Inclusion and Work: A mini-manifesto

Yesterday I wrote about ending the abuses of sheltered workshops and received push-back from a reader and online-friend. Her son is finding his pathway into employment through a Goodwill sheltered workshop. I really appreciate her voice. I want to see change, but would hate for that change to limit options for her son or for anyone.

That said, the abuses and exploitation of people with disabilities in the sheltered workshop environment have got to stop. The challenge is to craft new systems that preserve possibilities for all people of all ability levels.

Beyond the laws, I argue that the emphasis on sheltered workshops pushes segregation over inclusion. Segregation is easier. Inclusion is hard. Inclusion takes creativity, more resources, and the willingness to push at a culture that too often wants to isolate people with disabilities or render them mere objects of inspiration, rather than full-blown members of society.

There’s no one pathway forward. The key is, as always, inclusion; not same-ness. For some people, a segregated controlled environment is absolutely essential for making progress in education or work or anything. My son is one of those people. In First Grade, he spends about half the day in a special needs room and half the day with his class. Although philosophically I am deeply committed to full inclusion, it’s not the right thing for Nico right now. He needs the social interaction of a full class, but he also needs the quiet, controlled environment in order to work on his math, spelling, reading, and writing.

And it’s working. Nico can read. The key to the Individualized Education Plan is that first word – individual. Frankly, all children of all abilities need IEPs, but we lack the resources. It’s not a perfect model, but the approach can carry forward into the working world.

I dream of a day in which all people with disabilities can take advantage of well-supported infrastructure to guide them in transition from high-school into adulthood.

Where whatever degree of independence, inclusion, protection, isolation, etc. that is best for them is available and economically feasible.

Where the word “shelter” in “sheltered workshop” is not a euphemism but a true description of a gentle, educative, environment that helps people with disabilities find meaningful work, build skills, and move out of the shelter if and when they can handle the turbulence of a more inclusive environment.

All of this will take government money, and lots of it. 

It cannot be done by charities alone. It cannot be done by commerce (buying stuff at Goodwill, for example. Or a bake-sale). It cannot only be available for people with means and contacts (Nico is likely going to be fine assuming all goes well; he’s 7 and my wife and I are already making plans). In many cases, we will need to pay two salaries or stipends to do one job – a job coach + compensation for work.

The costs are high; but oh, the potential payoffs. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people currently cut off from the workforce, isolated in workshops, stuck at home watching TV, their hard-won skills deteriorating. They already impose costs on society, government, family, and themselves. Brought into a more inclusive working environment, some of those costs ease; more importantly, as with all inclusion, the whole society and culture benefits when we open the doors to difference.

So as I head into the world of work and disability, a topic on which I have much more to say, including revealing more about a pilot program that I helped start at my university – and which is scale-able to every university in the nation  – this is my trajectory.

End the laws that allow for abuses while maintaining choices and possibilities that take into account the full range of human ability and potential.

Inclusion; not same-ness. Shelter as a choice; not a default.

3 Replies to “Inclusion and Work: A mini-manifesto”

  1. DavidG says:

    The UK sheltered workshop system didn't have the blatant exploitation that the US one does, but Remploy was a pretty good example of how not to do it in the business sense, with most investment seeming to be into (non-disabled) management salaries, rather than finding sustainable, profitable work that didn't see disabled people written off as only suitable for basket-weaving. In fact they did have some contracts that could have been used as positive adverts – making the Army's chemical warfare protective suits, for instance – but it seems like no one ever thought to do that. Disability moved on, but Remploy seemed to remain stuck in the '50s and unfortunately it became a nationwide symbol of what disabled people were supposedly 'fit' for as workers. I think that ongoing damage to the disability movement as a whole may have been too much in Liz Sayce's mind as she wrote the report that recommended selling off the Remploy factories – and there was never any real doubt that in most cases 'selling off' would actually mean closing.

    I certainly won't deny that the existing image of Remploy, and the view of disability it fostered, was damaging to disabled people as a whole, I thought so myself, but the Sayce plan denied the reality of what would happen, and what it would mean for the workers. In a work environment where even skilled professionals can be shoved out the door for the audacity of becoming disabled (BTDT), with disability unemployment at twice the national rate, and in the worst recession in decades, the Remploy workers were never going to have a hope of finding work. Worse, the Sayce report glossed over the reality for many of the Remploy workers, and for others like them, that a sheltered work environment was vital. We rightly demand that all workplaces be accessible, but for some disabled people the only accessible workplace may be a sheltered one. The disability movement in the UK holds the Social Model of Disability as its one true faith, and demands both inclusion and accessibility as our rights, but recognising that inclusive may sometimes be at odds with accessible is an area where some of its leadership have failed.

    And if we can only give someone the right to work by offering them it in a sheltered workshop, then is it exclusion on the small scale, or inclusion on a larger?

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