The Meadows Center for Opportunity was established in 1983 for the sole purpose of employing adults with developmental disabilities. It has been our privilege to work with many different men and women through the years, and we are honored that some of these individuals are still working with us, more than three decades later.
Please stop and think about that for a moment. Have you remained at a job you love for that length of time? Few of us have. In fact, some people hate their jobs, and can’t wait to leave them. But that is not the case with our nonprofit. Almost everyone we hire stays for a significant amount of time.
That is why, after thirty-four years of making a positive difference in the lives of so many, it is both frustrating and discouraging to be informed by the government that what we are doing as an organization has no value.
We are being repeatedly told that, in their opinion, providing people with jobs and vocational training in a closely monitored, safe environment is not important and not desirable. The government believes that rather than building on the success of organizations like the Meadows, it is preferable for that type of employment to fade away so that people with developmental disabilities are forced to compete for jobs in the community. That scenario means a few individuals will find work - but the majority will not.
Because we all care about people with challenges, we enjoy seeing the heartwarming articles about individuals with developmental disabilities being employed in community jobs. But for each person in one of those stories, there are countless others who will never share that experience. Does that mean we are supposed to cast them aside and say they are not worth employing? Should we give up because their needs are more intense or serious? Are we willing to walk away from men and women who want to work, and who deserve to work, just because they don’t have the physical or mental capabilities that will allow them to be employed in demanding or pressure filled situations?
Many of the people we hire, struggle with simple tasks. They struggle with their focus and their ability to concentrate. They struggle with their memory, and they struggle with their emotions as they try to control behaviors that would not be tolerated in a typical job. Others have health issues that most employers are not trained to deal with and do not want to take responsibility for. We also have individuals who attempted to work in the community, but who eventually turned to us for a meaningful job.
But despite the struggles, challenges and issues that our employees live with, they are able to work because we provide the assistance they need.
That is why, despite what the government thinks, we believe successful employment can occur in either the community or in a facility like ours.
It is our point of view that - when a person feels a sense of accomplishment, develops self-esteem and self-confidence, has the chance to reach their full potential, is respected and treated with dignity and, most importantly, when they are accepted for who they are as a person - they experience the dignity of work.
Based on that criteria, when a person is employed at the Meadows, no matter how minimal their job skills might be, they are successful.
However, we are continually being told by the government that the employment we offer is not necessary and not appropriate.
Certainly it is true that, for some people, being employed in the community can be a perfect fit. But for many others, it does not work. So what are those men and women supposed to do? If facilities like the Meadows are no longer a viable option, it will be the very individuals who need additional support that will suffer the most.
In regard to their present job prospects, as well as those in the future, we are doing a great disservice to people with developmental disabilities if we do not approach the subject of their employment realistically.
We all wish that employers would offer forty hours a week, at minimum wage or better, to every person with an intellectual challenge - no matter how slowly they work, no matter how many mistakes they make or how often they have health related issues on the job. But that is not reality. And if we pretend that is, we are setting up our friends and loved ones to fail.
Therefore, it is critical that organizations like the Meadows are allowed to continue to offer employment to adults who, for whatever reasons, are not able to work in the community. Those individuals still have the right to have a job. They should have the chance to maximize their strengths and abilities while they learn new skills. They deserve to earn a paycheck. These men and women, who would otherwise remain unemployed, depend on us to provide opportunity and hope.
That is a responsibility we will not give up.