BLUEPRINT FOR HAPPINESS Handicapped employee and architect build a dream


Oh, if only real life were like television -- specifically, "L.A. Law," where a prestigious law firm opens glass doors and yuppie hearts to a mentally retarded man who becomes a valued employee.

Well, sometimes you can't tell where television ends and real life begins. Change "L.A. Law to "Annapolis Architecture," eliminate the steamy subplots, and you have a good idea of what Wheeler, Goodman, Masek and Associates Inc. accomplished when it hired Matt McClain a year ago.

McClain, a 23-year-old with Down's syndrome, started work at the architectural firm after one of the partners, Chuck Goodman, decided he wanted to try hiring someone classified as disabled. Employer and employee now are finalists for awards given by the East Baltimore Resources Inc., which makes similar placements.

The awards are to be presented at a banquet Sunday by Larry Drake, the "L.A. Law" actor whose fictional character, Benny, provides a tidy parallel to McClain's life.

McClain came to Wheeler, Goodman, Masek and Associates through a group called the Providence Center Inc., which provides a range of services for developmentally disabled adults in Anne Arundel County.

When Goodman first proposed the idea of hiring McClain, several employees had only the television show as a frame of reference. "They all said, 'You mean like Benny on 'L.A. Law?,' " Goodman recalled.

McClain, however, has never noted the connection. He prefers sitcoms to "L.A. Law," which may account for his way with a snappy comeback.

For example, there was the telephone conversation between Goodman and a worker at Providence Center. Goodman had posted an ad through the center and McClain was one of the first to answer.

Goodman: "Can he read?"

Providence Center worker: "He wants to know if you can read."

McClain, in the background: "Tell him I can read good enough to read his ad."

Or there was the interview itself, where Goodman asked McClain his salary requirements. When McClain puzzled over the answer, a worker from Providence Center prodded him about his experience working in fast-food restaurants.

Providence Center worker: "What did you make at Roy Rogers, Matt?"

McClain: (After a long silence) "Biscuits!"

It hasn't been all laughs for the past year. McClain's job as a blueprint assistant requires him to be alert to fine distinctions in the quality of blueprint reproductions, his chief responsibility.

Fragile blueprints are backed with a special film that McClain then feeds through a machine that automatically produces a facsimile. McClain has to set the machine for exact variations of light and dark in every blueprint, and adjust it for size.

The task was considerably more complicated than most jobs Providence Center finds for its people. And the blueprints McClain handles often were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor.

"It was peaks and valleys the first two to three months, just because of the subjectivity factor," Goodman said. "Now he's become aware of it [the need to be meticulous about the copies], and we don't have a quality-control problem."

McClain works 24 to 40 hours a week, earning $4.25 an hour and receiving full benefits. Besides running the blueprint reproduction machine, he makes photocopies, runs errands and delivers the mail.

"It's OK," he said. "Sometimes I bug people, but then I calm down."

Off work, he has a full social calendar. McClain, who lives with his parents in Annapolis, is active in Boy Scouts and his church. He first came to Providence Center as a child, left to attend a special school on the Eastern Shore, then returned as an adult client.

The involvement of his parents, Clifton and Lucille McClain, is another reason the job has worked out so well.

"We made it clear [to McClain's parents], no way was this going to be a day-care deal," Goodman said. "Either he carried his weight or we were going to terminate him. We're a small firm and we couldn't afford to carry a person out of the goodness out of our hearts."

From the beginning, Goodman explained with self-effacing candor, hiring an employee through Providence Center was seen as something that would benefit the company as much as the worker. The position McClain holds is difficult to fill, largely because of the work's tedium.

"It's been a two-way street," Goodman said. "He's gotten a lot out of it, but we've gotten a lot out it, too."

McClain is now quite comfortable in his job and performing well. The highlight of his week is Friday afternoons, when the company holds an in-house happy hour. The firm's size -- only 19 or 20 employees at any given time -- and what Goodman described as the staff's innate sensitivity have helped him settle in.

Goodman sensed just how comfortable McClain was one day at lunch, and decided to make conversation by asking McClain how he liked his job.

McClain: "Oh, I like it all right."

Goodman: "Well, you're doing very well."

McClain: "Then give me a raise."

It may not make for Emmy-winning dialogue, but as real life it seems to be working.

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