Sharon Speaks Out

The Myth:
Everyone Can Work

By Sharon B. Raimo
There is a strong push in all sectors of government that relies on the myth that all human beings are capable of gainful employment. This is simply not true. This idea fails to take into account the thousands of people born with significant developmental disabilities that participating in a normal workplace environment impossible.

While I understand that there are millions of people receiving government assistance in the form of Social Security Disability Insurance (or SSDI) for injuries that occurred decades ago, and who have failed to return to work, there are many others who, through no fault of their own, cannot and will not ever be able to work in the traditional sense. Some of the people I am referring to have disabilities that render them unable to speak or to eat unattended. Many of them require assistance to use bathrooms or need their diapers changed. Others have behaviors that frighten the untrained and can lead to injury to themselves or others. Some are in wheelchairs and have no ability to use their hands. Others require feeding or breathing tubes. This does not make them any less valuable as human beings but the government insistence that they find “jobs” does diminish them.

It is true that these people need something meaningful to do with their days. We all need that. But that something needs to be specifically designed for them as individuals and supported by others who are trained to help. Perhaps they can do this work activity for a half day, perhaps only for an hour but if it has meaning for them then it is worth it. What is not worth it is having an individual travel with an aide to a work site and sit with their wheelchair on lock as the aide does the “work”. Not only is this undignified, it deprives the individual from having meaningful interactions with their peers and a feeling of accomplishment.

At St. Coletta we believe in creating work activities that allow people to participate at a variety of levels. Many of our people, even though they cannot speak, are skilled at doing other things. It is our job to discover what those things are. We have been surprised to learn that some of our people are skilled weavers while others have the patience and fine motor coordination to bead. When they are on the job they have communication devices or aides who act as their “voices”. Still other individuals who do not take to these activities can do order fulfillment or mailing; some independently, others with assistance. But whatever they do is done in an atmosphere that supports their talents and takes their needs into account.

The other impediment to meaningful employment is the way Social Security Insurance (SSI) for the developmentally disabled is structured. Under current guidelines, which have not been reviewed since the early 1980s, individuals can make only 80 dollars per month before their benefits begin to be cut and their health insurance (Medicaid) is tied to those wage ceilings. This means an individual earning minimum wage can work six hours per week before their benefits are affected.

What employer has the need to hire a severely disabled person for six hours per week? And if they do, it is out of charity and they give the person a “make work” job, like sorting old clothes or sticking them in the corner of a mailroom with an attendant and saying that they are “working”. In fact, this is a waste of their time.