Carrie: Natural Supports at Work


Carrie is a woman in her forties who works in the kitchen of a small private school. This is her first job in the community. She enjoys reciprocal, caring relationships with several of her coworkers. The natural support of her colleagues has enabled her to be successful at her job and form friendships that extend beyond the workday.

The job search

Carrie found her job through answering an ad, with the help of her employment specialist at Charles River Arc in Massachusetts. The employment specialist initially spoke with the manager in the kitchen, who was interested in meeting Carrie. Carrie participated in an interview with the kitchen manager and was offered the job. Once the job began, the employment specialist was onsite to train Carrie in how to help the staff prepare lunches for students in the school. Her supervisor and coworkers felt that they knew best what she would need and how to teach it, so they provided the training themselves, sending the employment specialist on his way after the first day. This set the tone for their accountability and their involvement in Carrie's success. In response to this, the employment specialist's role evolved into a check-in and as a resource if necessary, while the vast majority of "employment support" was provided by her coworkers.

Natural supports seem to have grown organically in this work situation, where the employees come together and work as a team with a common goal of preparing and presenting a hot lunch to the entire school on a daily basis. Carrie's supervisor referred to this task as a "show" for which the four women, including Carrie, prepare all morning, with each member playing her specific role. Their actions are overseen by the kitchen supervisor, and each person performs her individual tasks efficiently and makes an important contribution to the end goal of having lunch ready on time. Carrie's tasks include preparing and distributing buckets that hold condiments for each student table, putting utensils into the food being served family-style, helping to serve the students once lunch is ready, and helping to clear the food and put supplies away once the meal has ended.

Overall, the culture of the kitchen is very conducive to the development of relationships, and thus of natural supports on the job. Music is played in the kitchen throughout the day, and staff and students wander in and out of the cafeteria, grazing on food throughout the morning. The kitchen staff have a friendly banter with one another, fully including Carrie throughout the shift. There are several examples of the staff not only doing things that are helpful to Carrie, but that are helpful and nice for one another as a whole. For instance, the staff typically eat lunch before the students, and sit down together for whatever is being served that day. Carrie's supervisor knows her likes and dislikes, and will prepare her something special if she knows she will not like that day's menu. Another woman prepares tall glasses of water for each staff member while she works, stopping to add freshly cut fruit to each glass. These small details are indicative of an overall culture where the kitchen staff fully support one another, including their coworker who has an intellectual disability.

What happened

Carrie has been at her job for several years. Both her mother and her employment specialist noted that she has learned the tasks of her coworkers, and is able to fill in for them when one is absent from the kitchen. Her employment specialist has said that she was genuinely surprised and amazed at the skills that Carrie demonstrates while on the job.

Recognition of Carrie demonstrates that her contribution and presence is valued by coworkers, supervisors, and even the children in the school. She has received gifts from the principal, including a monogrammed duffel bag, and letters of thanks from the children to whom she serves food in the cafeteria. She is also invited on an annual basis to address the children in the school and talk about her life and her job, and answer their questions.

Besides gaining valuable skills, Carrie has also developed relationships that extend beyond work. Carrie described times when she had dinner with coworkers after work, and spent time at their homes. There were numerous other examples, including coworkers' attendance of Carrie's 40th birthday party, sporting events of coworkers' children, and agency-sponsored events that coworkers have attended. Working at Tenacres has enriched Carrie's life and helped her to develop relationships within a community in which she has a valued role.

Lessons learned

  • Employment specialists should take their cues from coworkers who are interested in fully supporting individuals on the job. In this situation, the best strategy was to know when to step aside and let the coworkers take over training. When coworkers are not as assertive as Carrie's, employment specialists can prompt engagement by asking how new employees are typically trained, reaching out to coworkers to demonstrate tasks or provide instruction, and supporting coworkers to design solutions to challenges.
  • Look for environments where coworkers support one another and work collaboratively on tasks, which suggest a high likelihood that they will also support a coworker with an intellectual disability.
  • Even when natural supports are firmly in place, situations may arise where employment specialists may have to step in and play a role. Employment staff should stay connected to the person's employment situation. In Carrie's case, her employment specialist stays in the loop through conversations that take place on the ride to and from work each day.