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The Right to Work

September 14, 2014

The car pulls up to the curb and stops. The door opens and a young woman carefully steps out. Sometimes she requires assistance to do this but not today. As she starts to go inside her dad calls out that she forgot her lunch. Because of the brain damage that occurred during her birth it is often difficult for her to remember things, but her parents have always been there to help. She turns back, picks up her lunch kit, smiles at her dad and slowly walks into the Meadows.

Once inside, her first challenge is to look into the face recognition time clock. But because she is unsteady and has a slight tremor she has difficulty holding perfectly still, but eventually the clock recognizes her. She then makes the long walk down the hallway to her locker in the break room. Her halting gait causes her leg to ache, but as she painstakingly makes the trip she is greeted by other workers and staff and she momentarily forgets about her discomfort. She loves being acknowledged, and she happily engages in three conversations at once. Someone compliments her on what she is wearing, which makes her glad that she picked it out the night before.

As she enters the large break room the volume of conversations goes up. More than 40 people are spread out at various tables. Some are playing card games, some are working puzzle books and some are involved in deep conversations filled with the latest gossip or the eternal battle about whether OU or OSU has the better football team. When people see her there are several calls for her to join them at their respective tables. This means so much to her because when she was in school she often sat alone and people rarely spoke to her or included her in activities. Getting to spend the day with her friends is one of the many joys of her job.

After sitting and chatting for a few minutes the staff gives everyone their work assignments for the day. She is going to be in one of the sorting areas at the back of the building so it’s a long walk, but she doesn’t mind. After her group goes through their security check they head out. Almost everyone moves a little faster than she does, but she does her best to keep up and the staff patiently waits for her. Once she makes it back to the table where she’ll be sorting paper and other material she decides that she would like to work standing up for as long as she can. She knows that eventually she will need to sit, but for now she gets busy and doesn’t worry about her unsteadiness.

She knows that there are many people at the Meadows whose intellectual and physical challenges affect what tasks they can attempt and how fast they can perform them. Because she does not have the full use of one side of her body, she has learned how to compensate and make the most of her other motor skills. She is able to work steadily and for the most part she stays focused on what she is doing. She likes being dependable, and she does her best to follow staff directions.

Today she is sharing a sorting bin with another person who happens to work at a much quicker pace than she does, but she is not asked to speed up or to sort as fast as her coworker. No comparisons are made. Her level of productivity is just as important as the other person’s. In fact, because of the particular challenges she faces, she is actually making the greater effort and the staff is aware of that.

After an hour of standing, the pain in her leg worsens so she gets a chair and continues working while seated. The decision is not an issue, and no one pays any attention. It is simply something she needs to do. Whether she works while standing or sitting she is giving 100%, and that is all that matters. She is not evaluated on her physical ability but rather she is appreciated for her positive attitude.

Soon it’s time for her morning break and she has a good time talking about her favorite TV show with several friends. She has a snack and something to drink, and then it’s time to go back to work. But as she is walking to her sorting table her leg suddenly weakens, and she momentarily loses her balance. Fortunately at the last moment she steadies herself and does not fall. It makes her think of last year when the same thing happened in a restaurant parking lot, only that time she could not regain her balance, and she struck her knee on the payment and ended up with stitches. She has fallen so many times in her life that she has grown used to it. Falling is something she has to guard against at all times, but occasionally, despite her best efforts, it happens.

Once she goes back to work she starts thinking about what to buy with her next paycheck. There are several items she would like to get, but as she is considering them she loses her train of thought regarding her work. She stops sorting the paper in front of her as she tries to remember which of her plastic containers the carbon and photos are supposed to go into. She tries to clear her mind and picture where she should put them, but she draws a complete blank. As she struggles to figure it out she begins to feel frustrated because this is a job she has been doing for several years and yet from time to time she still becomes confused and forgets. She feels embarrassed when this happens, but these episodes are part of who she is. A staff person looks up and sees her confusion. He steps over to her and quietly reminds her about where the items should go. This is something he does many times each day for different people. She is not the only one. She is grateful that he did not call attention to her forgetfulness.

