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The Dignity of Work

August 23, 2015

The importance of jobs cannot be overstated because they provide the foundation for our nation’s economic stability. The more people that are working, the better off we are as a society. Employment empowers individuals by giving them the means to support themselves and by providing them with the ability to purchase the goods and services they need. That creates more jobs which drives productivity and innovation resulting in a healthy economy.

That is why it’s such a tragic situation when someone wants to work, but there are no employment opportunities. However, it is even more heartbreaking when people are denied the chance to work even when jobs are available. That is the situation that is often faced by people with developmental disabilities.

Each morning when a person wakes up, they need a reason to climb out of bed. They need to know they have activities scheduled that will occupy them in a meaningful way. They need to have goals that they can attempt to achieve, and they need to feel like their time will be spent in a way that adds value to their life. For most of us, it is our work that provides the incentive to get up and get going.

But what if you woke up each morning without a job to go to, and with nothing to fill your time? What if your day was comprised of just sitting around the house doing the exact same things over and over? What if you rarely went anywhere and had very few interactions with others? What if you did not have the opportunity to learn new things or have interesting experiences?

For many of those we care about, that is their reality. Sadly 7 out of 10 people with intellectual challenges do not work. A heartbreaking 70% unemployment rate means that more than 3 million people do not have the chance to be productive in a job setting. They do not have the opportunity to contribute, and they don’t earn a paycheck. Often their world is limited to their house or apartment so their skills, talents and abilities go undeveloped. And because steady employment is not part of their routine, every day is the same, and as time goes by they can become more and more isolated.

That is unacceptable.

A significant portion of our lives revolves around the time we spend at work. So for those who are not given the chance to be employed, there is a huge void to fill. For individuals with developmental disabilities, that time is often spent engaged in pursuits that do not help them grow as a person, that do not stimulate them mentally, and that provide little or no physical activity. Typically a job provides a more worthwhile form of fulfillment than can be attained by being forced to stay at home.

Because work is so critically important, it is crucial that everyone is involved, including men and women with intellectual challenges. Having a job gives them a sense of responsibility. They are motivated to consistently give their best effort so that their coworkers can depend on them. Work increases their knowledge as they learn new skills and improve their abilities, and it provides the opportunity for them to interact with all kinds of people and to develop healthy relationships built on understanding and acceptance.

Employment is one of the activities that gives our lives meaning. Obviously it rewards a person financially but more importantly it rewards them with confidence and self-esteem. It generates personal growth by providing challenges that make people stronger, and it sets goals for them to try to achieve. When an individual with a developmental disability has a job, it helps to define them in their own mind, as well as in the minds of others. It gives them a feeling of belonging. As they are acknowledged for their efforts, they earn the respect they deserve. Being employed opens up a world of possibilities by creating a brighter future for their lives.

However, when a person wants to work but no one is willing to give them the opportunity, it is demoralizing. The frustration can become overwhelming. If they are consistently turned down for jobs, or not even given the opportunity to apply, it can have a detrimental effect on their self-image. To be considered unemployable for reasons you have no control over can be devastating to a person’s self-esteem.

Ironically, many in the general public only work because they have to. If they had a choice, they would prefer to do almost anything besides their job. They are not interested in improving their performance or increasing their skills. They do not want to be challenged, and they do not care if their coworkers can depend on them. They simply want to coast through each work day and do as little as possible.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women with developmental disabilities who want, and deserve, the opportunity to demonstrate that they can be successfully employed. They want to be useful to society, to make a difference and to improve themselves in the process. They would welcome the chance to have the jobs that others complain about and avoid.

For a person with an intellectual challenge, the very act of being hired is a demonstration of an employer’s belief in them as a person. It means that someone thinks they are worthy of being trained to perform a task that they will be paid for, and it allows them to take their place in the workforce where they will have the opportunity to excel to the best of their abilities.

These individuals have the same need to feel useful and appreciated as anyone else. They want to know that they matter to others. They want to enjoy inclusion and all the benefits that come with being accepted for who they are. They want to make an impact on their community. They want to be successful.

It is wrong to deny them that opportunity.

As a society we must be willing to make the accommodations, adjustments and adaptions necessary so that each person with a developmental disability that is capable of being employed has the chance to experience the dignity of work.