Opening doors to opportunity Training: A program to teach people with developmental disabilities how to use computers for work-related tasks could lead to better jobs and more independence.

November 07, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Robert Goldstick, a man with mild retardation and a strong sense of purpose, signed on to the computer, made sure videos were in their boxes and logged them in quickly.

Then he put the boxes in alphabetical order so he could return them to their proper homes on the floor and looked around the Blockbuster Video store in Parkville for other opportunities.

"Do you need help?" he asked customers, then showed them where to find videotapes: the family section (his favorites), action movies, oldies or the latest releases.

When Goldstick, 57, joined the Blockbuster staff, he spent most of his working day dusting. But then he had an opportunity to learn basic skills on the store's computer. After three one-hour sessions, he was able to assume new responsibilities, taking advantage of computer opportunities as other people do.

"He does a great job," said Tamika Witherspoon, the manager at the Parkville Blockbuster.

Goldstick, a North Baltimore resident, likes playing piano at home and takes two buses to get to his job. He is one of five people with mental retardation or developmental disabilities who are pioneers in a new three-year program thought to be the only one of its kind in the country.

The Techworks Partnership aims to train 55 to 75 people with such disabilities each year and place at least 20 in jobs that require computer skills and pay above the minimum wage.

Goldstick and four others were trained in a pilot program taught by Mike Birkmire, technology director of Learning Independence Through Computers, a nonprofit group that serves as a technology resource center for the disabled.

Birkmire joined with Jerry Bullinger, director of employment services at Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens, to determine whether such an experiment could be expanded. They found that it could be.

Teaming up with a third nonprofit group, workFirst (formerly East Baltimore Resources Inc.), they formed Techworks Partnership, and the U.S. Department of Education awarded them a $692,000 grant.

"All five of our people are successful job placements," said Birkmire, who trained them at the companies where they work part time and checks in with them regularly.

Goldstick and one other graduate of the program work at Blockbuster stores, two work at a Best Buy store and one works at the Museum of Industry.

Techworks exemplifies the kind of cooperation observers of nonprofit groups think is needed so that turf-conscious agencies don't waste money and energy duplicating efforts.

BARC and workFirst will recruit clients largely from the empowerment zone, then develop jobs and inform 1,500 local companies and agencies about hiring opportunities. LINC will direct training at companies, agencies and its offices, help their trainees in adapting to the work site and offer continuing technical support.

"This is an exciting avenue," Bullinger said. He noted the high unemployment rate among people with cognitive disabilities; those who do have jobs often work in food, sanitation or landscaping.

Stephen H. Morgan, executive director of BARC, said the goal is to maintain 80 percent of people initially placed in jobs for a minimum of six months.

Morgan and the executive directors of the other two agencies, Mary Salkever of LINC and Leanne Posko of workFirst, said Techworks is one of the few programs nationwide, and perhaps the only one, to formally link computer training and jobs to people with mental retardation and other disabilities.

Call LINC at 410-659-5462 for more information.

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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