Because he has autism, Bergman said, “I sometimes need things explained differently. I sometimes get frustrated when things are hard to understand. I just take a deep breath and try again.”

Bergman, who lives with his mother, takes a C-Tran bus to and from work for a shift from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Among his duties are taking out the trash, recycling, shredding cardboard and packaging products. He mostly works alone, but socializes with co-workers at lunch time and keeps up with them on Facebook. “I’m Facebook friends with everybody,” he said.

Gunnels, his employment coach at Trillium, said Bergman is an exceptional employee. “Chris has the strongest work ethic of anybody I have had the pleasure of working with,” she said. “He is never late and he doesn’t call in sick. I’m super proud of him.”

In the phone interview, Bergman had expected to be asked what advice he would offer to employers who might be thinking about hiring a worker with a developmental disability. He’d written his answer in advance.

“Hire people with disabilities who can work at a real job,” he said. “We’re just like everybody else.”

‘This is great’

At the New Seasons store at Fisher’s Landing, Clinton Cotton can be a strong presence, greeting customers and employees with his constant smile and calling all of them “sweetheart.” He’s hard to miss, even within the casual culture of the store’s staff. One day last week, he wore a fedora with a party headband and prongs attached, along with coveralls over a University of Oregon jersey.

Jacques Cotton, a retired truck driver, says he’s had his share of bad jobs and worried about where his son would end up as an adult. “I had a rigid idea of what Clinton could do and where I wanted him to be,” he said. But he had not imagined that a place with the easygoing culture of New Seasons even existed or that his son could work there. “It is beyond what I was hoping for,” Jacques Cotton said. “It is the perfect place for Clinton.”

On an early lunch break, Cotton eagerly described his job to visitors.

“When you put dishes away all the time and you know what you’re going to be doing. You know what you’re going to be doing for the next 400 years,” he said. The lunchroom filled with laughter, with Cotton laughing the loudest.

“This is great,” he said. “Boy this is nice, isn’t it?”