Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 26, 1998

By Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / February 26, 1998

BOUTTE – People with developmental disabilities need work, can work and often make some of the best workers, according to Regina Slaton, the new executive director of The Arc of St. Charles.”Our primary focus is vocational services,” Slaton said.

She began at The Arc of St. Charles in mid-December and already has foundmany friends and much personal fulfillment in her job.

“Once you spend some time with a person with a disability, it usually disappears,” she said.

Slaton, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a marketing degree, found herself working with the developmentally disabled through a circuitous route.

She went into television, “working horrible hours,” doing public service announcements, weekend news and public affairs. Finally, eight years ago,she found herself in Louisiana doing marketing work for a community mental health agency in Alexandria.

There, she assisted in the total transformation of the agency from facility-based to community-based, working to move the clients away from intense, daily institutionalizing to blending them into society.

“This is exactly what I was looking for,” she said, smiling.

Slaton is also working to overcome the stigma society often attaches to the developmentally disabled. She recalled one instance while working inAlexandria where she met a client who had been severely burned in an accident and had disfiguring scars.

After some time working with him, “the scars seemed to disappear” and she saw the person inside. On a later visit to the area she looked up thisformer client who she had helped find a job and found he had a wife, children and many friends, all of whom knew him for the person he is.

“There’s a warm, fuzzy side to this,” Slaton said.

Her attitude is that everyone is capable of doing some job to support themselves, no matter what their disability. “Putting a person into a jobreally changes their whole life,” she said. “Their standard of livingincreases as they aim at self-sufficiency. That’s real empowering.”In the past 10 years, university studies have determined self-supporting employment does the most good for these clients to give them confidence, financial independence and personal happiness. However, some areas stillhaven’t gotten the word to move clients out of the “special schools” and into the workplace.

Much of her job involves approaching potential employers about hiring her clients. She admits it usually takes several visits. “I get a lot of dazedstares,” she said.

Her employment specialists learn the jobs and bring the clients into it, even using tools such as still and video photography to make certain the clients not only know how to do the jobs but also how to deal with fellow employees and the public.

“There’s a lot of advantages to employers in filling entry-level positions,” Slaton commented. “They’re more dependable. They want towork. It makes good business sense.”She also tailors the job to the capabilities of the client. “We’ll go in,learn the job, teach them, and fade away.”Social skills and life-skills, such as shopping, banking and personal relationships, also contribute to the clients’ independence. The eventualgoal for every client is “to become a regular, taxpaying citizen.”She sees every person as capable of learning a job and achieving at least some level of independence. Even those persons with severe disabilitiescan do something, and it takes at times imagination and creativity to find the right job for every person.

“Somebody, somewhere, has employed a person like this,” she insisted.

“I’ll never give up trying.”Slaton finds relaxation by teaching aerobics as a certified instructor, enjoying her fianc’, the New Orleans cuisine and listening to Howard Stern in the morning drive to work.

However, it’s Slaton’s work which drives her.

“It’s so enlightening to interact with these people. They have a lot tooffer. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.

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