Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Disabled but up to the job

Order a steak, cut and eat. Hold a potato, peel and slice. Grab a glass, wash and dry.

Ordinary stuff for most people.

Mountainous tasks for Sarah Hilyard, a Holiday woman whose hands don't work the way they're supposed to.

But things are looking up for Hilyard. Through the job training program run by the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) of Pasco, Hilyard is overcoming physical problems that have controlled most of her 21 years. She washes dishes and eventually will do prep cook.

The training program, which uses coaches to learn and then teach a job to clients, helps ease handicapped people into society by placing them in the workforce.

Sometimes ARC clients need a tool or device to help them do a job. But because Hilyard has very poor motor skills in her hands, she has learned the true meaning of "tools of the trade."

"This is the first time we've had to deal with a person that needed such a wide range of things to do her job," says Greg Giordano, community employment supervisor at ARC of Pasco.

"Normally if we had to buy something it would be one thing. But Sarah needed maybe 10 to 12 different pieces just to do her job," he said, referring to inexpensive but essential kitchen tools.

Giordano, whose agency helps people with an assortment of disabilities, believes Hilyard's case illustrates a common misconception about the handicapped: that unless a problem is visible, people don't give it much thought.

"(Sarah's case) is a good educational tool for people. Sarah looks very normal; you wouldn't think she's disabled. But she can't use her hands the way most people can," he says. "We take that ability for granted."

A sense of


Hilyard and her job coach, Terri Schryer, spend about 20 hours a week in the back of Lucy's Country Kitchen, a Holiday restaurant that serves homestyle cooking.

Like a handful of business owners, Lucy Boatman decided to give a handicapped person a chance at independence after being approached with the idea by ARC. Hilyard is her first ARC employee.

"Hopefully she'll be able to be self-supporting as anybody wants to be," said Boatman, the mother of a disabled daughter. "She tries real hard, which is the main thing."

Hilyard washes dishes and eventually will do kitchen prep work.

Her tools include a special suction cup that affixes bowls to the table so she can mix food. A knife with a looped handle allows her to cut things, and a mitt acts as a sponge to wash dishes.

"She would hold the dish with her bare hand and wash with the mitt," says Schryer. "Otherwise the sponge would fall out of her hand."

She also has received brushes that stick to the sink with suction cups to enable her to wash glasses and silverware, and a device that peels potatoes.

As her job coach, Schryer initially took Hilyard to lunch and "saw she couldn't do a lot of things we all took for granted."

"Most of our people aren't as physically challenged as Sarah," says Schryer. "Sarah is real bright. Most of her problems are physical."

After realizing that, Schryer took Hilyard to her (Schryer's) house to "figure out what she couldn't do." She then went through store catalogs to figure out what tools and implements would enable her client to perform.

Schryer still is doing most of the job but thinks Hilyard soon will be able to take over.

"She is real eager to please and she loves her job. As of Monday, she started washing the glasses and she's thrilled," says Schryer. "She's starting to feel a sense of independence and self-achievement."

Threat of budget cuts

Money _ the elusive pot of gold to state workers _ will continue to dwindle for people who, like Hilyard, rely on state agencies for help.

But the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is still able to help some _ not all _ people with physical, mental or emotional disabilities that prevent them from working.

In Hilyard's case, about $200 covered the cost of her tools. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation was, in fact, where Hilyard first went for help. The agency referred her to ARC of Pasco and paid for her supplies.

"We try to help with whatever is necessary to get them an appropriate job," says counselor Ann Hartley. "Once you become a Vocational Rehabilitation client, we pursue the programs we think best fit.

"What we want to get across is that sometimes it's just a very small, inexpensive, readily available device that will help them do the job," she says. "Sometimes it's just very simple."

Like all state agencies, Vocational Rehab is being forced to cut its budget. The exact toll on its services isn't yet known.

Happy to be on her own

Fourteen months after she was born, Sarah Hilyard had brain surgery to remove water buildup caused by meningitis.

The disease and surgery impaired her motor skills, but most of her brain's functions were spared. Nonetheless, she has spent a life misplaced in school because of her handicap, says her mother, Linda Hilyard.

"It has been a hard battle," says Mrs. Hilyard. "It's not over, but this is a start. She can do a lot of things that so far no one has given her an opportunity to do."

Sarah is, among other things, a computer whiz. The minimum-wage earnings she hopes to make will go toward computer programs and a bridesmaid's dress. For now, though, she's concentrating on getting the job done.

"I like (the job), but I'm still not sure of what I'm supposed to do," she says. "I get lost pretty easy."

Linda Hilyard acknowledges her daughter has a lot to overcome, but both are optimistic.

"It has boosted her self-esteem," she says. "If for nothing else, it has given her a sense of worth. She feels she's doing something that is on her own. This is her job and she's not in my shadow. Now she has a little segment of her own life."