Cristian Rogers is a 19-year-old man with Down syndrome living in Johns Creek, Georgia. After graduating from high school, Rogers began working at his local Hilton Garden Inn in June 2018. He folds towels and bedsheets; organizes stockrooms and closets; and helps out in other parts of the hotel in a pinch. For instance, when the hotel lobby got very busy one morning, he was asked to jump in to assist with cleaning and bussing tables. Rogers did a great job because he’s a team player. Denise Frier, Rogers’ job coach through the organization Randy & Friends, Inc., has been crucial in helping him get acclimated to the work environment. A job coach is a person who assists individuals with disabilities to find and maintain employment using supported employment services.
When he first started, Rogers didn't always know what to do after he finished an assignment and needed support to figure out the next task. Since those early days on the job, his job coach has helped him learn how to be more creative and self-directed in approaching his work.
Though job coaches rarely come into a person’s life until after they’ve graduated and begin vocational training, Frier and Rogers actually met when he was still in high school thanks to an innovative transition program that aims to help people with disabilities to become fully productive members of society by achieving independence and meaningful employment.
The pilot program at Rogers’ school, Northview High, started out by teaching an hour-long class in life skills. The team immediately saw the importance of working with students at an earlier age, rather than waiting for them to graduate or age out of high school. (Some students with disabilities may choose to remain enrolled in school until they turn 22 years old.) Then, as Frier says, some “go home and sit on the couch and do nothing.” Frier says that the program is a big shift, a positive shift, for the school, the parents and the individuals.
Frier is phasing out as his job coach, although she’ll still be around to help with coaching other personal and social aspects of his life such as independent living (learning how to ride Uber, grocery shopping and eventually light cooking at home). His mom, Noel Rogers, admits that helping Cristian learn how to live independently will be as much about her letting go and trusting the process as it will be about his own skill building.
“I see Cristian taking reservations over the phone one day. Our company likes to promote from within,” Mary-Jo Ruiz, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn, says with a grin. Frier says that, in her position, she sees the ins and outs of many businesses. The Hilton has really impressed her with their innovation and treatment of Cristian Rogers. “There [are] no holds barred where this staff is concerned,” says Frier. “Every day he comes in, he’s greeted, he is encouraged. They constantly stop in and make sure he has everything he needs. He couldn’t be in a more supportive place.”
Rogers does not have a Medicaid waiver. He’s been on the waitlist for a COMP Medicaid waiver, a program that provides services for eligible people with intellectual, developmental or physical disabilities, since he was 10. In Georgia, the waiver waitlist is comprised of over 6,000 people, and advocates continue to work to ensure that all Georgians with developmental disabilities and their families receive the supports and services they require to be fully included in their chosen communities.
One of the things Noel Rogers is looking forward to about her son hopefully receiving a Medicaid waiver in the future is support for transportation. She has two younger children at home, including a toddler. Juggling transportation for everyone can be quite challenging. It will be important for Cristian to become independent. They can’t afford to pay for him to ride Uber everywhere he needs to go.
If given the opportunity to speak directly with a legislator, Noel Rogers would say that people with developmental disabilities are “just like everybody else; don’t feel sorry for them.” At the same time, Noel feels strongly that people like her son should not have their opportunities limited. “He’s here, working. Don’t put limits on them. I believe they can do anything they want to do. If they really want to do something, they work hard to do it. They’re not lazy. They’re not afraid to try if they get the opportunity.” Noel says that the worst thing that could happen is for someone to “cut her son’s wings.” She really hopes he can get support to go to college like he wants to.
“He knows he has Down syndrome, but he’s just like everybody else. Down syndrome is not the definition of who he is.” Looking at Cristian, Noel asks Cristian, “Down syndrome is what?” “It’s cool,” Cristian replies.