I hope everyone had a lovely Labor Day weekend. In fact, labor–as in, jobs–is what’s on my mind today. No, this is not a post about the dismal economy. Yes, it still stinks, but there are people in America who still have jobs. My question is twofold: how many of those people have disabilities, and what kind of jobs do they have? Actually, we could even go threefold here–are the jobs ones that people with disabilities actually want?
Now, I hear some of you skeptics in the audience: “Here she goes again, proposing that people with IQs below 100–heck, below 75–can and should go to Harvard.” Or, “Here she goes again, suggesting that if we ask a person with a disability to push a broom, it’s the same as slavery.” But I hope those skeptics are few by this point. And frankly, if you’ve been reading this blog carefully at all, for any length of time, you know it’s ridiculous to propose that either scenario is true. Not everybody can, should, or wants to go to Harvard. And I don’t care if your IQ is 196; everybody’s got to sweep up sometime. That’s not the issue here. The issue is that in the American labor force, jobs are seen with at least some degree of non-permanence. The babysitting, burger-flipping, or other low-wage job you had in high school was not meant to be your career, unless you actually loved it (in which case, it still wasn’t permanent because you had the opportunity to rise in the ranks to manager, or turn that love of kids into a job as a nanny). Even when you get a “real” job, it’s tacitly understood that your duties or position can and do change. Heck, some people actually quit their jobs and go on to whole new ones, sometimes in completely different fields.
But do people with disabilities have any of those options?
I say no. Go back and read some of the blog posts on the unemployment rate of people with disabilities, including those who went to four-year colleges and earned degrees. It’s inexcusably low on all fronts. Read “Pomp and Special Ed,” which talks about college programs for students with developmental and cognitive disabilities. These students are often set up in campus jobs (by others, not on their own merit), told they are required to fill a certain number of hours, and given menial tasks like stocking shelves or cleaning up after “regular” people.
What about after college? Yes, there are people with disabilities who have Real Jobs. And yes, as I have said, some people with disabilities find real fulfillment and happiness working at places like, say, Chick-Fil-A. The problem is not with the job itself. The problem is, the number of people with disabilities working in menial positions is disproportionate to the number of those same people who might find fulfillment in them. Think about it. When you think about a person with, say, Down’s Syndrome, moderate to severe autism, Fragile X, or whatever, do you even think of “job” in the same thought? And if you do, what do you picture that person doing? Odds are, you’re not picturing them doing anything that requires true skill or brainpower, which is not your fault. Why not? Because that’s the image our society portrays. If–and it’s a big IF–you ever see an actor with, or portraying, a disability in a job setting on TV or in the movies, what are they doing? Right–tasks that are considered unskilled. And the more that image is perpetuated, the faster people with disabilities, their friends, and their families will lose hope about what those individuals can do with their lives.
I’ll borrow, once again, from Touched by an Angel. The fourth season episode “Great Expectations” concerns Bill and Joanne McNabb. They’re expecting their first child, but have been told the baby will have Down’s. Bill, a man whose education and job options are sub-par in his own estimation, is angry and terrified. Upon seeing Taylor, a man with Down’s, busing tables at a coffee shop, Bill says to his wife, “Look at him…that’s the best job he’ll ever have…I wanted my son to be more than a busboy.”
Now, if you’ve seen the episode, you know who and what Taylor really was. But that’s beside the point. The point here is, Bill had a legitimate fear–because the image of the person with a disability doing what nobody else will do, cleaning up others’ messes, is the image that still pervades his society and ours. And that’s not good enough, folks. Let me yell that, because I think it’s important: THAT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH! By perpetuating this image, we are creating a generation of Cinderellas and Cinder-Fellas who, no matter what the economic state, are getting the message that they are only good enough to clean up our mess. Fulfillment doing that aside–because not everybody gets that fulfillment–THAT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH!
I say it’s time to get these folks to the ball, don’t you?