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May 4, 2003

Party to celebrate 10 years of service

From: Seattle Times, WA - May 4, 2003

By Beth Kaiman
Seattle Times staff reporter

After 10 years of watching Ron Brown empty the trash, bale the boxes and polish the yards of chrome that line the produce and dairy cases, his co-workers don't know what he is thinking.

They watch for the smallest of signs that Brown is happy, that he likes his life now better than he used to. They've got to believe he does, because Brown cannot tell them.

Brown, 33, is deaf, blind and developmentally disabled. He runs his fingers along the top of a trash can to determine if it needs a liner; he pats and rubs one hand atop the other if he wants to put on a dusting mitt to begin cleaning the cases. He communicates, in a limited way, mostly about what is in front of him, what he can touch.

Maybe someone else could do the work faster, but "I see it as a person finding value and worth as a human being," says John Whims, manager of a Safeway store in Renton where Brown works. "He gets his paycheck every Friday, he spends it on what he wants. He makes something of his life."

This week, Brown will be honored at a party celebrating his decade on the job, his "remarkable accomplishments," as the invitation proclaims, and the belief of his co-workers that giving someone a chance is noble and rewarding -- even if they never fully understand how they've helped.

"I feel good," Whims said. "We're part of the community. We have a compassionate side ... Bottom line: he's a good employee. He can be counted on to do a good job."

Alison McCormick, assistant director of Mainstay, a publicly funded employment and support service in Seattle, says work has helped to transform Brown, and rounds out his day, which often also includes time for swimming or a workout at the gym.

McCormick remembers her first meeting with Brown about 10 years ago. He was sitting outside, playing in the dirt, and she thought, "How am I going to find this person a job?"

Brown was born deaf, McCormick said, but abuse made him blind and probably caused a head injury that impairs his learning to this day. He received no formal schooling until his mid- or late teens.

He could be violent, throw tantrums out of frustration and hit his head -- hard. He couldn't let someone know when he needed to use the bathroom; he would feel around the walls of a house until he'd find a toilet.

He began learning sign language and some symbols when he was 21, said Chris Hanley, assistant director of Puget Sound Regional Services, which provides training and in-home support for Brown and his housemates.

Though Brown was developing the means to communicate and had worked for a year and a half in the cafeteria at Seattle Central Community College, he did not have skills McCormick could brag about to a potential employer.

At Safeway, though, she found a store manager willing to listen.

"All I did was take a chance," said Jim Gorden, then manager at the Renton store on Northeast Sunset Boulevard.

It wasn't an easy decision, he said, and in the early days, sometimes Brown would get frustrated, hit his head against a wall and have to leave the store with his job coach after just 15 minutes. But Gorden stuck with it.

"I was just feeling fortunate that I could give someone an opportunity," Gorden said. As he saw it, "No matter who we are, we have to keep busy -- no matter what your limitations."

After a while, the 15 minutes led to two hours, and now Brown works mornings at two Renton stores. He makes $7.31 an hour.

He and his job coach, Tiffany Mullin of Mainstay, move as a unit through the aisles and stockroom. Mostly, they stick to themselves, with Mullin scoping out the next task, watching that Brown doesn't get hurt sticking his hand in the garbage, checking to see if there is enough water in his spray bottle, making sure to take him down the coffee and detergent aisle "because it smells so great," she said.

In the last year and a half, Mullin said, Brown has made a breakthrough. He has learned to initiate communication on the job, not just receive it. He now lets her know through hand signals which job he'd like to take on next. When he wants to use a spray bottle, he makes a trigger motion.

Brown also now understands that when something is broken, such as a tape dispenser, it doesn't need to be tossed away in frustration. The other day, he held out the dispenser and waited while Mullin fixed it.

Hands touching hands, or with her hand reaching gently toward his face, Mullin suggests they move toward the trash chute, passes along the "good job" encouragements of Brown's co-workers and news of the company barbecues and retirement parties he likes to attend.

Conversation is one or two words at a time -- "garbage," "spray," "mitt" -- but the intimacy in those exchanges surpasses what many ever will experience in a day's work.

"If you understood where he came from and how dark it was," said McCormick, pausing to consider Brown's life now -- not just his participation in work, but his apparent enjoyment of downhill skiing, amusement rides, horseback riding and hotter-the-better Mexican food.

"He is in his life. This is his life."

Brown has a habit of reaching for the tops of doorways before he passes through.

Stacy Wells, a department manager, noticed he seemed to be fascinated by the swinging doors to the stock room -- taller than the others in the store and perhaps endlessly high in Brown's imagination.

To solve the mystery, she pushed a stepstool up to the doorway. Brown stood on it, found where the top of the door ended and smiled.

"I knew he liked that," Wells said.

Brown does not know what newspapers are, so he doesn't know this article is being written about him. He doesn't understand that dozens of people will gather at a Mexican restaurant Wednesday night to honor him.

Mullin, who has organized the event, tries to convey the point, signing repeatedly into his hand, "Party. Ron Brown. Later."

He also may not get that coworkers are donating money to send him on a vacation. Two nights at Ocean Shores, Whims said: "The water, the breeze and all that, we just figured he'd like it."

Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company