A pilot program changes the life of a book lover with cerebral palsy

If you ran a business, would you hire Andy Owens?

The 21-year-old scholarship student at Portland Community College has a shelf full of leadership awards, a strong work ethic and an easy smile.

One more thing: Owens has cerebral palsy, a condition that severely impairs his ability to communicate and control his movement. He relies on a wheelchair, a small computer and a personal assistant to interact with the world.

Still interested?

Some companies might be reluctant, but Powell's City of Books accepted the challenge last year. The arrangement has benefited both parties. Owens uses a switch-operated conveyor belt Ñ specially designed for him Ñ to sort books part time. Powell's gained a dedicated employee and a new technology for pricing books that it may expand in the future.

'The only risk we were aware of was the time commitment, but we value diversity here, and we wanted to give it a try,' said Paula Kreps, an assistant manager at Powell's warehouse in Northwest Portland. 'It has paid off big-time.'

Most people with disabilities have a difficult time finding work.

The unemployment rate among the nation's 45 million disabled people is between 70 percent and 90 percent, said Jo-Ann Sowers, co-director of the Center on Self-Determination at Oregon Health & Science University.

It's no different for the more than 51,000 people with developmental disabilities in Oregon, Sowers said.

Owens, an independent spirit, was determined to buck the trend.

He got cerebral palsy after nearly drowning when he was 2 years old. Between 500,000 and 700,000 people have the disease in the United States. A small percentage of them acquired the disorder when they were young as a result of an accident or injury that prevented oxygen from reaching the brain.

Owens has tried to lead as normal a life as possible. Although he can't speak or walk, he participated in youth groups. He went to the prom. And after graduating from Sunset High School, he wanted to prove to people that he could hold a job like anyone else.

With a lot of support from his family, he made it happen.

Owens was among 25 people with disabilities statewide who created career plans with guidance and money from a program at the Center on Self-Determination. The program Ñ which ended last December Ñ was funded through a $100,000 grant Sowers received from the Oregon Office of Developmental Disabilities.

The program's purpose was to demonstrate to Oregonians how people with disabilities could use government funding more efficiently to manage a transition into the workplace, Sowers said.

Typically, the state has funded social services agencies and other providers that have controlled what kinds of jobs are available to disabled people Ñ leaving job seekers out of the loop.

'The message of this project was aimed at providers who often have not believed that someone with a disability as severe as Andy's could go to work,' Sowers said. In her program, 'they had their own money and could determine themselves how to use it.'

Now, thanks in part to the project's success, Oregon is restructuring the way it distributes funds to people with developmental disabilities who want to work, Sowers said. Instead of funding social service agencies directly, the state sends the money to brokerages where individuals determine how it will be spent.

Owens' mother, Cynthia, assembled a team of people, including teachers, friends and representatives of various agencies, to develop a plan for his transition to work.

Over a three-year period, they identified potential careers for Owens, as well as the technology and money he would need to achieve his goal. He ultimately spent $18,000 in state and federal funding.

Because of his love of books, the team suggested Owens work at a bookstore. He began volunteering at a public library to gain some experience and build stamina.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Owens and Sowers approached Powell's. They made it clear that they didn't want 'charity.' They wanted to see what kind of work Owens could do at Powell's and if at the same time they could improve operations at the bookstore.

'There was no reason not to give it a try,' said Kreps, who suggested the team consider a job for Owens at the Powell's warehouse, where books are kept and cataloged for online and store sales.

The team contracted with engineer Walt Silfies and his business partner, Jerry Brassfield, who built a conveyor belt that Owens controls by using his head to press switches on his wheelchair headrest. His personal assistant, Stephanie Noll, helps place price stickers on the books he scans.

Owens' adoptive father, David, created a program for Owens' computer to interface with Powell's computer system.

Owens scans between 100 and 150 books in a two-hour day, which is the equivalent of what other employees accomplish by hand. And recently he increased his commitment to 12 hours a week.

Cynthia Owens said she has seen a sense of pride grow in her son, who has become a role model for other disabled people interested in finding work. Owens has given speeches, programmed onto his personal computer, before advocacy groups for people with disabilities statewide.

'If someone like Andy with his physical barriers can work, then anybody can work,' she said. 'Because he's out there in the work force it lets other people know he's a contributor to the community.

'He's a taxpayer.'

Contact Cristine Gonzalez at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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