A Job for Sarah

By Michael Leahy
Sunday, April 18, 2004

The job was this: part-time telephone receptionist, 10 hours a week. Were it up to Sarah Cacciaglia, she would keep the job for a long time, so comfortable did she feel around the same friendly faces each day. But her stint here at Melwood, an Upper Marlboro-based nonprofit organization that provides services to people with disabilities, likely would be brief.

Sarah's file said she suffered from mild mental retardation and anxiety disorder. The receptionist job was a test of sorts, to see if, at 22, she could handle steady employment that included a modicum of pressure. If she performed well here, it would encourage her parents and her counselors enough to coax Sarah to set her sights higher.

The job required her to answer the main phone line and connect calls. There were about 60 extensions at the facility, far too many for even the regular receptionist to commit to memory, so Sarah was always equipped with a sheet listing employees' extension numbers. The training had gone fairly well -- but no one, least of all Sarah's mother, believed that there would not be several hurdles and bouts of anxiety still to come.

On a mid-February weekday, Sarah entered the quiet, cool receptionist's room alone, the regular receptionist having gone off for lunch. She began answering the phone, which rang, on average, about every half-minute.

"Melwood. May I help you? . . . Okay."

She hit a button, then hit the three-button extension, hit another button and hung up the phone, her task complete.

The job looked easy at first glance. Melwood's receptionist post is a white-walled room devoid of demands and yammering. It sits just off the lobby, but if there is no foot traffic, which is generally the case, it has the feel of a den. Sarah sat with her hands calmly folded in her lap. The phone rang again and she hit an extension, hung up, and the phone did not ring for an eternity that lasted probably two minutes.

Sarah had time to leaf through a copy of People magazine, slowly scanning an item about Jennifer Aniston. The phone rang, and just as she picked it up, another line rang. Suddenly the phone was ringing incessantly, a new call coming every 10 seconds or so. She would no sooner pick up the phone to greet one caller and begin making the necessary extension connection than it would be ringing again -- one ring, two rings, three rings -- the very kind of pressure to which her supporters believed she was most vulnerable.

Sarah remained in control, but here was the real surprise: She was using no sheet. She consulted nothing to obtain the employees' proper extension numbers. She just hit buttons, having absorbed most of the 60 or so three-digit extensions simply in the course of working the previous two months.

A call came for a man whom the caller identified only as "Bobby," the caller apologizing, saying he had no last name.

Sarah assumed rightly that the caller wanted Bobby Barney, reachable in Melwood's maintenance department at extension 267 or extension 429.

The next caller asked for Tom.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company