Last Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a screening of A Whole Lott More, a documentary about a sheltered workshop being shut down in Toledo, Ohio. I also was a small part of a panel discussion right after with the movie's three stars: TJ Hawker, Wanda Huber (pictured above), and Kevin Tyree. A Whole Lott More was directed by Victor Buhler, and Buhler's focus and dedication to showing every aspect of the shutdown has a procedural quality to it. He concentrates intensely on a moment in time when a lot of people are struggling with past, present and future. The past, in this case, is symbolized by a large sheltered-workshop facility in which many people with developmental disabilities have worked for most of their lives. Back in the day, the facility was going gangbusters with contracts from Detroit car manufacturers, but as the economy has shrunk so has the contracts. The present is dramatized through the lives of TJ and Wanda, who both work in different capacities at the workshop, and Kevin, who is transitioning from high school to work and has chosen to look for a job in the community. Their struggles with work comprise one aspect of the film; the other aspects revolve around non-profit and governmental agencies and boards battling for control of the future, trying to figure out how to support people with disabilities in capacities that transcend programs and buildings and the past.
In many ways this documentary is a ghost story, and the Lott Industries work facility is a haunted house that has outlived both its cultural and economic purpose, and yet the people who worked there and were supported to be there did not experience it as anything other than the place they worked and socialized and went to every day. The symbolism gets lost when you're living your life, as do the politics and the controversy. That's one of the more profound themes coming from A Whole Lott More: we live our lives in whatever systems, codes, rules and values surround us, and making fundamental change happen often isn't about the will to do it as much as having the patience and dedication to reinvent and reimagine the environment in which the change is taking place. That building full of folding tables and windowless walls and concrete floors is more than the sum of its parts: it was a refuge, a place for people to know what they were and where they fit.
I work everyday trying to help figure out how to support people with disabilities to get jobs in the real world, but it's incredibly hard in a universe where sheltered workshops, and the concepts and mindsets that helped to build them and staff them, still exist. These buildings and symbols often become the only answer and the only vision, places and programs and cultures where waiting for a job becomes the job. And everything else follows: businesses, employers, supported employment service providers, families and the people being helped all get bogged down in a status quo that supports preconceived notions, the main notion being: you're just not ready to be in the real world.
And I know "real world" is a prejudicial term, but still the concept of isolating people and then training them to return to the world rehabilitated more often than not eliminates the possibility of a chance at individuality. It assumes you deserve a uniform group status, a place where you can only hope to ascend once you figure out you can't. That hopelessness often becomes a way of life, and that's okay because you don't have any alternatives. In the movie, Wanda lets us know about her employment history from the get-go, saying when she was younger she went to Sears and K-Mart and applied but they turned her down, she said, because they saw she was disabled. "I don't want to be a part of a community that does not want me."
I totally understand that feeling. Of course she doesn't.
But is that the only dichotomy we're dealing with? I hope not. Maybe the discussion isn't about a sheltered workshop being shut down, but maybe the conversation is about the rest of the world? What if the concern wasn't about the closing of an institution, but the promise of what's "out there" waiting for people to come and get it with a little help from their friends and the people paid to help them? What if systems and bureaucracies, instead of turf wars, got into a discussion about how to figure out how to make more and more and more connections, more and more actual job opportunities, more and more business opportunities, knowing that there's no alternative?
Kevin is the representation of this line of thought in A Whole Lott More. He never became a part of the workshop culture, and from graduation he pursued getting a job. That's fraught with all kinds of dangers of rejection, dead-ends, and all the other obstacles in the way of anyone pursuing employment, but he kept trying, just like anybody else, and he finally got a job at Best Buy, even though he truly wants a job in a library. He settled, but still has a vision forward.
I think all the folks involved in this film are heroic in all kinds of ways, because they are all in pursuit of a decent wage, a decent life, and a little dignity. I completely understand how the Lott Industries facility that shut down was a space that held a lot of great memories involved in that group struggle, but at the end of the day I know that everyone who worked so hard within those walls should have a chance to give a try on the other side...