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Profile of a Federationist
by Joyce Scanlan
From the Editor: The following profile of Larry Kettner first appeared in Joyce Scanlan's "Les Affaires" column in the Winter 2002 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Minnesota. Joyce is president of the affiliate, and she has known and admired Larry Kettner for many years. The occasion for writing the profile was a recent honor that Larry had received. Here is Joyce's description of Larry's recent and not-so-recent adventures. When I joined the NFB, the Lawrence Kettner case was one of the first important stories I remember reading about. Newer members should find Larry's experience interesting and disturbing. Here is the story:
On July 26, 2001, at a ceremony held in St. Louis, Missouri, Lawrence (Larry) Kettner received the Regional Hourly Associate of the Year award presented by his employer, Compass Group North America, Chartwells Division, which is responsible for school dining services, kindergarten through grade twelve. Larry has held a utility position with Compass for thirteen years and has worked at Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota, for ten years. He says, "I work in the kitchen and do whatever they ask me to do; I clean counters and equipment, wash dishes, crack eggs, peel potatoes, scrub pots and pans--anything at all." At the celebration in St. Louis, Larry received a trophy and a check for $1,000. The trophy depicts a figure of a man reaching for a star, which is suspended above his head, with the inscription on the base, "ABC [above and beyond the call of duty], Lawrence Kettner, July 26, 2001."
Larry and his boss Kimberly Chase, director of school dining services for Blake School campuses, were scheduled to go to Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 27 for the national party to recognize the six regional 2001 employees of Compass; however, the terrorist attacks of September 11 caused the cancellation of the national event. Instead, Larry and his boss were invited to Charlotte, North Carolina, where on December 5 Larry, clad in the traditional white suit, carried the flaming Olympic torch for one-quarter mile of its long journey to Salt Lake City, Utah, for the 2002 Olympic Games. He now proudly displays his trophy, the white suit, and a model of the Olympic torch as symbols of his personal success and of his employer's recognition of his value on the job.
All of us in the National Federation of the Blind who have known Larry as an active and dedicated member since 1974 say, "Congratulations, Larry; the honor you have received is well deserved." We have known Larry Kettner as an enthusiastic national and state Federation convention attendee, as an energetic fund raiser, and as a Federationist who recognizes the importance of spreading the word to the public about the capabilities of blind people in the job market, of their right to independence and equal participation in the community, and of their need to give back to the community for what they have received.
Larry understands and appreciates the concept of collective action and the benefits to be gained if one is willing to give back. His own personal story of struggle to achieve, of putdowns by rehabilitation agency personnel, and of overcoming attitudinal barriers to reach ultimate triumph is one from which everyone can learn an important lesson. The honor bestowed upon Larry by his employer of thirteen years is much deserved, and it comes after twenty-seven years of fierce conflict with private agency staff and rehab counselors and perseverance to succeed at a job he knew he could do.
Born in 1934, Larry Kettner was diagnosed with Usher's syndrome when he was in the eighth grade. He was already legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa, and his hearing would gradually deteriorate over the years. Today he is totally blind and can hear only with the assistance of two very strong hearing aids. He loved his job as a farmer in Carver County, Minnesota, until 1973, when he decided to quit because of his decreasing vision.
The hard work of farm life had been daily routine for Larry; he had regularly experienced challenges and overcome barriers. Although he felt that he could not operate his farm as independently as he wished, he was certain that he could be successful in finding suitable employment. Larry was determined to be self-supporting. He would not settle for a welfare check; he would pursue a competitive job in which he would carry his weight and earn his keep. Nevertheless, Larry could never have anticipated the rocky road which lay ahead of him as he struggled to make his dream come true.
He was referred to Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB) in 1973 and was referred to Sharon Grostephan, a rehabilitation teacher hired by the NFB of Minnesota, for travel training. At the same time he was sent to the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, now Vision Loss Resources (VLR), for work evaluation and possible employment in the sheltered workshop.
At VLR in 1974 Larry encountered major unfair treatment and job discrimination. The National Federation of the Blind was at the height of its battle with the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) at that time, and VLR was a NAC-accredited agency, one of the stalwart NAC supporters in the blindness field. An examination of the evaluation documents on Lawrence Kettner in the sheltered workshop revealed that he had been making steady improvement in speed and productivity; yet his evaluation was suddenly terminated, and he was certified as being able to earn only 80 percent of minimum wage. Larry was forced by VLR officials, who ganged up on him in a closed meeting where he had no support, to sign a minimum-wage waiver. At the same time Larry and Sharon Grostephan had found a job for Larry in the open job market at pay well above the minimum wage. Larry signed the VLR waiver because he needed the money owed him and feared he would not be paid if he didn't sign.
