It’s 11:00 at the Taco Time on Trent Avenue in Millwood, Washington, and Daniel’s shift has just begun. He walks over to his photo list and checks to see what his first task of the day is. This time, it’s prepping Taco Time’s Mexi-Fries. Using a counting board, Daniel carefully portions out eight fries per side dish, packaging each set of eight into its own bag. After completing this task, he walks back over to his photo list, flips over the Mexi-Fries picture, and moves on to his next task: filling the soda machines with ice. Using a stepladder, Daniel grabs a bucket from on top of the ice machine and begins filling it with ice. Once the bucket is full, he carries it through the kitchen and into the front of the store, where he pours the ice into the machine. Occasionally, as he walks through the kitchen amongst his co-workers, Daniel will sing out, “DAN-iel!,” to which he’s met with a chorus of coworkers who, with a smile, return his song: “DAN-iel!” A pair of onlooking burly construction workers, lined with grit from a hard morning’s work, can’t help but grin as they hear the chorus while waiting for their meal. After making several trips back to the ice machine, this next task is now complete. Every time Daniel successfully completes a task, he returns to his photo list and methodically moves on to the next item, which he completes with enthusiasm and drive, and all the while, as he works, a symphony of DAN-iel’s saccades across the walls of the restaurant.
When watching Daniel at Taco Time, it becomes immediately apparent that he knows his job well, can handle the demands of fast-paced restaurant work, and has great camaraderie with his teammates. The way he leads his coworkers in song, like an opera conductor, is representative of the meaningful work he has found. He sings out his name, and others return the refrain, acknowledging and affirming his presence and impact. However, what may be surprising when you step into Taco Time and see this portrait of success firsthand is that Daniel had to overcome great adversity to get to where he is today, where others will sing his name.
Daniel first came to Skils’kin in 2013, where he initially pulled weeds and performed custodial work as a member of various AbilityOne crews at Fairchild Air Force Base. Unfortunately, owing to contract cuts, Daniel lost his job at the base.
Despite the work he’d performed on the AbilityOne crews, people doubted Daniel’s ability to secure individual employment in the community, and he was placed in Skils’kin’s prevocational department as a result. Because he was often nonverbal in the workplace, and often needed additional supports and structure, people didn’t believe Daniel was ready for community-based employment and questioned his ability to secure and maintain a long-term position.
But Daniel proved all the doubters wrong.
A former Skils’kin employee recognized Daniel’s potential and found him a job at Taco Time in December of 2015. Initially, Daniel’s work consisted of just wiping tables and maintaining the lobby, but since securing the position, Daniel has spent the last several years steadily expanding his skillset – as well as his impact.
Daniel’s skillset and responsibilities have continually grown since he started working at Taco Time several years ago. Much of this growth has been facilitated by Daniel’s ability to overcome obstacles using accommodations put together by Autumn Sule, Daniel’s staffing manager from Skils’kin. Autumn explained how when Daniel first began working at Taco Time, he wouldn’t vocalize his thoughts or engage with coworkers: “He wouldn’t talk verbally in the restaurant at all,” Autumn explained, “he was too new. He is highly verbal in his home – if you call him on the phone, he’ll talk away – but face to face in Taco Time, he wouldn’t communicate.” Autumn and Daniel successfully navigated through this obstacle by making a few accommodations. Autumn learned to point to things she wanted Daniel to do and ask questions, and this nonverbal communication helped Daniel think about his various tasks and learn to perform them. Autumn also helped Daniel with a photo flip schedule, which enables him to visualize each task and effectively complete tasks in order. Additionally, Autumn also put together various laminated counting boards for Daniel, which helps him accurately portion food items when performing food prep. He’s also starting to break down boxes and fold and store rags at the restaurant. His list of responsibilities just continues to expand thanks to supports that have given him room to grow.
Daniel’s coworkers have taken note of Daniel’s growth as well, including the impact he has had. Geri, a Taco Time employee who has worked with Daniel since he first started, and who was the first person Daniel connected with at the restaurant, explains how “He came in and just seemed to want to be here, and he’s continually progressed since then. He’s learning everything as he goes,” Geri added, “he sees that we all respond to him in an everyday setting, a work setting. We ask him, ‘Daniel, can you do this, Daniel can you help me with this,’ and that’s what we do with everyone. I think of Daniel as a coworker. He’s part of the team, and he knows his thing.” Not only does Daniel do his job and do it well, but as Geri continued to explain, Daniel inspires the team with his actions and his disposition: “He’s so sweet and so giving. He just seems to want to be friends with everyone. He sings his name, we sing it back to him, and we all get so excited. We care about him.”
It is clear that Daniel is a strong member of the Taco Time team, and like all great teammates, he leads through action and elevates the performance of everyone he works with. As Shallene, the manager of the Taco Time on Trent, explains, “Daniel is great. He’s about 30 minutes early every day, and he’s in his routine. As soon as he clocks in, he knows exactly where he’s going. He’s very knowledgeable on his job and with what he’s doing. He’s pretty independent.” Furthermore, Daniel helps keep the team energized: “He’s always in a great mood,” Shallene continued, “He likes to sing his name, so that’s when we know that Daniel is in an awesome mood for the day. He gets the entire crew worked up and in a good mood when he’s here. Everybody is super happy. Once he starts singing his name, everybody else sings it along with him. He’s great to have here,” Shallene concluded, “He makes a difference.”
And Daniel’s parents recognize the difference that employment has made in Daniel’s life as well. As Daniel’s dad, Dick, explains, “It makes me extremely happy seeing Daniel employed. I know he is happy too. He loves going out, and he enjoys the people he works with, who are very supportive. Every day, he’ll come home and walk in the door, and – say it’s a Tuesday – he’ll say ‘I’m going to work on Wednesday!’ He’s very excited about his work.” Daniel’s mom, Susan, weighed in as well, explaining how “it really has given Daniel benefit. He feels better about himself when he gets to work. Socially it helps him too.” Daniel’s dad continued, explaining, “It’s a social and very positive thing for him. Socially, and I think learning new skills, is really helpful for him. And it gives him time away from his mom and dad,” he explained with a laugh.
When asked about Daniel’s singing, Daniel’s dad explained that “Daniel loves music. Everything from blues to choir music. A part of that is maybe it’s easy for him to express himself in a singing kind of way. We play blues or classic music while at supper. He expresses longer lines while singing a song.”
Daniel has found his means of expression, and he makes his presence felt in the workplace. While he doesn’t often speak full sentences, he has truly found his voice.
To sing out your name and have others return the chorus – what is that worth? Perhaps it is worth everything. Daniel has found his place where his work is valued and his impact is recognized. Think then, how many others would find similar places if only, when the time comes, we sang out their name.