In recent years there has been a concerted effort, which is long overdue, to ensure that people with developmental disabilities are given every opportunity for full inclusion in all areas of society, including employment. There is now legislation being put in place which stresses that individuals with intellectual challenges must have more choices in their employment options. We certainly agree that is a desirable outcome.
Working in the community alongside individuals without disabilities is obviously a goal worth striving for. Every person with an intellectual challenge should be placed into a community job if at all possible, as long as it is their choice.
However, what is actually occurring is a national effort at the state and federal level that will result in fewer employment choices.
It is important to examine the issues to determine if they are actually in the best interest of a population that already faces chronic unemployment at a heartbreaking rate.
This is the central argument in the debate.
The federal government is mandating that employment should take place only in what they refer to as an “integrated environment”. (That is a work setting comprised of equal numbers of individuals with disabilities and those without disabilities.) By attempting to force men and women with intellectual challenges into these types of community work sites, the federal government claims it will create more choice for an individual’s employment.
The government is adamant on their position. There is no tolerance for having a group of people with developmental disabilities successfully employed if they are not in a setting that also employs at least an equal number of individuals without disabilities.
Here is an example.
An organization opens a pizza restaurant. They hire twelve people with developmental disabilities and a support staff of six individuals who do not have disabilities. The men and women with intellectual challenges are working in the community. They are interacting with the general public. They are performing the same jobs as the people without disabilities. They receive at least minimum wage. Because of their hard work and dedication the restaurant quickly becomes a thriving business.
However, in the eyes of the government this is not a success. From their point of view the employees with developmental disabilities are working in a segregated environment because there is a disproportionate number of them versus individuals without disabilities. It is our understanding that the government could possibly step in and require the organization to replace three of the twelve employees, even though they were performing their jobs proficiently, with three individuals without disabilities in order to create the “proper” ratio. That would leave three people with intellectual challenges unemployed in order to satisfy a federal regulation that removes the humanity from the situation and replaces it with cold hard numbers that do far more harm than good.
This rationale makes so little sense that it defies logic to try and understand why the government would want this to become the future for people with developmental disabilities.
So how far will this go?
To continue this line of thinking, are group homes going to be targeted? They are completely segregated. The individuals who live in them have intellectual and physical challenges while their staff typically do not have disabilities and, in most cases, do not live under the same roof.
What about something as innocent as a special needs choir at a church? It is comprised of people with a wide range of disabilities while the directors and support personnel are typically people who do not share the same challenges.
People with developmental disabilities have bowling teams, recreational events, parties, dances and pageants all designed specifically for their enjoyment. Recently there was a series of proms held around the nation for people with intellectual challenges that proved to be enormously popular - but according to the government’s definition they are all segregated and therefore inappropriate.
Even Special Olympics, one of the greatest organizations in the world, could be considered segregated by federal standards. The fact that for almost fifty years it has had a life changing impact on millions of athletes and their families would not spare them from the scrutiny of legislators who do not seem to understand that being treated with dignity and earning the respect of your peers is just as important to individuals with intellectual challenges as it is to elected officials.
In addition to the federal government’s misguided efforts to force their preferred work scenarios on people with developmental disabilities, there is also an incomprehensible move underway around the nation at the state level to remove sheltered workshops as one of the choices for employment for these men and women.
Only politicians could actually believe that you create more vocational choice by removing existing choices that have proven to be successful.
Sheltered workshops offer a vocational safety net for thousands of adults with intellectual challenges. In our specific case, the individuals we employ are choosing to work with us - and allowing people with disabilities to choose their employment is what the government claims is their ultimate goal.
Many of these individuals have worked twenty, twenty-five or even thirty years for an organization where they feel valued and respected. They have developed lifelong friendships, and they feel safe knowing that their health and well-being is a priority. They are appreciated for who they are, rather than being judged by what they can or cannot do. They have acquired job skills while at the same time they have developed self-confidence and a well-deserved sense of accomplishment. They love their jobs and the people they work with. They have no desire to leave. So why should they be removed, against their will, from an environment that has proven to be beneficial for them as an employee and, more importantly, as a person?