His story was told in the article "NAC Unmasked: The Kettner Case" at the 1974 National Convention in Chicago. This story was instrumental in persuading the Rehabilitation Services Administration commissioner to discontinue federal funding of NAC, a major step forward in our efforts to reform or destroy NAC.
An appeal of Larry's VLR evaluation results was filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Wages and Hours Division, and the investigation revealed that the VLR evaluation had been flawed. VLR was ordered to pay Larry the difference between the evaluation figure and the actual pay he should have received. Of course Larry remembers the struggle to make VLR pay up, but he was eventually paid. Many workers would have given up the fight, but Larry knew he had earned the money and held out until he received it.
The late ’70's and early ’80's brought a mixture of success and further problems to be solved. Larry was successful in his employment setting; however, his eyesight continued to deteriorate, and he needed further training. In 1978 he attended the South Dakota Rehabilitation Center in Sioux Falls. This was no more productive than the earlier experience with VLR, because again the staff did not understand Larry's innate drive. He would not be broken down by insult or outright rudeness or personal disrespect. One staff person actually told him to "shut up." He would not settle for the sheltered workshop system's approach to his situation--work at routine and repetitive manual labor for paltry wages and treatment as a second-class citizen. Larry continued to pursue his goal of full-time employment in the competitive workforce.
In 1985 Larry Kettner took the daring step of returning to VLR for rehabilitation training. He had a very supportive SSB counselor, who did everything possible to ensure fair treatment for Larry. Several VLR directors had come and gone, and many staff changes had taken place. And Larry was desperate to be employable. As soon as the word that Larry was a member of the National Federation of the Blind was out at VLR, no one would even speak to him. He was isolated, excluded from certain VLR program activities, and insulted by agency staff. One travel instructor made a highly inappropriate, very derogatory comment regarding Larry's appearance one day on a lesson. After a short time Larry had had enough, so he left.
At this point he began to learn sign language to assist him in communicating with others. He was also referred to several placement programs to help him find a job. He was now living fully independently and was not about to give up on his ultimate goal.
In 1988 success came. Larry's friend found an ad for a utility job in Minneapolis. With the assistance of his SSB rehab counselor Maureen Toonkel and a referral agency, Larry was hired for the job, and that is where he has remained for the past thirteen years, at Compass Group USA, Chartwells Division, working in the school dining services, now at Blake School in Hopkins.
Throughout his years of struggle Larry looked to the NFB for encouragement and direction. He called when he experienced unfair treatment and felt down. We did what we could to help; however, it was Larry's incredible drive to reach his goal of meaningful full-time employment that led to his final victory. He remembers well the names of all those professionals who worked with him, those who were unfair and condescending as well as those who gave him support and positive assistance. In addition to his membership in the National Federation of the Blind, Larry has belonged to the Lions, the Eagles, the Elks, and the Moose clubs in Minneapolis. He seizes upon every opportunity to educate others in these organizations about blindness. He also promotes the Federation and solicits contributions for NFB whenever these groups are having fund raisers.
Today Larry is living independently in a high-rise in St. Paul. He leaves for work every day at 4:30 a.m. and is paid well above ten dollars per hour for his full-time job, far more than the unjust subminimum wage VLR officials had judged him capable of earning in 1974. He loves his work and all the people who work with him. Larry is a loyal employee, and obviously, based on the reward bestowed upon him in 2001, he is greatly appreciated by his peers and his supervisor.
The press release Larry's employer circulated at the time he flew to Charlotte to carry the Olympic torch is indicative of the high regard his supervisor and colleagues feel for him. In that release Ms. Chase says, "Larry is a true team player. For large catering events Larry helps our team with chopping vegetables and skewer meat, preparing hors d'oeuvres, and contributing recipe and menu ideas. When it comes to sanitation, no one can get past Larry without thoroughly washing their hands and running the silverware twice."
Those are complimentary words, and Larry has every reason to feel proud of his success. He has worked hard for many years to achieve this goal. Although he is now almost sixty-eight years old and could retire if he wanted to, Larry will continue to do the work he enjoys. And all Federationists will join him in celebrating the honor he has received and the many years of active and dedicated service he will contribute in the future.
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