Note: I have had much computer/internet connectivity the past week and a half or so. I’m sure it has absolutely NOTHING to do with the fact that my father has gone crazy trying to get his wireless to work by screwing around with my router as if he knows what he is doing. Anyway, he leaves tomorrow and I think we are back online. I owe a few of you emails and I haven’t forgotten.
I have a disability-related question for your blogging calendar:
I shop at this evil, big-box store ("Meijer" if anyone else knows it) and they seem to employ a large number of visibly disabled people. I'd say of the employees I see there on any given shopping trip, maybe half will be disabled--from cognitive disabilities to wheel-chair users, the partially paralyzed people or amputees.
Now, on the one hand, I'm all, "hey, it's nice to see so many queers in one place" (which is how I've come to think of disabled people--as my fellow queers). On the other hand, it's an evil big-box store.
Are they getting slave labor from some evil government program or what?
I don't expect you to actually know a 100% accurate answer to my question, but I figured you could speculate with authority.
I can’t say with specificity what is going on there. Half seems awfully high so I would assume some kind of community/government agency is involved. That may be good or bad, depending on many factors. Here is a quick and dirty abridged speculation on why many times you might see people with disabilities working in packs.
Sometimes, in some communities, there will be a sort of glut of people with disabilities working in one place because of a manager or HR person that for whatever reason has a vested interest in the disabled community. They may have a disability themselves or have a relative that is disabled and actively recruit disabled employees. Word gets around and then a lot get hired.
Another thing that happens sometimes is that one or two disabled people “break in” to an employer and get the accommodations all set up, paving the way for others. An example of this happened in Omaha
There are also a few programs like the Randolph-Sheppard Act which give preferential bidding to the disabled for jobs in government. The classic example is visually impaired vendors. Many federal and state government buildings have vending machines or cafeterias and food stands that are managed by people with vision impairments. They apply to manage the stands and machines and get affirmative bidding privileges. The interesting thing about this, I’ve always mused, is that vending is a job that deals with many things that people don’t think visually impaired people can do. You deal with a lot of merchandise and have to keep inventory, you have to get that inventory from place to place yourself without a car, there is considerable foot travel involved sometimes, there is cooking and food prep, and you are dealing with large sums of cash that you have to account for and handle. There are many, many successful blind vendors out there, many of which handle multiple locations and machines and cafeterias and workers and such, which is great. But I wish the private sector would look at their success in this area as an example of how productive they could be in other competitive jobs.
Then there are a slew of community and government programs that “broker” jobs for disabled people. These programs can be great, or they can be kind of screw-y and underhanded. There are many ways that they go about it. Sometimes, they just go in and do the advocating on behalf of a potential employee as sort of a front person or placement specialist. This works well for someone who can be a great, oh—I don’t know—file clerk but is a lousy interview. And also, someone can be a great file clerk and a great interview, but they still need an able bodied person to go in and pave the way for them. It sucks and I resent this, but it is true.
Sometimes, there is no current open job that a disabled person can do, so a broker who is experienced in job development goes to a potential employer and tries to get them to ‘create’ a job. This isn’t a pretend job, it is usually a job carved out from several other jobs. For example, a company might have an opening for a secretary. The job description includes typing letters, answering the phone, filing, photocopying, shredding paper, hole-punching and binding, etc. So, a job developer has a client who can do all but type letters and answer the phone. The job developer tries to convince the employer to rearrange the job description to fit the client with a disability. For example, the disabled person could do all the photocopying, filing, shredding, hole-punching and binding for three current secretaries. Then the three current secretaries would have more time available to handle the additional calls and letter writing. To me, this is only fair if the disabled employee gets a competitive wage. Sometimes, to seal the deal, the job developer says, well you’ll only have to pay my client minimum wage, when you’d be hiring a whole new secretary for $12.00 an hour or whatever. The thing is, you pay secretaries $12/hr. to hole- punch and photocopy currently, even though it isn’t their whole job. The disabled person should get the same rate of pay even though they have carved out an “easier” job. The secretaries are usually quite happy to dump the scut work anyway, so no one loses if everyone is paid accordingly.
A disabled employee might also have a “job coach” that works along side them. The job coach helps them train for the job or helps with some part of the job that they can’t do. Sometimes the job coach is just temporary (but longer than a person would usually be in training, say three to six months or longer), or sometimes the job coach is permanent. Sometimes a permanent job coach just monitors and problem solves with the employee and employer, but doesn’t directly work side by side with them every day. There are many different possible arrangements. Again, if the employee is getting a competitive wage and the job coach is being paid by an outside source (such as a community voc rehab or disability organization) well, fine. But sometimes they arrange the wage to be split among the job coach and the employee. The employee gets less than minimum wage, and the job coach gets what is left over plus a supplement from the disability/voc rehab organization. So, job coach does half the job and gets a full wage, but employee does half the job and gets a substandard wage. Again, not fair.
