Like many other workers, Fred Garnett gets up in the morning, kisses his wife goodbye, and heads to work. Like many other workers, Fred clocks in, checks out his list of tasks for the day, works his eight hours, and goes home. Fred is just like any other worker except for one small difference: Fred is blind.
For the past few months, Fred Garnett has worked in the kitchen at the VA Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics (VA SORCC) in White City, Oregon. His job is to help prepare meals for the hundreds of veterans housed at the facility. He likes his job and does it well. “The other cooks have been very receptive and helpful. Everybody is interested and surprised to see how I do,” Fred said. He explained that sometimes people feel a little apprehensive about working with him. “A lot of times when people work with someone who has a disability, they’re not sure if that person will be able to keep up and if they will have to work more to compensate.” Fred, however, is happy to put their fears to rest. “I think I’m exceeding their expectations. My goal is to be independent and an equal participant on the team of cooks.”
To help him become a fully contributing team member, Fred makes use of a few workplace accommodations. Most of these accommodations take the form of assistive technologies. For example, when Fred first gets to work, he needs to read the day’s menu. To do this, he uses a machine that scans and reads the menu for him called an Eye-Pal SOLO. Later, when he checks his email, he uses a program called JAWS to have it read to him out loud. He uses a Braille embosser to label items and a barcode scanner that tells him if the can in his hand contains peaches or peas. Most of Fred’s assistive technology was provided at no cost to the VA through the Department of Defense’s Computer Accommodation Program (CAP). Obtaining assistive technology through CAP was quick and easy; most of the items were ready for Fred to use the first week of his employment.
Fred’s furriest bit of assistive technology, however, did not come from the CAP program. Fred’s guide dog Eldon has been helping him find his way around for two years. Every day, Eldon helps Fred get to and from work. This involves catching a bus, making a transfer, and navigating the many hallways of the VA SORCC. While Fred works hard in the kitchen, Eldon bides his time in a cushy office down the hall. Fred says that he and Eldon share a strong bond. “I have to put my faith and trust in him—that he’s going to take care of me. We work together.” After a hard day at work, Eldon gets some time to relax. “When we get home, he’s just a regular dog. He likes to roll around in the grass.”
Fred Garnett is no novice when it comes to food preparation. He spent 12 years working 72 hours per week manning his own drive-through espresso shop. Though he enjoyed having his own business, he was drawn to the position at the VA because of the regular hours and great benefits that it offered. The VA’s 40-hour work week has afforded Fred a lot more time to spend with his wife, Tracey, and their four sons.
Fred’s four sons are 23, 21, 18, and 16-years-old. The oldest two were in the Marine Corps, the 18-year-old is a Marine Corps Reservist, and the 16-year-old hopes to one day join. Having raised a house full of marines, Fred naturally finds serving Veterans to be important and meaningful work. “I have a great appreciation for the work [our troops] do. I’m excited to be here and be a part of this,” he said.
Fred says the best part of his experience working for the VA has been the people that he’s encountered. “I really enjoy the people. I was really apprehensive about coming here. It’s a big change. The kitchen is huge and trying to be able to find my way around at first was overwhelming. But, day by day I’ve gotten more comfortable. I’ve just really trusted God in the whole thing. And, I can’t emphasize enough how great the people have been. It’s great to be part of this team.”
“I think a lot of people are apprehensive about working with people like me—people with disabilities. I think they would be amazed if they gave those people a chance,” said Fred. In the short time he has been here, Fred has shown himself to be a reliable, punctual, and valuable employee. We are happy to have him on our team at the VA SORCC and hope that he stays with us for many years to come.