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Emily’s Special Friend | A Client Spotlight Story

Emily at 2023 PartyPublished January 19, 2024

Between 2:15 and 2:30 pm each afternoon, the tinkling of piano keys can often be heard echoing through the halls of Merrick’s Willow Lake Boulevard site. The notes do not form a clear melody line, and their sparseness may lead visitors to question whether the tinkling sound was just their imagination. Ask any staff member about it, and they will tell you that it’s Emily. Playing the piano is part of her afternoon routine. A routine that was not always so easy to follow.

When Emily first started at Merrick in the summer of 2023, nothing was routine. Being that Emily is non-verbal, uses limited American Sign Language, and had no prior experience at a day program, it proved a challenge for Emily to learn the daily routine. From where to place her personal belongings to when it was time to use the bathroom, none of it came easily at first. Slowly that all changed, in part, thanks to Emily’s new friend, Brooke.

Direct Support Professional Brooke joined the Willow Lake team around the same time that Emily started at Merrick, and it soon became clear that she and Emily had a special connection. While other DSPs relied exclusively on a hand-over-hand teaching style when supporting Emily, Brooke found that simply pointing to or handing her an object would elicit a response. Under Brooke’s direction, Emily would readily play with various wooden activity boards and would eventually develop an interest in playing the piano so much so that it would become part of her daily routine.

Because of their connection, Brooke learned more about Emily than most and got to know the sweet, energetic person that she was. For instance, though Emily is sensitive to sound and will place her hands over her ears, Brooke discovered that she has a secret affinity for 90s music one day when she played New Kids on the Block and noticed Emily perk up. In addition, while Emily has enjoyed many community outings, Brooke quickly realized that her favorite outings were any that involved shopping, not because she liked to shop, but because she liked to push the shopping cart.

Reflecting on Emily’s first 6 months at Merrick, Brooke can say she has noticed definite improvements. When she first arrived, Emily would not carry her own lunch box or backpack, had a penchant for breaking things, and would anxiously pace the floor. Now, not only does Emily not do any of those things, but she looks forward to coming to Merrick every day. However, the work is far from over.

Going forward, Brooke has many goals in mind for Emily to work on and knows the road ahead will not always be smooth or straight. For example, though Emily works well with Brooke, Brooke cannot always be with her, and Emily needs to learn to work with other staff. In addition, Brooke hopes to increase Emily’s knowledge of American Sign Language and is currently teaching her the word for “bathroom.” Brooke would also like to see Emily participate in large group activities someday such as playing with the parachute.

For Emily, learning the daily routine at Willow Lake did not come easily. But she learned it. It just took time, patience, and a special friend. The same can be said for any one of her new goals. To achieve them will not come easily or quickly. But, with friends like Brooke along for the ride, it is not impossible. And that’s all anyone needs to know to pursue it.

A Parent’s Perspective on Disability Employment

Published November 17, 2023

Amy S.F. Lutz writes (November 8) from both experience and as a disability professional showing that elimination of the 14(c) wage paid to disabled workers is profoundly misguided. Minnesota considered and rejected such a course in its last legislative session, only narrowly avoiding an action spelling widespread unemployment and disenfranchisement for disabled workers like Lutz’ son and my daughter Elizabeth, who has worked at a disabled employment center in St. Paul for over a decade.

Advocates of eliminating the “subminimum wage,” have made two major errors that would have terrible consequences for disabled adults. The policy misapprehends both the basic realities of the labor market and the standards of equity it purports to defend.

Elizabeth’s experience belies descriptions of workplaces like hers as Dickensian dens that segregate disabled people to toil at monotonous work. Far from placing them in an environment in which they are exploited, such centers protect vulnerable adults from the risks and possible abuse they would face in an unfettered job market. Her job allows her to spend full days with talented staff and with her friends and co-workers. She receives a wage based on an established record of her productivity, which is not sufficient to support her, but does not cause her federal disability income to be reduced. Some of her co-workers stay at the center while others go into the community to work at businesses such as local supermarkets, where they are carefully supervised.

