As a hazardous materials technician in Fort Lewis, Wash., John Kartes spends his days physically assisting mechanics, a job that often entails driving a forklift to transport engines and other heavy items. He ensures that the mechanics have the materials they need, keeps an inventory of hazardous materials and then coordinates their disposal by putting everything in the correct drums, barrels and tanks. What’s unusual about Kartes is that he does all of this using prosthetic arms and legs.
Kartes is an employee of Skookum Educational Programs in Port Townsend, Wash., where his supervisors consistently praise his outstanding work and positive attitude.
“He always has a smile on his face and makes the best of every situation,” said Buhl Holcolm, former site supervisor for Skookum. “He is definitely a motivation to other people.”
Kartes lost his arms and legs at the age of 21 as the result of an automobile accident. He suffered through operations and various treatments, but there’s no chip on his shoulder and no holding him back. In fact, from driving forklifts to working around the house, there is not a whole lot that he can’t do.
“I am on my feet almost all day and it is physically challenging,” he said. “I surprise a lot of people with the things I can do, like simply taking care of my yard, weeding and mowing my grass, for example.”
Skookum is one of hundreds of nonprofit agencies that provide employment for people with severe disabilities with federal contracts for goods and services secured through the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Program. The program, also called JWOD, stems from the Wagner-O’Day Act, which was passed in 1938.
The act allowed agencies serving people who are blind to sell products to the federal government. In 1971, with leadership from Sen. Jacob Javits, Congress amended the act to allow people with other severe disabilities to participate and agencies to provide services, as well as products, to the federal government.
More than 45,000 people who are blind or have other severe disabilities currently work through the JWOD program. It is the largest single source of employment for people with disabilities, providing them with the skills and training necessary to earn equitable wages, benefits and greater independence.