Dreaming a New World of Work
On the surface of things, now might not seem like the best time for me to be thinking about my brother's work life. Willie's been struggling with self-injurious and aggressive behaviors, but I'm thinking about his work just the same.
I'm thinking about it in part because it's problematic, and in part because I need to believe that someday, Willie will be free from these rages, able to pursue a more fulfilling work experience. I long for him to use his talents, to grow his gifts. Yet even so, I realize that his difficult behaviors are not the only thing standing in the way of that dream.
My family wants more for Willie in his work life. He's over-qualified for his current job, which consists of contract work from local businesses. His tasks are repetitive; he shreds x-rays almost every day. While my family is thankful that Willie has any job at all given his difficult behaviors, we know that, given his skills and talents, he could do much more.
This being the case, my parents strive to provide Willie with a full extra-curricular life. He swims laps at the YMCA, goes bowling with a league, lifts weights, and attends movie nights and respite weekends. And earlier this year, Willie and my mom wanted to volunteer for a local animal shelter together. (Willie loves dogs, and can identify any dog by breed in seconds.) To make a long story short, the volunteering didn't happen. The shelter wasn't willing (or able) to make accommodations for mom and Willie to volunteer.
It was unfortunate, but it was also no surprise. Many businesses and nonprofits aren't willing to make the kinds of changes (large or small) required to welcome adults with special needs into the workforce. Few businesses are willing to do what Steamers Coffeehouse does; in the words of founder Athan Miller: “We have to build inefficiencies into our business model.”
Our culture worships efficiency. We bow down to bottom lines. And the thought that everyone deserves a shot at a fulfilling work experience seems wildly idealistic given the current economic situation. There are definite societal prejudices against people with autism and other disabilities, but there is also a sense in which the entire American workplace is a system ill-prepared to serve the needs of its workers, with or without special needs.
Our workplaces aren't more inclusive because welcoming people with special needs demands a willingness (and ability) to design a career experience around an individual's specific set of gifts and needs. Few workplaces are willing do that for any of their workers.
Most businesses in the United States don't allow themselves to believe that traditional models should—or even can—change in response to the changing needs of its workforce. Consider: Businesses still operate on the 9-to-5 model that originated during the Industrial Revolution … and if they don't, the hours are even longer. Unlike many other first-world nations, the United States doesn't allow for “luxuries” that would help to keep workers and their families healthy (things like significant vacation time, sabbaticals, reasonable maternity and paternity leaves, or free access to healthcare). Far too many people feel like square pegs in round holes. They face exhausting commutes, mundane tasks, and tangled bureaucracies. Without strong mentorship, their talents go ignored. If they complain, they're told to be grateful that they have a job at all.
But what if welcoming individuals with special needs is exactly the catalyst that could transform the workplace as we know it? What if the kinds of changes we'd need to make to welcome such individuals would actually benefit all of us?
It would take a great deal of patience, thought, and planning to effect such a change. But I have to believe that it can be done. We all have something to offer one another. When we cling to rigid structures and outdated, isolating policies, we are missing out on the gifts that people with special needs could bring to our workplaces.
And, like so many others who know and love someone with special needs, I'm willing to work to make that happen. Why? Because I hope against hope that my brother can—and should—do more than shred x-rays.