Suppose the subminimum wage were ended and an employer at a supermarket faced the choice of hiring someone to stock shelves. One applicant can stock product at twice the rate of another applicant who has cerebral palsy. Both are required to be paid the same minimum wage. Who will get the job? Probably not the disabled worker. Without the subminimum wage allowance, even employers who want to hire the disabled will have a disincentive to do so. Many more such workers will never find jobs at all.

Requiring that all workers, disabled or not, be paid the same wages confuses two types of equity. One kind of equity says people who are similarly situated should be treated the same. The other says that those who are not similarly situated should be treated differently. Those advocating the elimination of subminimum wages confuse the first type of equity with the second. A worker with cerebral palsy is not the same as a worker without it, and they should not be treated as if they are.

No one would deny the right of any worker to seek employment at any wage they might be able to secure, at or above the minimum. But to deny the opportunity to work for less than the minimum wage to those disabled workers who desire and enjoy such employment will mean that many more such workers will be closed out of the marketplace and will remain unemployed and home alone. It may also cause many disabled adult employment centers to shut down, reminiscent of Reagan era efforts to close centers for the mentally ill and leave them to fend for themselves.

These are the realities which advocates of eliminating 14(c) wages refuse to recognize.

Carlisle Ford Runge
Distinguished McKnight Professor of Applied Economics and Law
University of Minnesota

A Man of Many Goals | A Client Spotlight Story

Mike at 2022 Party
Published November 13, 2023

At one-tenth of a mile long and spacious enough for two wheelchairs to easily pass by each other, Merrick’s hallway is a common thoroughfare for clients. Some use it as an exercise route while others use it to practice using a walker or other mobility device. Few can say for certain that they could navigate the wide hallway blindfolded. Mike is one of those few. Only he does not have to wear a blindfold to prove it.

With only his white cane for assistance, Mike moves about Merrick’s main program site with relative ease leaving a wake of positivity behind him. Every morning, he arrives on the bus and makes his way to his workstation in Utility Services while being sure to greet everyone he comes across with a friendly “How are you doing?” or a congenial “Good morning!” Then, every day at lunch time, Mike heads to the Commons and sits down at the same table to enjoy lunch with the same group of coworkers. He even knows where to dispose of his trash when he’s finished eating! On Wednesdays, Mike will make his way from his workstation to the large Flesher Conference Room on the opposite side of the building for his weekly Self-Advocacy meeting. And he does it all with minimal help from staff.

Merrick DSPs are repeatedly impressed with Mike’s navigational skills, especially those that have known him the longest. Because they know that what seems to come naturally to Mike now, in fact, did not come naturally at all. It required lots of practice, frequent encouragement, and a strong dose of determination on Mike’s part. And through it all, Mike never doubted that he could do it. That’s just not how Mike thinks. For Mike, it was never a matter of whether or not he could do it, it was just a matter of when he would.

When he’s not impressing everyone with his navigational skills, Mike spends most of his workday in Utility Services where he does light assembly and packing jobs. Just as he’s mastered the art of navigation, Mike has mastered every job that has ever come his way: packaging x-ray bags, assembling rivets, or packing airplane headphones back in the 90s, just to name a few. These days, it’s in packing greeting cards where he finds the most reward. Even without the use of his eyes, Mike is one of the fastest card packers at Merrick. His current record is packing 53 jigs, or 636 cards, in a single day, but he believes he can do better. In fact, it’s his goal.

At the end of each day’s shift, Mike uses his accessible cell phone to calculate how many cards he’s packed and how much money he’s earned. He might even check his voice mail to see if he got a message from his sister or send her a quick text. However, just as with navigating the building, his DSPs remember a time when using his phone was a challenge for Mike, a challenge he was not afraid to take on in the slightest. But that’s Mike. He’s never been one to let his disability stop him or get him down. And by the looks of it, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.