Jim Roberts, founder of Gourmet Entertainment in Los Angeles, was frustrated.
A maker of delicate alignment gauges for satellite television dishes, Roberts frequently relied on his teenage sons and their friends to assemble his intricate products. But their attention spans were short and the quality of their work fluctuated.
Because the components were different shapes and sizes, Roberts thought blind workers might be able to do a better job than his sighted crew.
"With 50 pieces, it was a very complicated and sophisticated job," Roberts said. "The workers at the Foundation for the Junior Blind assembled about 1,300 units with a zero error rate."
Across the country, business owners such as Roberts are turning to handicapped workers for help by contracting with sheltered workshops or hiring people directly.
While it may take a bit longer to train a mentally handicapped employee to do a particular task, rehabilitation experts say that once properly trained, most handicapped workers can keep pace with other workers.
Although the Association for Retarded Citizens, a national organization, recently adopted a policy encouraging American business owners to hire handicapped workers directly, there are still thousands of sheltered workshops seeking contract work from businesses around the United States.
"We consider the sheltered workshop a developmental step," said Sharon Davis, director of research and programs for the Arlington, Tex.-based association. "Our ultimate goal is to have people in competitive employment." Davis said many business owners don't realize there are state and federal funds available for what is called "supported employment."
The support takes several forms. One popular option is for handicapped workers to be accompanied by job coaches who help teach them the skills needed to succeed.
Some job coaches stay for a few weeks, others remain with the worker for longer periods of time.
Many states provide rehabilitation dollars that can be spent on job coaches, Davis said. There are also federal on-the-job training funds available to reimburse business owners who hired handicapped workers.
The association estimates that 75 percent of the country's mentally retarded adults are unemployed, yet many of them could find and maintain jobs with the right kind of support.
Currently, handicapped workers are assembling sewing machines, making military uniforms for enlisted women, creating wind chimes and crafting wooden wine racks. Others fold and pack boxes, stuff envelopes, work as cashiers and at myriad other jobs.
"Once they have been given the chance, handicapped workers do really well," said Santa Bonaparte, family and membership support coordinator for the Association of Retarded Citizen's Northern Virginia chapter. She said there are at least a dozen workshops operating in the Washington metro area, some through public programs and others organized by private, nonprofit groups. One goal is for workshop graduates to move into the community and work for all kinds of companies.
"We love to have business owners welcome them into their businesses," Bonaparte said. "When they do, both the employers and the employees are happy." Jane Applegate welcomes letters and story suggestions from readers. Please write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.