An editorial by Jolene Thibedeau Boyd, Director of Employment & Community Supports
Fair warning: If you care about the debate currently brewing related to sheltered workshops (aka center-based work floors, work centers, etc.), this blog contains my opinions, which may be considered troubling (or possibly controversial) by some. However, there is no need to let that stop you from continuing to read!
I recently read a blog post by Ari Ne’eman that was so well-written, it would be a challenge for me to come close to writing a post as informative and compelling. However, the topic of his post is indeed compelling, and I believe I would be remiss not to do my part to share it among our networks: “(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Sheltered Workshops (Part 1 of 2)”. To read the full post (it’s a hefty one, but very informative) visit Ari’s blog here.
Ari quotes Anne Donnellan, Director of the Autism Institute at the University of San Diego and a friend of his as saying, “The mark of anyone good in disability service-provision is that they’re at least a little bit ashamed of what they were doing twenty years ago.” I can relate to that statement, as someone who used to work with some really cool people who had some pretty significant disabilities in some of my first jobs in the field…I can recall providing “hand-over-hand assistance” to a woman who hardly seemed interested in what we were (i.e. I was) doing, but that was part of my job. I remember feeling some satisfaction at the end of a morning period, being able to jot down the minutes that she had “worked”, next to a piece rate that had presumably been determined for her. I didn’t think about what that actually meant for her; I’m a bit ashamed to admit that for me, I was satisfied simply because I had “run her program” with her and could check that off the list for the day. I know–shame on me. Youth and naiveté can be truly embarrassing in hindsight. I was simply doing what I was told to do, and I didn’t know any better—that was the extent of my exposure to “employment” for people with disabilities at that time. Now, however, I am troubled by many aspects of that interaction. For instance, how could she have been assigned a “commensurate wage” when, in fact, she could not even complete the task at hand without my assistance? (If you haven’t read Ari’s blog yet, this might be a good time to do so, as he explains how this process is supposed to work—the legal version, anyway—better than I can.) By definition she couldn’t have been. I guess I would say that was a very poor job match, not to mention technically. However, I digress…
Today I am truly grateful that more than a dozen years ago I had the privilege of meeting and then working for Bob Niemiec, a man whose simple outlook on employment for people with disabilities was both inspiring and life-changing for me: “Real jobs…at real wages…at real businesses…one person at a time.” This has been one of the taglines we have used at Community Involvement Programs ever since then (and incidentally seems to have been “adopted” by many other people, groups, and agencies in the years since!) Together we worked to make that mantra a reality for the people whom we served. It was not a popular vision at the time, I assure you. Yet we continued to stay true to our values and, little by little, we made progress. First one person went to work; then another, and another. Then more people told us they WANTED to go to work. It was not an easy journey…it still isn’t. But there is little more compelling than getting up every day and going to work knowing that you are doing the “right thing”!
Periodically we post our employment “statistics” here (we’re due for another one soon.) Our intention behind sharing that information is not organization-centric in nature, despite how it may seem to some (“bragging”?) No, we share that information with the hope that showing those numbers will demonstrate that employment for people with disabilities at regular wages, at businesses in various communities is truly a possibility for anyone who wants it. And to show that there are dedicated people who will put their heart and soul into supporting that dream for others. And because we believe that the opportunity to have a job is more than just a luxury, or even a privilege—it is something that should be expected of adults with disabilities, just as it is for other adults in our society. In an online article reported earlier this year, Ceylane Meyers-Ruff, (New York state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities), suggested that it has become a “civil rights obligation to help people hurdle those obstacles. ‘Every human being should have the opportunity to be a part of the larger society….And when we hear the stories of success from people who are working who didn’t think they could, we’re trying to make that a possibility for every person.’” We agree. We’re committed to that vision.
Although it is not my intention to disparage my many colleagues who continue to support sheltered workshops/facility-based
work floors/work centers (or whatever they choose to call them today), I truly believe that as long as those settings are a funded option for people with disabilities, there is little compelling reason for most organizations to give them up. I believe, as Ari remarks in his blog, “With all due apologies to Field of Dreams, the unspoken rule of disability service-provision is, ‘If you build it, someone is going to get stuck in there.’” Really. We can do better. We should want to do better. Better for us. Better for our organizations. And most importantly, better for and better TO the people we support! What’s standing in your way?