Much has been said about the isolation of the pandemic: how we’re staying home, binge watching television, baking bread, and making friends with birds. We’re also realizing that the safety of our homes is made possible by the uninterrupted labor of those who care for others, and also those who make, stock, deliver, clerk, and clean at grocery stores, hardware stores, take-out restaurants, and online marketplaces. They have been called heroes, and they are, but they are also our quiet neighbors and devoted family members, with and without disabilities. The consciousness we now have about how important these workers are to keeping everyone going, how truly interdependent we all are, is an awareness that is long overdue.

Tristan Aho is one of those essential workers. He is a maintenance worker at a superstore in Manchester, N.H., and has worked three days a week throughout the pandemic. We worried about him at the beginning — what if he was exposed, what if he exposed the direct support professionals who help him? Tristan was adamant: his job was important and he was going to keep doing it. He convinced us, and he was right. Tristan appreciates the help he gets, but he’s much more concerned with the help he gives. 

Tristan enjoys completing maintenance tasks, especially when a display case needs some disassembly and putting back together to clean completely. He had to put maintenance tasks on the back burner for a while when the pandemic required a switch to mostly disinfection tasks. Even though he didn’t enjoy it as much, Tristan pitched in and switched gears to help out.  

Tristan appreciates the raise and the hazard pay he’s received this past year, so that makes the change in responsibilities easier. He never hesitates to go to work because, as he puts it, “It gets me out of the house!” 

Tristan is employed competitively, meaning his wages and benefits are similar to those without disabilities performing the same work, and he is fully integrated with coworkers without disabilities. Tristan has a direct support professional on standby in case he needs support. He’s planning to stay with the superstore for the long haul to learn different roles and advance within the company. While he doesn’t feel ready to take on full-time employment just yet, he’s confident that in the future he’ll be supporting himself. “I appreciate that the government spends money on me, but there are others who need it too,” he says.

Work isn’t Tristan’s only passion. After difficult teenage years, he found a love for music. “Music really saved my life,” he said. Tristan builds, repairs, and plays guitar. Before the pandemic, he’d been playing with friends in public, in particular rocking out at the Shaskeen Pub in Manchester, but also volunteering his time to play for others at a program for the elderly. Tristan volunteered and also worked at the Manchester Community Music School. For a time, he had a small guitar repair business. Losing in-person musicianship has been rough, but he’s found a technology solution that helps him jam online. Tristan’s direct support professional is also a musician, and they rock out sometimes too. 

Getting through this year has drawn on Tristan’s other source of joy — humor. He is all about puns. If you want to get a hardy laugh (or a good groan), check out his Facebook page, Pun God. He has more than 7,000 followers and is looking forward to putting some more time into posting there. “Humor is the other thing that’s really saved me,” he said.

It’s not surprising that Tristan is an essential worker. His civic spirit is strong. Beyond his musical gigs, he volunteered at the Ukrainian Club (he claims to be the only non-Ukrainian member) after a friend mentioned that they needed some help. Recently, he’s been thinking about how to help people experiencing homelessness by taking advantage of the great sales they have at the superstore. “I see that some days we have shoes for $5 or a bottle of Advil for $1. I’m already here and can hop on it. The homeless could really use them.” He’s spent his own money to give blankets and shoes to those in need and he’s sure there is a way to combine his efforts with others looking to make a difference. 

Tristan is deeply engaged with his community in his chosen city of Manchester, even though he grew up in rural New Hampshire. “I like that my parents can visit me, but also that they are an hour away,” he said. Tristan has a roommate who is a shared living provider through Aspire. “I don’t need someone to limit me. I want someone to be available when I need them. I get stressed and I have to vent to someone who really understands me.” 

Tristan is planning for more independence in the future. “I’m going to have my own apartment. I want to get married someday and adopt a child,” he said. When asked why adoption, he says, “There are so many kids out there who need families.”

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Perspectives on an Essential Worker