Ask Schuyler what she wants to do for a living when she grows up, and her answers reveal her own ambiguity on the subject. “I want to be a teacher,” she says, before changing her mind. “No, I want to be an artist.” Finally she settles on the heart-warming but vague “I want to help people.”
She sees her future work life as an abstraction, probably because at her age, the future seems limitless. She believes that whatever she’s going to do with her life is a choice that is firmly in her hands. But for Schuyler, and for kids like her, that future may not actually have that many options.
I was recently reading about the state of the employment scene for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, although that’s perhaps a misleading way to put it. It’s best described as a state of unemployment, or underemployment. It’s an almost nonexistent living wage, and a nearly impossible hope for independent living. And it hasn’t appreciably changed in decades.
The numbers from a recent Special Olympics survey are pretty bleak. Only thirty-four percent of intellectually disabled adults are actually employed, compared to eighty-three percent of the nondisabled adult workforce. Twenty-eight percent of adults with intellectual disabilities have never had a job at all.
If those numbers are disheartening, the reality is worse. About thirty percent of the employed intellectually disabled work in sheltered workshops, where they are often paid far below the minimum wage and are largely segregated from other workers. This is perfectly legal, thanks to a law from the 1930s that allows employers to pay workers with intellectual disabilities a wage (often ridiculously low) based on a comparison of their productivity levels with those of their nondisabled coworkers.
Sheltered workshops and their policies certainly have their advocates. (I touched on this recently in “You’re worth what you’re worth.”) They argue that most of these workers would be unable to live independently anyway, and without these programs, they’d be left without any place to provide structured environments. They point out that only about five percent ever leave for other, more “mainstream” jobs.
But opposition to these sheltered workshops is growing. The National Council on Disability has asked the federal government to gradually put an end to these workshops, and the Special Olympics has also spoken out on the topic. Last week, after President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers, the administration clarified that this order includes the intellectually disabled workers at the sheltered workshops administered by those federal contractors.
Perhaps change is coming.
There are companies that endeavor to hire persons with intellectual disabilities, and trust me when I say that we notice. When a business has employees with intellectual disabilities working, and not just behind the scenes but at the front end of the store, that sends a message. That tells consumers that the company believes in the capabilities of those workers, and is comfortable with them as the face of their company. And those are businesses that many of us will return to again and again. I could give you a list of local businesses where we regularly shop for just that reason.
Competitive work situations are an important part of trying to build a life for those with intellectual disabilities. It’s crucial to that life if they are to live independently. And that same survey with all the bad news also found that of the workers with intellectual disabilities who do work in competitive employment environments, over sixty percent of them have held that job for three years or more.
When we talk about entering into authentic relationships with people with disabilities, there is perhaps none so meaningful as that of the employer who takes a chance on someone and brings them into their work environment. Not in a segregated way, and not at a reduced pay scale, but as a member of their team. We have a long way to go before most employers are willing to find a place where workers with intellectual disabilities fit, and I recognize that it can be challenging.
But for those who are willing to take that step, there’s a world of qualified and enthusiastic potential employees. When I look at Schuyler’s future employment options, there are possibilities. I’m confident that she’ll get her chance to help people. And to help herself.
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