Thursday, March 29, 2007


Indian casino reaches out to hire disabled workers

Disabled people are politically and economically invisible.

There aren't enough of us to be a source of political financing, so we generally get short shrift from politicians, unless they're on a re-election campaign and want their Look Good to look good. Employers too often resent the costs of employing the disabled; the public sector is one of the few wide-open employers. Yet...yet too often buildings and transportation remain inaccessible—public buildings and transportation.

Nice to see that there are some places reaching out.

Reaching out to the disabled

Casino's program focuses on recruitment, advocacy
By Chet Barfield

March 27, 2007

VIEJAS INDIAN RESERVATION – Since the 1989 accident that put her in a wheelchair, Viejas tribal member Robin Lackie has known many times what it's like to be shunned because of a disability.

The Kumeyaay grandmother has been stuck outside of stores, waving to be helped in to spend money. She has had checkout clerks hand her credit card back to her husband or daughter. “I swear I'm invisible sometimes,” she said.

But since 2002, Lackie has been making up for those indignities by creating new opportunities for others like her. She has carved out a specialty at Viejas Casino, where as Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, she helps recruit, hire and train disabled workers.

Viejas now has more than 100 employees with physical or mental impairments – a cook who is legally blind; a switchboard operator with dwarfism; a one-armed janitor; a cocktail waitress with Tourette's syndrome.

“We look at what they have to offer as a whole,” Lackie said.

She describes her program as rare, if not unique among California Indian casinos and most other industries. The goal is to make often minor accommodations to put disabled people to work, she said.

Stroke victims with memory loss carry cards listing step-by-step tasks. Diabetics have breaks scheduled around their dietary needs. The near-blind cook uses a large magnifying glass.

“You can negotiate a job description,” Lackie said. “You can change it and modify it a little bit. ... How much does it cost? Nothing, usually.”

Lackie knows about adapting. Assertive and outspoken by nature, she was an Army nurse after high school. Then she became one of National City's first female cops in 1977, mainly because she'd been told she couldn't do it.

In 1989, she was working at an aerospace plant in Long Beach when a crane hook struck her head. The injury left her in a wheelchair and with impaired vision. She relies on an aide dog to help her lift heavy things and get around.

Lackie hadn't planned on a casino career. But at tribal meetings, she kept complaining about difficulties she had getting her wheelchair into and around the casino. Mainly to appease her, the tribe gave her a part-time job working with managers and building engineers on improvements such as sidewalk curb cuts, ramps and wider bathroom stalls.

Drawing on her experiences, Lackie argued the casino would more than make up those costs by drawing more patrons who use walkers and wheelchairs.

Within a year, Lackie was working full time as a liaison for customers with disabilities, and as a recruiter, trainer and advocate for disabled workers.

“Everyone here is expected to do their jobs,” said parking control officer Chris Merritt, 32, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. “There's not any special treatment.”

Merritt came to Viejas two years ago because it offered full medical benefits and better pay than his former job as a lot attendant downtown.

Viejas spokesman Bob Scheid said the tribe and casino hire the disabled “because they're a community asset and they're often overlooked.”

“What they contribute has been very significant in their absolute commitment to their jobs . . . and (in) inspiring other people, both customers and employees,” Scheid said.

A growing number of employers in many sectors are willing to hire workers with disabilities, but few have programs like Viejas' that emphasize outreach and creative accommodations, said Mark Berger, CEO of Partnerships with Industry, a San Diego firm that finds contract work for people with developmental disabilities. A crew of his clients cleans the carpets at Viejas.

“The nice thing with Viejas is they've been willing to look and say what are the kinds of things that this group of people can do that may not have been part of the original plan,” he said.

Bingo caller Patricia Neilson seems to fit that description. She came to Viejas 14 years ago when others wouldn't hire her because she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Neilson, 62, said her bosses and colleagues have been supportive as she has gone in and out of treatment. The cancer now has metastasized to her bones, which often causes severe pain in her hip and back, yet Neilson rarely misses work and tries to cheer others with her upbeat personality.

“When it comes to the day when I need a wheelchair, they will build me a ramp up to the caller's table,” she said. “Nowhere else would they do that.”

A childhood head injury left poker-room host Vincent Denham, 42, without use of his right arm. He worked in a stock-supply room and at a grocery store before coming to Viejas 4½ years ago. He said what he appreciates most is that most co-workers and customers don't seem to notice or care that he has a disability.

“That's a compliment,” he said. “I'm no different than anybody else in the casino.”

Chet Barfield: (619) 542-4572;

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