Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Chart Topper: Hilltop's Ken James overcomes challenges to become top performer

Ken James keeps a copy of Billboard magazine with him as he works alongside peers putting together instruction materials for Crossman air guns at Hilltop Industries' work center in Mount Morris, NY.

Hilltop Habilitation Coordinator Ellen Friedler, who has known Ken for more than a quarter century, describes the music magazine as "Ken's bible."  Ken has superb recall of the Billboard Hot 100 charts.  Since its inception in 1958, the Hot 100 has had more than 1,000 different number-one hits; Ken can identify most every song and artist, often with its record label and the date that the single hit the charts. 

While Ken is mainly quiet and introverted, he is cordial and engaged as he imparts his knowledge when asked.  Today, Ken discusses "Groove is in the Heart," a song by the dance band "Deee-Lite" that hit number 4 in 1990.  It's a commonplace workplace conversation -- but one that Ellen could only dream of 25 years ago.

"As a worker, he has always been amazing," Ellen recalls, of her early interactions with Ken.  "But he would suffer from rigid, violent behaviors.  The most injured that I ever was at work was by Ken.  He struck me on the back of my neck with his fists."

Ken, who is now 48 years old, is a tall, solidly built man with a dual diagnosis of autism and an intellectual disability.  For more than half of his life, he has worked at Hilltop Industries, a program of The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming that provides gainful employment to people with disabilities.  As is typical for many individuals with an autism diagnosis, Ken has struggled with behavioral issues triggered by environmental stimuli such as noises or confusion regarding his routine.

When Ellen met Ken in the late 1980s, he was unable to work alongside his peers for concern of violent outbursts.  He also suffered from tardive dyskinesia, a difficult-to-treat condition caused by taking certain medications over time that results in a severely slouched posture and involuntary, repetitive body movements.  She became part of a team with a long-term goal to help Ken address his various challenges.

"We were all committed, but we were holding our breath," she says. "It wasn't like we waved a magic wand and -- 'poof'-- everything was fine.  It was a slow process."

Ken's circle of support included staff members from work and at home.  In 1988, he had moved from a large institution at Craig Colony into his first community placement, the Walnut IRA (Individualized Residential Alternative), a New York State-operated home in Nunda.  IRA staff joined forces with Case Manager Judy Welch, other Hilltop staff, and Ken's transportation providers to establish consistent guidelines regarding hitting and touching, and maintain a log book with Ken's behaviors.

Ken's staff developed a thorough rules/rewards system, which was the accepted method at the time.  The rules were communicated verbally, through illustrations, and printed word, as Ken is a better-than-average reader.

As his behavioral issues were being addressed, so were his health concerns.  Adjustments to his medication regimen eventually counteracted the effects of his tardive dyskinesia.

"Ken's success during that time was truly a result of teamwork," Ellen says. 

In 1997, Ellen left her job at Hilltop Industries to raise her daughter.  In 2007, she returned to the agency, and to an emotional reunion with Ken. 

"I almost cried," Ellen says.  "You could shake his hand, touch him on the shoulder, and talk to him off topic. Ken has always been well liked, and now everyone who knows him can interact with him more."

Joey Bonavita has worked with Ken for almost two decades, and is currently Ken's Case Manager.  He shares Ken's passion for music; Joey is a musician whose projects include The Hogs and The Mental Detectors.

"Sometimes he'll put on a song for me," Joey says.  Ken is known for wearing headphones as he works.  He often listens to Prince, Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, and other favorites stored on his iPod.  Other times, he chooses the radio interface; although reception is poor at the work center, it doesn't bother Ken.

"There are times when Ken is just listening to static, but it has a soothing effect as he works," Joey says. "And his hearing is incredible.  Even with the headphones on, he hears everything that goes on around him."

While the soundtrack to his day might be considered unconventional, it provides a template for success.  Ken is among Hilltop's most productive employees.  He works at a steady, rapid pace five days a week, from 8:30am until 3:30pm, stopping only for a half-hour lunch and two 15 minute breaks.  Because he is paid by the piece, this allows Ken to earn "a very good paycheck," according to Joey.

"Literally, it's like he's half man, half machine when he's working," he explains. "He will put together up to 2,000 pieces in a day, which is double the productivity of most people."  He adds that Ken is self-motivated, and that staff no longer uses a rewards system.  Ken occasionally treats himself to an oatmeal cream pie from the snack machine, or to his favorite lunch: a chicken sandwich, potato chips, and apple juice.

And the violent outbursts have come to an end.

"I think Ken is a prime example of a person who has benefited tremendously from a work center," Hilltop Director Kellie Kennedy says. "Ken has been given the opportunity to use his skills to be very productive in his work while learning how to self manage his behavior over the course of many years. The work center allows Ken to be himself in an environment that is comfortable to him, and to work to his potential."

Having already met so many of life's challenges, Ken's current goals include managing his own money when making purchases in the community.  He has the math skills to do it.  According to Joey, Ken can complete complicated  problems in his head, including multiplication of three- and four-digit numbers.

Discovering, nurturing, and bringing to light Ken's talents has been "a gift," according to Ellen.  And Ken's prospects for the future could only be described as "Deee-liteful."

"He'll look at you sometimes, and it's like a compliment that he's taking you in," Ellen says.  "He looks like a giant teddy bear, and now he is one."

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