It takes a lot of courage to go into the work-place when you're a little different. To fight for the privilege is an amazing thing.
I met a small band of people who are severely disabled but who didn't give up through a two-year search for work.The eight workers and their job coach from South Valley Training Co. share one full-time job at Discover Card. Three who can read sort the mail into the departments to which they are addressed. One worker, who has limited reading skills, sorts bankruptcy paperwork. The other four stack the papers into piles of 25, which are recounted and collated into groups of 50 for delivery.
Some of my colleagues had questions about the process.
First, how can anyone stand to do such repetitive work all day long?
It's true that many of the jobs handled by people with severe mental retardation or other limitations are repetitive: wiping tables, washing dishes, sorting files, running a postage stamp machine, wiping windows, taking tickets.
It works for those in supported employment ("supported" because a job coach works with the disabled employee for as long as needed) for several reasons.
Many of these employees don't have skills for more complicated work. To them, such tasks are challenging, enjoyable and fulfilling. The main reason, however, seems to be the sheer joy of being employed.
Joy is not a word that everyone associates with showing up for work every day. Americans generally spend a lot of time grousing about the job, the boss, whatever, even if they love their professions.
People with disabilities are different in this respect. Perhaps because the world of meaningful employment has been closed to them for so long, they are thrilled to be able to work. Repeatedly, employers spoke of their dedication, excellent attendance records and how little they goof off.
The employees themselves spoke wonderingly of the things they can buy because they work. Many have never purchased things for themselves before. They talked about getting out and seeing friends. They discussed feeling valuable.
Their parents spoke of independence and their personal relief because their children have found purpose. Too many people with severe disabilities are relegated to a life in front of the TV while parents and siblings go about their routines. Several said that their children are providing a service by performing the more repetitive tasks that many workers would find boring.
One father said that his daughter takes great pride in a job that might receive less attention than it deserves because of its nature.
Another question: Why should a company hire several people to do a task when it can get one able-bodied individual?
I can think of several reasons besides the obvious one of providing opportunity to people who have limited employment options.
The enhanced work ethic infects co-workers. A young theater usher who works with a man who has autism said he doesn't goof off as much because of the example he sees every day. Autism never stops the fellow from doing what he's supposed to do. Those around him are inspired to do their best, too.
Working with people who have disabilities is often cited as an enriching experience. People tend to make assumptions about disabilities and capabilities, often based on very little information. Those impressions are usually wrong. Co-workers get an education.
Minimum wage laws don't apply to supported employment, although most individuals are hired by companies at that rate. In enclaves like the one at Discover Card, workers are paid for their production instead of individual salaries. So it's not like hiring eight people to do one person's job. It's economically feasible for businesses.
Supported employment is expanding both the types and numbers of jobs that people can perform.
It's a way of including people who have for far too long been excluded.
It clearly won't open every job to disabled people. No one expects that.
Many jobs can be accomplished nicely through supported employment. Unfortunately, people who want to work outnumber employment opportunities.
And the amount of opportunity - admittedly small at this point - exceeds the funding to pay for job coaches.