Archives March 2007

Employability is a Given, Not Line to Cross

During a recent training course about supported employment I gave, I found myself in a debate with a manager of an agency over whether people with disabilities should be “presumed employable.” I was most discouraged by this professional’s statement that the “overwhelming majority of these consumers are not employable.” To me, that is the single biggest obstacle people face – the low expectations by others.

Interestingly enough, in the US, current law mandates a presumption of employability. The reauthorized Rehabilitation Act begins with a presumption of ability that people can achieve employment and other rehabilitation goals regardless of the severity of disability, if appropriate services and supports are made available. The concept of employability has been replaced with one of “employment outcome.”

Despite this, I still often find myself debating with others whether the presumption of employability means everyone (as I believe), or just those judged as capable.

Ultimately, it is the belief in what people can achieve, despite the obstacles, that will drive their employment opportunities. And for this to happen, we need to re-think people who have a developmental disability or a mental illness as someone whose life is to never have a decent home or job because of some focus on a belief in a chronic, never-be cured aspect of their lives.

I have been struggling for years to advance the notion that people in sheltered workshops deserve the right to live and work in the community in real jobs and homes with the rest of us. I believe a huge body of research, national outcomes, and our collective experiences have demonstrated that it is more than possible. And my sometimes exasperated reaction to these kinds of debates probably reflect frustration with people in management particularly who dismiss these notions as unrealistic or requiring much more money. I think more money can help, but the reality is the service system already gets a great deal of money, but it is spent unwisely -on buildings, excessive salaries, etc.

Not too long ago, my colleague and long-time friend Bob Lawhead testified before Congress about the wasted spending and poor outcomes of sheltered workshops and day training programs. At the same time, a Congressional investigation found excessive management salaries and deal-making going on in some of these agencies. Can we justify a CEO earning $700,000, when hundred of workers labor in her workshop at sub-minimum wage?

I do not think it is not bad or evil somehow to have been taught that sheltered workshops (or institutions) are needed for a certain percentage of people. 20 years ago I had that belief myself.

But I do think it is wrong to still have that belief after you have been exposed to what is possible today – and that is real jobs and real homes, regardless of disability.

The Fallacy of Low Productivity: Why People with Disabilities Are Relegated to Segregated Facilities at Low Wages

In a recent class I was facilitating, I again ran into the argument from someone that people with disabilities need sheltered workshops because they are not productive enough to be in the business world. Aside from the moral issue of segregating a whole class of people, let us address this stereotype of non-productiveness.

There is no doubt that some individuals with disabilities are slower in certain tasks, depending on the task and the disability. Of course this statement is also generally true of all people, depending on the task and the skill. The thing about productivity in a sheltered workshop is that it is largely confined to a limited scope of work, typically packaging, assembly, shipping, or some other rather repetitive task. If you happen to be slow on these type of tasks, or make too many mistakes, then you will be judged as not ready for prime time – a real job. The answer by the disability professional is typically then to provide training – year after year after year…

But this is inherently unfair. Productivity is largely related to the match of skill and task, but it is also related to motivation, the sense of belonging, wages, social relationships. self esteem, the assistance and training you get, and other factors.

Alberto might earn pennies a day for his slow pace assembling a business mailing, but at a health club where he welcomes customers and checks their membership cards, he might be at 100% for the employer. That is, with a little help, he does the job he is asked. He likes the work, the people, and it makes him feel good. He also has the supports he needs to succeed. Thus, he is motivated. And, he is good at what the employer needs.

This is productivity. A role for the disability professional, then, is not to pass judgment on who is productive to earn the right to a job, based on pretty invalid information. It is to figure out what the person needs to do and to have to be productive. It means finding the right job match and giving the right supports. Productivity isn’t fixed. Nor is the setting in which it is assessed.

35 Year Anniversary of the Lawsuit that Helped Close Willowbrook

This month marks 35 years since the filing of a lawsuit against the infamous Staten Island, NY, institution for people with disabilities, the Willowbrook State School. This action paved the way for ending decades of horrid institutionalized conditions for people with developmental disabilities throughout the United States. How far have we come since then?

In my book, Raymond’s Room: Ending the Segregation of People with Disabilities, I try to show that, today, people with disabilities are still locked away from the rest of society. Perhaps they are not in the squalid conditions of Willowbrook, but they are still living lives apart from us – in institutions, day facilities, residential facilities, and other inventions of the disability industrial complex.

Dr. Mike Wilkins worked as a staff physician at the Willowbrook during the early 1970s. He was fired for his activities to try to make improvements there. The evening of his dismissal, Wilkins used his key to give Geraldo Rivera, a young television reporter, access to the school. Rivera’s film crew documented squalid conditions in understaffed wards. The series, Willowbrook– The Last Disgrace, won a Peabody award. It sparked public outrage that lead to a lawsuit filed on March 17, 1972, and a series of changes that still affect the disability system. From that lawsuit, a consent decree ultimately led to the closing of Willowbook in 1987 and a movement grew to support people with disabilities to live their lives in their communities.

Maybe what we need is another key from an insider. At least, that is what I hope Raymond’s Room can become…