Her occasional confusion is something she has had to learn to live with, but not everyone she meets is as kind or patient. It is one of the things she loves about her job. On days when she mentally struggles she is still treated with respect. It’s difficult for her to put into words exactly what that means to her, but it makes her feel safe to know that she can make a mistake, no matter how hard she tries not to, and no one is going to think any less of her, and no one is going to judge her.

Because she is able to regain her focus and work steadily, the rest of the morning goes by quickly, and it’s soon time for lunch. Once she is back in the break room, she sits down at a table with friends who she knows will invite her to play cards after they’ve finished eating. Her mom has packed some leftovers from last night’s dinner, and they need to be heated up. She can read short words without too many syllables, but numbers are tricky for her. Punching in 3 minutes on the microwave might end up being 30 seconds or 30 minutes. She has been looking forward to her mom’s casserole all morning, and she wants to make sure that it is heated properly, so she takes it to the staff that is warming up meals for several other people. After a few minutes her food is brought to her, and it is delicious. As she enjoys her lunch she carefully watches a friend who has to eat very slowly because he sometimes gets choked. When that happens it can be very scary, but today everything goes well. A couple of drinks get spilled and one person has forgotten to bring silverware but all these minor issues are quickly addressed and taken care of. Soon everyone is finished eating and the cards come out.

She loves the fact that she is included in these games. It makes her feel like she is part of things, and she enjoys the joking and the back and forth conversation. Because of the difficulty she has reading numbers, her friends help her understand which cards she has and which ones to play. In this particular game when someone runs out of cards they lose and they are out. But here at work, people share their cards with each other so everyone can keep playing, and no one has to quit. This is not about winning a game. This is about belonging and acceptance. At one point she slowly looks around the room and thinks about how the people here are like her second family. It’s one of the reasons why she looks forward to coming to work each day. She wonders if everyone else in the world loves their jobs as much as she does.

But eventually it’s time to return to work. She heads back feeling full and rested. The sorting begins again, and she can sense that she is focusing better in the afternoon. Over the next half hour she maintains a comfortable steady pace. The work is complex, but she is enjoying the challenge of doing it correctly. She is relaxed and feeling confident when suddenly her concentration is broken by a commotion several tables away. She looks up and sees someone having a seizure. Staff gets to them immediately and within 20 seconds it’s over. The person is helped out of the work area and moved to an office where they can be monitored while they rest. The first few times she witnessed this it was startling. However, she was reassured that seizures were just something that person dealt with in the same way that she had to deal with her mobility challenges, but that these issues did not affect the right of either one of them to be employed. Her parents had told her that it was this compassionate attitude that made them so happy that she had gotten a job here.

The afternoon break comes and goes and eventually everything begins to wind down. She is feeling tired, and she can tell she has put in a full day. It’s often at this time that she thinks of her friends from the special needs church choir that desperately want to work but can’t find jobs. She knows that for people with developmental disabilities it is difficult to find a business or organization that will give them the opportunity to work. She feels very fortunate because she knows that her job will always be here for her. 

As she waits in line to clock out she thinks about how it has been a good day filled with thoughtfulness and consideration. People have been kind to her, and they’ve looked out for her well-being by ensuring that she was safe and protected at all times. She worked side by side with her friends and with people who care about her and respect her as a person. She was able to contribute and to feel productive. She pulled her weight and earned her pay. She was tested mentally and physically, and she faced each issue with resolve and the commitment to perform her job at the highest level possible.

Tomorrow she’ll come back and be given a new work assignment that will provide her with the opportunity to perform a different set of tasks that will increase her vocational skills. And she will once again move slowly and carefully through her work day accomplishing what many consider impossible for a woman with her particular intellectual and physical challenges. She will disprove their misconceptions with every cautious step she takes. She will shatter their limited expectations by using her mind and spirit to improve her life and to have a positive impact on those around her. She will simply do the very best job she can - and no one can ask for more than that.

Each person at the Meadows has a story similar to this one. It’s a story of courage. It’s a story of determination and persistence. It’s a story of defeating the odds and overcoming the challenges that society has placed before them. It is the story of what it truly means to be human.

We are proud to provide meaningful employment to people who need to work, who are willing to work and, most importantly, have the right to work.