The individuals we employ are given every opportunity to work at tasks that increase their vocational skills while also providing dignity and building self-esteem. A fair amount of community jobs end up with people who have challenges assigned to menial tasks that do very little to increase the level of respect they should receive for working. At our facility the staff cleans the lunchroom, not the workers. The staff mops the floors and takes care of all the trash, not the workers. The staff cleans the bathrooms, not the workers.
That does not mean that a job in the community is less preferable to a job in a workshop, but we certainly believe that employment in a workshop is far better than a lifetime of sitting and watching daytime TV.
Anytime an individual successfully transitions from our organization into a job in the community we are thrilled. It feels great to know that we played an important role in helping that person discover and develop their skills and abilities and that the training and work that we provided made a significant difference in their life. It is extremely rewarding to see them take their place in the workforce.
But in fairness to those we serve, the government must deal in reality.
It would be a perfect world if every employer would be willing to hire people with developmental disabilities no matter how significant their intellectual challenges and physical issues might be.
However, that is not the world we currently live in.
There are significant reasons why that type of employment might not work for every individual.
*A person can have behaviors that are not appropriate in a community setting. This can include everything from not respecting personal boundaries, to leaving the job site without warning.
*Often it is the preference of parents to have their son or daughter work in a supported environment, and it is usually the case that the mother or father has a better understanding of their child’s needs and capabilities than a government official does.
*It is possible that a person has serious health issues that employers are not willing to address or be responsible for.
*There can be cases where a person has had a particularly bad experience with community employment or has attempted repeatedly to work in a public setting and has not been successful.
*Some individuals struggle continuously to follow instructions and to stay focused on their assigned tasks.
*Unfortunately there are some people who are not able to control their emotions. There can be situations where a person has a tendency to use extremely inappropriate language when they become upset. This can include harsh profanity and offensive racial slurs.
*Sometimes an individual becomes physically aggressive when they are frustrated, or they resort to self-injury under stressful circumstances.
These are the types of issues that workshops respond to every day with the men and women they employ. If a person has one or more of these challenges, through no fault of their own, should they be penalized with lifelong unemployment because workshops are no longer an option? Is the government willing to sentence them to a life of limited human contact, low physical activity and reduced mental stimulation?
These are the very individuals who need supported employment the most because they are the ones who are less likely to be hired in the community and who will have the most difficulty maintaining a job. They will be sacrificed in the name of “progress”. That is not right and it is not fair.
If the option of being employed in a sheltered workshop is removed, jobs will be taken away from people who desperately need them in the hope that they can find another job that the government deems acceptable. But what percentage of those individuals will actually find employment? And what happens to the people who are tragically left behind?
Ironically, at a time when these dramatic life altering regulations are being passed, we are witnessing an alarming turnover rate for state employees who are charged with monitoring the health, safety and well-being of men and women with intellectual challenges. This revolving door of government workers makes it extremely difficult for them to get to know the clients they are representing.
And due to the ongoing budget deficits that our particular state faces, services and employees in the departments that directly assist individuals with developmental disabilities are being drastically slashed in cost saving measures that show that saving funds is a higher priority than meeting the needs of those who are vulnerable. All of these concerns combine to create a disturbing situation where there is little working knowledge about the needs and desires of clients regarding important aspects of their lives, including their vocational choices.
It is stated repeatedly by the government that this is an issue of choice for the individual. But is it truly about their choice, or is it about trying to manipulate them into making decisions that others want them to make? Aren’t we influencing their ability to determine where they would like to work when we attempt to limit their options? If their choices are already restricted, how will taking away existing employment opportunities help them?
We cannot allow ourselves to get so caught up in numbers and legislative language that we lose sight of the humanity of those we serve. People with intellectual challenges can often be at risk, and therefore they are dependent, at least in part, on the wisdom and compassion of those who have direct influence over their lives. Lawmakers need to take a step back and consider in greater depth the ramifications of their decisions regarding men and women with developmental disabilities.
In the end we have to address this fundamental question: Whose employment choice is it? The individual’s or the government’s?