Sunday, November 2, 2014

Living Wages

A lot of times in trainings and meetings people use Clip-art configurations in their Power-point presentations just to gussy things up, or to prove a point without having to prove a point, almost like instant branding.  Clip-art allows anyone a catalog of pictographs and overarching almost blank logos to "explain" things without really accounting for the explanation.  Clip-art provides a shortcut that leads back to the fact something can't be codified, can't be illustrated:  everything is complicated and yet easily simplified.  In my case I go to a lot of trainings and meetings about employment for people with developmental disabilities, and somehow the Clip-art responses to that grouping of abstractions ("people," "disabilities," "employment") come off so inept as to be ironic, even absurd, not because the people in the Clip-art depictions aren't depicted in wheelchairs for diversity's sake, or whatever.  It's not the visuals.  The simplicity of the "Clip-arting" process is the main problem:  hugely complicated topics can't be easily abstracted especially while you're living through them.  There's no ap for that.
Helping/supporting people with disabilities to get actual jobs with living wages is about trying to do a lot of activities people on all sides of the table aren't used to.  It's about decreasing the importance of programs and increasing the importance of expectations both on the people we're trying to help get real jobs, and on the employers.  These expectations vary of course.  On the part of the people with disabilities, we are counting on them to have the skills and desires and competencies needed to work; on the part of the employers, we are counting on them to think beyond stereotypes and to make hiring decisions based on a person's skills and desires and competencies, not on charity or pity.  The equation sounds simple, but it is so complex as to become confusing, even depressing.  The contemporary history of vocational ambitions for people with developmental disabilities is pretty dismal:  consigned to sheltered workshop making sub-minimum wage.  In the 1980s a service set called "supported employment" caught on for many folks, but still those segregated work spaces held on, so that a small percentage of "job-ready" people were referred for employment in the real world, but a vast majority were still told they "belong" in a sheltered work environment, always being told they weren't ready yet. 
In 2012 Employment First, a national initiative, came to Ohio, signed as an executive order by Governor Kasich.  It stipulates that all the service-systems statewide here in Ohio presume people are employable.  Are "ready."
"Ready" is a loaded word and concept, and as I keep trying to figure out how to help make employment happen for people (in tandem with a bunch of other folks, including social workers, counselors, family member, and employers, etc.) I always try to understand that not everyone we're trying to help "break through" will make it, and some may not even want to.  But my presumption is that all of us want to be contributors to the world, using whatever talents we have to make it a better place.  My presumption is everyone deserves a chance.  Lots of chances actually.
Good old Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had Blanche Dubois whisper, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  With all this employment stuff, we are depending on the kindness, and open-mindedness of people with developmental disabilities, their family members, services providers, supervisors, CEOs, coworkers, and so on.  "Kindness," in this case, seems to be a process of seeing beyond what's right in front of you, and what's in the historical record, maybe even in the subconscious.  People who are not consigned to Sheltered-Workshop-Land often have images in their heads of groups of people with developmental disabilities in school on the little yellow bus, in backroom classrooms, on the playground in clusters.  They have images from TV and movies and literature that dictate these folks are helpless and in need of all kinds of "special" support.  People with developmental disabilities, and their service providers, advocates and families, often have a lot of fear about connecting with the "real world," about leaving behind the intended safety and comfort of programs designed to protect them and to perpetually "prepare" them for eventual "inclusion."  "Kindness" may be the only way for people on all sides of the equation to see, without blinders, a world in which many people often considered not "ready" are actually capable of contributing and ascending even.
So employment is maybe one of the only ways to put social change into practice, to test the boundaries of "kindness," not charity or pity, but a kindness that is predicated on the Golden Rule that essentially states: You should treat others as you would like others to treat you. 
Pretty simple.  Bet there's no Clip-art for that though.  
In summation, here's a picture:
This happened last week -- a team of temporary employees with developmental disabilities became full-time employees of ThyssenKrupp Bilstein, a company in Southwest Ohio that makes auto-parts.  They had to work really hard to prove themselves, not just because it's a hard job, but because they don't have the luxury of not being labeled.  That labeling is an obstacle everyone involved has to overcome.  The employer had to figure out how to accommodate for a few things, but also expect great things; the employees had to figure out how to word hard and push forward and even maybe surprise themselves with how strong they are; the job coaches, families, supporters, and supported employment people had to figure out how to make all of this work without interrupting efficiency and the workplace.  It goes on and on.  Complications arise, but the will to incorporate those complications (not really solve them, but contend with and work with it all) becomes a version of "kindness," and eventually a little bit of triumph,  Right beside the big ThyssenKrupp Bilstein sign stands the CEO Fabian Schmahl, who gave a great speech and then handed each new employee their uniforms.    
Without employment, this process on all sides would have never happened.  It was not a Utopian moment, as much as a simply joyous one.  Which is probably a lot better, at least from my point of view.