I will mention here that I’ve heard that a lot of self advocates with cognitive disabilities are sick to death of the whole “greeter” shtick that goes on at a lot of big box stores. The job is mainly pretend, most of them don’t really do anything (offer directions or assistance or something), they are mostly a PR prop that says to customers, “see how nice we are? We allow this Disabled Special Person to smile at you. We are a great company because we make you feel warm inside!” Also, there is a saying that all people with cognitive disabilities are allowed to do is “food, floors, and flowers,” They talk of being tired of being placed in the McBusboy, janitorial, and greenhouse jobs so enough already and they want to branch out to something more creative. This is when you have a mediocre job broker vs. a really good and creative one. Another reason disabled folks sometimes work in packs is because job coaches get really comfortable with just a few employers and place everyone there. Or place many people together so they can share a job coach. The more people can get out there and be seen doing different kinds of productive work that they enjoy, the better.
As you have probably guessed, I strongly believe in competitive employment for people with disabilities, and I strongly believe that includes competitive wages. A day’s work is a day’s work and all people need and deserve a living wage. Now, when people cry “oh, but that’s not fair to the poor corporations!” Believe me, I’m crying for the poor, wittle corporations right along with you. How can they possibly afford to give a few disabled employees that might be a little slow or a little less productive a competitive wage when they could easily hire a nondisabled person who can work faster and easier for that lousy $6 bucks an hour? Maybe they can get it from their CEOs who are getting company cars and huge perks and having their assistants do their comp dry cleaning and errand running while they are roaming the country in private jets and having $500 ‘business dinners’ and buying executive ‘gifts’ with their no credit limit company black American express cards? Unless we are talking about a really small mom and pop joint, the money is there to pay decent wages to disabled folks. (Ironically here, the same corporate big wigs who bitch about the ADA
And that is sufficed to say that the vast majority of disabled folks, when appropriately accommodated are, in fact, more productive than their nondisabled counterparts. They usually have less absenteeism and turnover and are very committed to the job. The only exceptions to the productivity rule are usually when hiring folks with rather significant cognitive or physical disabilities. Not your run of the mill wheelchair users or amputees or whatnot.
I sometimes resent the fact that disabled people (mostly those with cognitive disabilities or more significant physical disabilities) have to have a nondisabled person represented by a “charitable organization” broker a job for them. Quite frankly, if I were to go out right now looking for a 9 to 5, that is what I would need at this point. There are very few job openings I could just pick up off the classifieds and go interview for anymore. So why can’t I advocate for myself and go in and carve out my own job? I could, but often that puts me in the position of looking like I’m vying for “special treatment,” and/or that I’m not a serious applicant for the job. I need a nondisabled third party that can be the go-between for negiations and give my run for the job the credibility of a “charitable organization” backing and pretty, feel good packaging. That is the world we live in right now. And even for the brokers, things are tough out there. My ex-boss was a broker of sorts (she brokered for brokers, if you will), and she had horror stories of being laughed right out of corporate HR offices for even wasting their time with the notion that they would lower themselves to hire the disabled. I won’t mention any names [coughNIKEcough], but I guess if that is what it takes to get people out there and working, that’s where we are right now.
I think most people with disabilities would agree that the worst situation is the sheltered workshop scam. This is where disabled people are really getting exploited. Now someone is going to write to me and say, “Hey, my son works in a sheltered workshop and he loves it and he is protected and it is the only thing he can do and he gets a little cash so what is wrong with you?” I understand this is the reality that some people live with and I don’t blame anyone for doing what they have to do to survive or make due. But that doesn’t make it a good thing, just the sorry best we’ve got for some people right now. And I think that it is a sad state of affairs when we warehouse folks and make them do menial repetitive tasks for sub minimum wage while mostly passing on their wages to low bid contractors or to service providers.
If you are unfamiliar, sheltered workshops employ people with disabilities to do mostly assembly line work. (But not always, hidden in the back of many of your Goodwill stores are sheltered workshop employees laundering and sorting your donations for sub minimum wage.) Anyway, besides the low pay, they cannot change jobs, advance, or—many times—quit without say so from some case manager or some such. The conflict of interest is that the sheltered workshop managers get their contracts by being able to offer the lowest bid to companies. (i.e. I once knew of a workshop that assembled the little sporks and napkin packets for KFC, another one manufactured the basketball netting for Spalding).
My point is, they NEED to keep the disabled employees there and working at low wages in order to keep their low bid contracts and thus make a profit (or in the nonprofit case, keep the administration employed and afloat.) There is no incentive to train these employees to get out into the community and find some kind of more substantial competitive employment. I had a colleague with mild cognitive disabilities. She was institutionalized for most of her childhood and then transferred to a sheltered workshop. At some point, the factory foreperson (a nondisabled person on full salary) quit suddenly. My colleague took on the job as acting foreperson for several months and handled the job quite successfully. However, when it came time to apply for a new foreperson, her application could not be accepted because she was a sheltered workshop employee and could not advance into the pay scale of the nondisabled supervisory role. So, in essence, here is where it really is slavery, or at the very least, exploited labor.
In general, I think any time there are people with disabilities working in visible ways in the community in competitive jobs along side nondisabled colleagues (for fair wages—inasmuch as they are fair for anyone); it is probably a good thing. Evil big box store issues aside, it is where we are right now and hopefully it is a stepping stone for more equitable working conditions to come.