By Kari HawkinsOctober 10, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Chili burgers, polish sausage, chicken salad and soft serve ice cream -- Groce's Deli has a little bit of everything that's good when it comes to feeding the employees at the Sparkman Center.
But, behind the cash register, the deli offers something not often seen on Redstone Arsenal, a man who years ago lost his eyesight but continues on much like a person not hindered by a disability.
Deli manager Jesse Groce greets his customers, accepts payment and counts out change, and runs the business with efficiency and finesse. The only indication that he is blind are the sunglasses that are standard wear, and the customers who tell him what they are buying and how much money they are giving him.
"That's a $5 bill," says one. "Here's $2," says another needing change. "I want to use my debit card," said yet another.
Groce can explain how to use the debit/credit machine without seeing the commands that need to be pressed to complete the transaction. He rarely makes a mistake when counting out change as he has a foolproof system at his cash register. And behind the counter, Groce has two employees -- Barbara Jackson and Howard Jordan -- who prepare the food, clean up behind and in front of the counter, stock food items, and take customer orders.
Since October 2003, Groce and his deli -- or "snack bar" as many of his regulars call it -- have been part of the Sparkman Center culture. For new employees, it is amazing to know a sightless man can be so capable of sight. For his longtimers, Groce is just one of the team that makes the work day a better day.
"Some of the new ones come in and they might not know," he said. "But they catch on.
"I can't tell what people are buying or what money they are giving me. It's all just trust. I trust they will do right."
Groce is among a small group of people with disabilities who work on Redstone Arsenal. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time when the Army recognizes the contributions that Americans with disabilities make to the nation.
Blindness came to Groce later in life when he happened to be a victim of random crime.
"I lost my eyesight in 1991," said Groce, who will be 65 in December.
"I had glaucoma and that took the sight in my left eye. I got robbed and I was kicked in the eye, and that took the sight in my right eye. Then, I was totally blind. It was July 21, 1991. I will never forget that day."
Losing his eyesight meant losing his livelihood. At the time, Groce worked in finishing concrete for the state's highways and interstates.
Even without his eyesight, though, Groce, who lived in Gadsden at the time of the attack, was determined to be independent. Organizations like the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama, and the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind help people like Groce to learn to live with blindness. He used the services of the Alabama Industries for the Blind in Talladega, and Adult Vocational Rehabilitation Service of the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Service, which has an office in Gadsden, to develop the skills he would need for gainful employment as a blind person.
"They set you up to be independent," he said.
After a stint with a business in Thomasville, Groce applied to manage the Sparkman deli/snack bar. He came to Redstone in 2003.
"I was a little nervous," he admitted. "But I knew I could make a living doing this.
"This job keeps me busy. It keeps me from messing around and not doing anything. If not for this job, I would be laying back on disability."
Groce's Deli opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Groce gets to and from work with the help of employee Jackson, who has been working at the deli since 2004.
"I like it. It's real nice. I like the people," Jackson said.
Groce said his ability to overcome his disability is an example for others who face life with a disability.
"Don't let it get you down. You've got to put it out of the way and find another way. It's not a handicap. It's a disability," he said.
The Army and Redstone Arsenal are committed to providing employment to people with disabilities. At Redstone, the Garrison along with its Army tenants have a Disability Program manager to help disabled employees with issues related to employment.
"We are consulted to help with accommodations when a disabled person is employed," said Kara Carter-Price, the Garrison's Disability Program manager.
"We're available to help with the hiring process for disabled people. Unfortunately, we don't get utilized as much as we should because we're not doing a lot of hiring right now."
Hiring employees with disabilities is important in building a diversified and capable workforce, she said. A disability should not be an exception to employment, and the Army and the federal government are committed to provide accommodations so that disabled people can have the ability to succeed in the workplace, she said.
"We come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and disability is just another difference," Carter-Price said.
"We don't want to miss out on good talent just because a person has a disability. Having a disability does not mean an employee can't be the best resource for an organization or the best asset. We need to look beyond the physical or hidden disability to see what an asset they can be to our organizations."
For many, they fear the world will view them as less of a person because of their disability, Carter-Price said, and, for that reason they try to hide their disability or they won't ask for assistance or accommodations for their disability.
"Disability is something we live with. It's not outside of life. Disability is not something we choose to live with. Disability is part of life and we must work to make it so people with disabilities can function in our world," Carter-Price said.
Employment gives disabled people the opportunity to show they do have value and worth to society. Disabled people often find a new sense of purpose in their life through their employment, she said.
"It gives them pride in life. It gives them reassurance in their capability," Carter-Price said.
"Their esteem in themselves rises up a notch or two because they know they not only have a job but they are also respected for what they do. It puts them on a whole different level in life because the people working around them respect them and accept them."