The Work Is Essential: Employees With Disabilities Fill Vital Roles During Pandemic

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By Joe Little, NBC 7 San Diego News

“I’m dealing with it. It’s been hard.”

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged millions of Americans in 2020. It’s challenged people with disabilities even more.

“It was hard,” said Destini Speaks as she poured lemonade into dozens of plastic cups.

Speaks has worked for Sodexo in Sharp Memorial Hospital’s cafeteria for more than three years. The last few months have added a lot of pressure on healthcare workers and medical staff. Besides working during a pandemic, Speaks works with a disability. She said she had a heart attack and a stroke when she was only 4-days-old. Now she deals with epilepsy, asthma and limited use in her right arm and hand.

Despite it all, Speaks still shows up to work with a mask on.

“I love working here, to help the patients,” Speaks said as she snapped plastic lids on the cups.

“Everybody should be equal,” said her manager Derrick Reynolds Jr. “Everybody should get an opportunity, and she proved that she earned it.”

Reynolds said Speaks is vital to the machine that feeds more than 400 workers and patients every day.

“It’s pretty scary being a healthcare worker during the pandemic,” Reynolds said.

“We’ve got a lot of dedicated staff who were not willing to let the virus keep them from our mission of supporting people with disabilities,” said Matt Mouer, the chief operating officer of the Arc of San Diego. “People with disabilities are part of the essential workforce.”

Mouer said the Arc supports more than 2,000 San Diegans with disabilities and helps some of them find jobs. The pandemic has not helped that pursuit.

“Obviously, when unemployment numbers go up, it’s harder to find jobs for people with disabilities,” Mouer said.

Mouer said 70% of the Arc’s clients are in essential-worker roles, however, and have kept working through the pandemic. Feeding healthcare workers and patients is just one of those jobs.

“Whenever you’re stuck inside of a hospital room, food is obviously something that you look forward to,” Reynolds said.

“We all value work in our lives,” Mouer added. “We all value the quality of being able to contribute to society.”

“I try to be the best I can,” said Speaks as she carried the tray of plastic cups with her left arm to another table. “Get our job done every day.”

The Arc of San Diego also offers training and services to people with disabilities. Mouer said they are looking to hire people for their own staff, too.