Apr 12, 2012 1 Share

Dreaming a New World of Work

Illustration of two figures building globe with puzzle pieces.

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.

Comment Options


A Few Companies ARE Making Changes

Hi Caroline,Thanks for writing such a thoughtful essay.  You are discussing some important issues. Let me bring up something more to think about - the rising tide of adults with autism is forcing state agencies like vocational rehabilitation to implement changes in their proceedures that will make the system better for all people with disabilties. By making their assessments, advising sessions, and support services more autism-friendly, they are making them better overall. This is mostly strongly underway in Missouri Voc Rehab and Delaware Voc Rehab, but Minnesota and Oklahoma are working on it as well and others state Voc Rehab agencies are considering similar programs.  So, in this way, people with autism ARE being catalysts already.Also, Walgreens' innovative Anderson, SC distibution center - where autism/disability accommodations are conciously built into the workplace environment and culture - is another example.  From Anderson, this model has spread over the last 5 years to all 20+ Walgreens distribution centers around the country and, strating this year, the same concepts are being implemented gradually in all their local retail stores.  Meanwhile, other large corporations are noticing Walgreens' success and asking for advice on doing the same thing.AMC Theatres, home of Sensory Friendly Films, last year started a new FOCUS autism/disability employment program. The pilot went so well that they have already, quietly, implemented it in all their theatres nationwide.I have written some background on each of these programs if anyone wants to learn more.  They are available athttp://dps.missouri.edu/Autism/2012AWNC/Russell.pdfhttp://dps.missouri.edu/Autism/2012AWNC/AMC_FOCUS.pdfNote, however, that these are not entitlement projects or trial work programs.  Just as you said, these companies are making the small, reasonable accommodations but someone like your brother is still expected to do the work.  It isn't "if you have autism, you can have a job".  It is "If the job matches your abilities, your autism is not a problem here."  And that, I think, is how it should be.There are also a lot of smaller projects around the country, just getting started but with a lot of promise to make big changes.  I know this doesn't change your brother's immediate options, but it does give one hope.Dr. Scott StandiferDisability Policy & StudiesUniversity of Missourion Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/AutismEmployment