It's 11 a.m. on a recent Tuesday and Bob Johnson is going over basics in his photography class. One by one, he has the students stand and demonstrate how to load their digital cameras or change the batteries. As always, he singles out each one for a round of applause when the task is completed.
"Take your time," Johnson cautions. "Remember to put your hand in the strap first and secure your camera."
Praise and patience are the hallmarks of this class, where about a dozen adults with developmental disabilities are learning to take and develop their own photographs. Some of them will be exhibited next month at the Charles E. Sumner School, 17th and M streets NW.
The class was the brainchild of Al Price, founder and president of New Vision Photography Program Inc., a job training initiative for the developmentally disabled. The students, ages 28 to 55, receive weekday instruction and go on photography field trips. They recently "shadowed" Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), and those photos will be part of the Sumner exhibit.
"Photography and children are my passions, and I particularly like working with people with developmental disabilities -- God's special children," said Price, 61, a retired D.C. government employee.
Price previously worked at Forest Haven, the city's defunct facility for the mentally retarded, and was the official mayoral photographer during the administration of former mayor Marion Barry. He has also been an employment specialist at the Kennedy Institute, which provides services to developmentally disabled children and adults.
The program seeks to include developmentally disabled citizens in community life and to expand employment options for them. Pre-vocational training emphasizes the fundamental skills of conventional and digital photography. A "supported employment" program aims to place students in photo development jobs at or above minimum wage.
"Before, their only job options were janitorial or food service," said Price. "We want to train them for employment in the photography industry, doing photo I.D. cards, working on one-hour developing machines or photographing small events."
Much of the funding for the class, 70 percent, comes from the federal Medicaid program, which pays for a wide variety of approved services. Local governments pick up the rest of the cost.
"Al Price came to us with the idea to set up a program with our consumers who were able to take photographs," said Dale Brown, administrator of the city's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA), part of the Department of Human Services. "We welcome new providers, especially providers with innovative programs."
Johnson, 59, a freelance photographer and retired D.C. government employee, said, "I saw a miracle if we could take this population and teach them a skill to become employable. You just need a little time and patience and a lot of love."
The program pays New Vision for each student: $100 a day for pre-vocational training, $140 a day for "supportive employment" services, and $33 a day to provide transportation to and from classes and field trips. In this case, "supportive employment services" are job coaches who work with newly hired workers for two to three months until the disabled person is trained and learns the routine. Employers receive a tax break for participating in the program.
Classes are held at New Vision's building in Petworth. Photography field trips have included the Hirshhorn and National galleries, the Vietnam memorial, and "The Awakening" statute on Hains Point.
Price's wife, Bettye Magee-Price, who owns the Addison Road Day Care Center, helps with the program, as do assistant teachers Lisa Morgan and Ernestine Covington. Most members of the class live in city-contracted group homes. Price said that some students have been in many day programs, but didn't stay because of behavioral issues; a few have never been in any program. The District permitted The Post to interview and take pictures of the students, using only their first names.
"I like to come here instead of going to another program," said Jacqueline, 33, proudly showing photographs from her portfolio. "It was fun following the mayor around."
Michelle and Anthony, both 46, say they hope the training will give them skills that lead to a job.
Price calls such expectations "very realistic." He has been in contact with area CVS and Penn Camera stores, which he said need help for their one-hour developing labs. He also expects to hire some of his students to work at New Vision, which is setting up a one-hour photo lab to do identity cards and quick processing of film.
For the gala opening of their photo exhibit, which will be open to the public through the month of July, Price has arranged for the students to arrive by limousine, dressed in gowns and tuxedos. "One of my passions," he said, "is to change the thinking about persons with developmental disabilities."