Austin American-Statesman Andrea Ball column
Feb 03, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Nathan Levine stands in the Hilton Austin kitchen, loading pots, pans, dishes and trays into a noisy industrial dishwasher.
It's been almost six years since the 23-year-old started working at the downtown hotel, and he still loves his job. Every morning, he leaps out of the car and runs into the building that has become his second home.
Nathan has severe autism. He cannot communicate orally. He can't stand certain sounds, can have trouble focusing and doesn't always seem to understand what is being said to him. But at the Hilton, he has found success that his family says other people can achieve, too.
"I think it's inspirational," said his mother, Linda.
For years, disability rights advocates have been pushing employers to hire people with special needs. As of June 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 27.6 percent of working-age people with disabilities were employed. Advocates say that number would be much higher if more employers were open to the idea.
"You just have to be creative, said Bea Jaramillo, the Hilton's director of human resources. "If you want to make it work, you can make it work."
Five years ago, the American-Statesman featured Nathan after the Austin Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities named him employee of the year in its annual contest. Since then, he's been hard at work in the hotel's kitchen at a job that plays to his strengths: routine, structure, repetition and sorting.
"It gives him a lot of joy being able to predict what's going to happen next," said Andrew Karnes, Nathan's job coach, who comes to work with him.
Nathan began his career at the hotel in 2007. His mother and father, Linda and Steve Levine, wanted their son to be active in the community. Nathan loves pushing luggage carts at hotels, Linda said, so she thought he might be good for a job as a bellboy.
Linda set up an interview with Jaramillo and other hotel department heads. She gave them Nathan's resume, which included the basics: name, phone number, education and skills. The Hilton team agreed to give Nathan a job.
Being a bellboy wouldn't work, they realized, because of Nathan's lack of communication skills. They also wanted him to be in a safe area where he didn't have to go outside or could possibly wander away. Ultimately they settled on the kitchen.
Initially, Nathan worked two hours a day, once a week. Today, he labors anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week, sorting and loading dishes into the dishwasher, delivering silverware to the employee cafeteria, and bringing kitchenware to other parts of the kitchen.
Karnes makes sure Nathan stays on track. Sometimes he gets distracted. Sometimes he spends too much time listening to the white noise the machine emits.
On a recent morning, Nathan stood at his station in his kitchen uniform: black shirt, checkered black pants, long white apron. The sounds of talking, spraying water, clanking dishes and slamming trays filled the room. Nathan was unfazed.
That never ceases to amaze Karnes, who also works with Nathan at home.
"Anywhere else this noise would be ..." He covers his ears with his hands. "Here, not at all. He loves it."
Linda says Nathan's job has helped him outside of work. He's less sensitive to sounds. He is better at taking direction, more tolerant of waiting in lines and more comfortable in public.
People with disabilities can thrive in the workplace, Linda said, but they need a chance to prove it.
"As long as they have job supports, they can be successfully employed in the community," she said. "I want to get out there and spread the word."
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