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Work, Inclusion, and Identity

July 11, 2009

The latest Seattle Weekly includes a feature about AtWork! and other efforts to meet the state of Washington’s push to find employment for developmentally disabled adults. According to the article:

The state’s Department of Social and Health Services intensified this effort three years ago when it decided that all the activities it funded for developmentally disabled adults under age 62 would be related to finding and keeping jobs. Previously, the state had offered a recreational program as well, which involved activities like swimming, bowling, art classes, and outings to the mall.

The stated purpose of this focus is inclusiveness, and the story frames controversy about it, including the objections of families in terms of whether this is too inclusive. Unfortunately, that masks the real issue.

I don’t know about you, but things activities such as swimming, making art, and bowling (once, and I was terrible at it though the pink corset might have had something to do with that) have been a part of my normal (or not) adult life. I’ve formed friendships with people unlike myself through all three, so something other than inclusion in the community must be at stake here. I smell the Protestant work ethic. You must work, and in a capacity that is or could be payed, in order to be part of the community of the elect. It is assumed that everyone must work, must “contribute” in a capitalist sense (never mind art if it doesn’t sell), in order to be “normal”. And “normal” must be good. This is despite the fact that sometimes this supposedly normalizing employment ends up costing more than other programs would.

Karen McNerney, mother of a developmentally disabled young woman named Megan, touched on this when discussing the state’s new rules:

It’s their agenda. It’s not my daughter’s agenda.

Of course, any disabled person who wants to be employed should have a right to that, but why make extraordinary efforts to fit people into round holes where they may not want to be or to which they may be indifferent?

Ultimately, what’s at stake here is the question of whether disability is something that should, as much as possible, be eliminated or whether it can be a positive identity. This is especially evident in the denial of funds to programs in which developmentally disabled congregate. As Martha Schulte, mother of a young man named Nathan who is enrolled in such a program, says

It’s not allowing the identity of a group of people.

When a group of people are excluded from society, the solution is not to reduce their ability to be together or to make them fit as much as possible into the roles that work (or are accepted as if worked) by the rest of society. The answer is, rather, for the rest of society to accept them as they are. That’s what I always thought inclusion meant. Then again, as an Aspie, I am often told that I take things too literally and ignore the socially agreed-upon connotations; sometimes I think of my disability as an immunity to doublespeak.

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