A Chester County Family Fights for the Rights of Those With Disabilities

Tessa Marie Images

After their son was assaulted, an Exton couple fights for the rights of those with disabilities around the region.

It was 20 feet from the courtroom seats to the witness stand, and John and Denise Bailey felt their son’s terror every step of the way. Born with intellectual disabilities, Cailen is now 37—and he’ll always have the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. His voice rose clear and strong as he identified his attacker, detailing to a jury at the criminal trial what occurred Nov. 30, 2018, when he was assaulted outside the West Goshen Township Acme supermarket where he’d worked for almost 12 years. “His fragile, vital support beams painfully assembled over a lifetime vanished, and his life imploded, stripping him of the joy, self-confidence and loving trust he had in everyone,” his parents wrote on a Facebook post that quickly went viral.

Cailen’s nights were filled with nightmares and his days with a fear of being alone and going outside. PTSD was added to a medical and emotional profile that already included OCD, Tourette syndrome and ADHD. He’s now under the care of a psychiatrist and a psychologist. “I’ve tried to move past what happened, but my mind tends to dwell on it,” says Cailen, who comforted himself with a service dog and a hand-held spinner during the trial.

The September 2019 testimony at the Chester County Justice Center revealed a career criminal with arms full of stolen merchandise, running from Acme personnel. “Go get him!” a manager shouted to Cailen, who was vacuuming the rug in the store’s vestibule.

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He obeyed and found himself in a headlock. Choked and punched in the head, he collapsed and was left unassisted in the parking lot until police and an ambulance arrived. “As many times as I’ve walked into an emergency room—and I’ve seen a lot—it tore me apart to walk in and see him,” says his father, a two-term magisterial district judge in Exton and a retired Tredyffrin Township police officer and investigator.

family with disabilities
Denise Bailey with her son, Cailen, at their Chester County home.

The Baileys have spearheaded a legislative call-to-action to secure safety nets for special-needs individuals employed by businesses taking advantage of tax incentives in making those hires. Like other corporations, the Malvern-based Acme Markets grasps the importance of opening doors to special-needs employees, as well as the benefits in the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which is authorized until Dec. 31, 2025. “But when we went to look at what’s required after a hiring—nothing,” says John Bailey.

The couple’s focus is on bridging the gap, so the open door doesn’t become a trap door. They’re garnering support from organizations like the Advocacy Alliance and The Arc of Chester County, as they target legislators in the state House and Senate. “You get braver and start talking, and you start hearing other stories,” says Denise Bailey. “It became the impetus to keep going. It’s helped us to broaden our impact, to stop looking inward and look outward.”

The Baileys’ efforts are part of a recent statewide trend to incorporate special-needs employees into the workplace. According to the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Pennsylvania recently welcomed 13,187 individuals with disabilities into its workforce—more than any other state. So it only makes sense to train employers in how to work with and support those with disabilities. The Advocacy Alliance, which serves those with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities, has trained over 700 professionals over the past four years. The Scranton-based organization was founded in 1956. Today, it has eight offices across Pennsylvania, another in New Jersey, and one in Connecticut.

Relying on county referrals, the alliance has conducted 1,500 statewide investigations this fiscal year. One of its 13 investigators met with Cailen and conducted an investigation—though Acme refused to participate. “The goal is to put our department out of business, so we support this type of education for employers,” says Jen Duggan, its director of advocacy and community services.

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Of late, state Rep. Jason Ortitay, who serves portions of two western counties, has twice introduced related legislation. House Bill 1329 would require employers receiving tax credits (outside of educational credits) to implement a hiring program for disabled individuals and be held accountable for creating and maintaining inclusive work environments. A co-sponsor is Rep. Melissa L. Shusterman of Paoli’s 157th District, who’s co-chair of the Autism and Intellectual Disabilities Caucus. “The situation that occurred with Cailen Bailey is both heartbreaking and inexcusable,” says Shusterman. “It was completely avoidable had Cailen’s co-workers and manager been adequately trained on how to work with individuals with intellectual disabilities.”

Two-term state Sen. Scott Martin is aware of Cailen’s story. In lieu of legislation, he’s suggesting collaboration between agencies and government in developing instructional resources for employers so hiring special-needs employees won’t become an obstacle. “We don’t want to add a burden to employers so they say, ‘Hey, it’s just not worth it,’” says Duggan.

For the Baileys, it’s all about education and training. “Otherwise, it will happen again,” John says. “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

The Baileys say that Cailen was once instructed by Acme management to clean the store’s dumpster with a garden hose and no protective gear. Years ago, Cailen called his father to ask him how to cross Paoli Pike. He was told to walk groceries home for a wheelchair-bound customer. “Our son was sent into a stranger’s house,” his mother says. “We didn’t know where he was—Acme didn’t know. Our complaints were met with pushback.”

In a statement, Acme describes Cailen as the victim of physical aggression from an individual later arrested for shoplifting. While historically participating in WOTC, Acme says its commitment to hiring intellectually disabled associates isn’t related to the program. “Most of our disabled associates, including Mr. Bailey, aren’t (or weren’t) part of the program,” says Dana Ward, communications and public affairs manager for its Mid-Atlantic Division.

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These days, Cailen is assembling Stihl products at Little’s John Deere dealership in Downingtown. “They’ve asked us how to slow him up,” his father says. “You’re not going to.”

When Cailen’s not working, he’s volunteering at West Whiteland Fire Company and West Chester Food Cupboard. “I like to help and assist others,” he says. “It makes me feel better about myself.”

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