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Bark’s Bytes #17 | End of Story

Like the invasive milfoil that clouds our lakes and zebra mussels that kill our native species – Bob Shaw’s article ‘Is it exploitation of disabled, or a lifeline” (St. Paul Pioneer Press 7/8/12) makes our pond murkier and diminishes the progress made in the last decade by people with disabilities. Mr. Shaw’s article had three critical flaws that destroyed a potentially good story and I will try to correct each for the record.

First, we are not “segregating a minority class” as Scott Schifsky, Program Director of The Arc of Minnesota, is quoted as saying in the article. Integration has become a hot topic recently and, because misguided zealots don’t seek reasonable consensus, it is unlikely that we will have an agreeable definition anytime soon. Moreover, in a very real way integration is a choice. For example, a retired couple that chooses to live in an assisted living complex with their same-aged peers would not think of themselves as being segregated. Therefore, if integration is chosen by the individual, perhaps defining segregation would be helpful in this discussion and I offer the following – “Segregation is the forcible separation of a group or class from the rest of society”. From my view “segregation” does not apply to the nearly 16,235 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) served by Day Training & Habilitation (DT&H) programs in Minnesota because their placement was chosen by an interdisciplinary team that included themselves, their guardian/family, and an independent county case manager. Therefore, if people with I/DD are not segregated, they must be integrated. End of story.

Second, and perhaps forgivable because even Mr. Shaw’s expert sources don’t report the numbers correctly, the unemployment rate for people with I/DD is not 77 percent. To begin, it is important to remember that the employment goal is not 100% as, according to the StateData Book 2011 published by the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts, only 75% of all Minnesotans of working age (16 – 64) are employed. Now to the numbers (updated on 7/12/12 with new MDE data).

  • The ICI reports that Minnesota has 131,744 citizens with a cognitive disability of working age and 75% of that number is 98,808 of which 48,705 are reported as employed.
  • The Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that in 2009 DT&H programs served 16,235 people with I/DD of which only 1,677 were not pursuing work with 14,588 either hired by an employer, working on a crew, or completing facility-based work.
  • In Minnesota most students with I/DD enter a transition program when their peers graduate until age 21. For school year 2010 – 2011, the Minnesota Department of Education website reports 127,863 unduplicated special education students of which 24,129 are ages 16 – 21.

Consequently, of the estimated 98,808 working age people with I/DD, 32,470 (48,705 – 16,235) are placed into jobs by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development or others making at least minimum wage, 14,588 people with I/DD in DT&H programs are working, and 24,129 people with I/DD are 16 – 21 year olds still in school. As a result 71,187, or 72% of our citizens aged 16 – 64 with I/DD are either working or in school compared with 75% of all Minnesotans. So, Minnesota has done a great job of providing work to people aged 16 – 64 with I/DD and their unemployment rate is not 77 percent. End of story.

The third flaw, and what I was most disappointed in, was Mr. Shaw’s decision to highlight the differences in the people with I/DD he met instead of recognizing the vast majority of sameness with the non-disabled population. I am certain that if I visited Mr. Shaw’s office I would observe unshaven men, women with a bad hair day, people dressed slovenly, messy work areas, and some eccentric behaviors. Still they are people doing their job and evaluated by their performance not solely their appearance or character traits. Why is it that Mr. Shaw chose to describe people with I/DD as though he was explaining to his children why animals in the zoo look and act differently than us? His comments were disrespectful and only reinforce the stereotypes that self-advocates, families, and providers have been trying to change for many years. I am privileged to be around over 350 people with I/DD on a regular basis and I mostly see individuals who want to be respected, given choices in their lives, and valued in their communities. Isn’t that what most of us want? One of the clients at Merrick is quoted as saying “We do have disabilities, but we’re capable of doing pretty much anything we want to do. Just like you. We work really hard. We have our goals and we want to make our dreams come true.” What constitutes fulfilling work is an individual choice and can be found as an employee of a business, a member of a crew, or in a facility-based setting even if that doesn’t jive with a fictional book someone is writing for self-aggrandizement. If you want a good story, read “Hiring People with Disabilities” written by Maura Keller in the February 2012 Minnesota Business and then call a DT&H in your area to talk about options to provide meaningful work to people with I/DD. By the way, Mr. Shaw, I sleep with my mouth open too – what does that mean? You missed a great chance to promote people with I/DD as valuable workers. End of story.