Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Segregated Education and Employment are Wrong

I did some research on the limited career options open to adults with intellectual disabilities.  I discovered that in the past, students with intellectual disabilities were often placed in segregated special education classrooms that did not allow them to receive the same educational opportunities as typical children.  In addition, students with intellectual disabilities were often denied the opportunity to interact with typical children.

Sadly, segregation in the education system often prepared them for segregation in the workplace.  As a result, adults with intellectual disabilities are usually placed in segregated and sheltered workshops which have several important disadvantages.  First, they are typically paid less than minimum wage and thus denied the opportunity to support themselves financially on even a partial basis.  Second, they are deprived of the chance to develop the skills necessary to function in better forms of employment that should be much more widely available to adults with intellectual disabilities.  They are denied access to the resources needed to prepare them for work in supported, competitive, and self-employment options.

These practices continue even though a recent study showed that 63% of adults with intellectual disabilities who were participating in sheltered workshops wanted to work outside segregated work environments.  38% of their family members wanted to see their loved one with an intellectual disability work outside a sheltered workshop, and 29% of relatives might want to see their family member with an intellectual disability work outside a sheltered environment.  Thus, the study indicated that continued placement of adults with intellectual disabilities in sheltered workshops denies the wishes of a majority of adults with intellectual disabilities and a significant proportion of their loved ones.    

I also realized that I have suffered similar experiences in the workplace as an autistic adult with a high intellect.  As a result of my undiagnosed autism, I was deliberately prevented from participating in the mainstream workforce in business and accounting over a 12 year period.  Thus, I have also suffered the same financial and psychological effects of being segregated and excluded in the workforce as more severely impacted adults with intellectual disabilities.

The only difference for me is that the workplace segregation began at a much later age for me and thus was much more shocking to me.  Having participated in gifted classes in middle school and high school and having graduated from an Ivy League college, I was integrated all my life into the  most elite parts of the mainstream educational system.  Integration in the education system gave me unfulfilled dreams and expectations of participation in the mainstream workforce. I planned my career based on the assumption that society was planning to include me in the workforce. And thus I was stunned when society repeatedly chose to exclude me from the mainstream workforce after college.

But I am grateful to the autism and disability advocacy community for offering me the opportunity to participate fully and freely in your world. In the past few months, my involvement with the autism and disaiblity world has offered me a wide range of opportunities that I never thought possible.  I have been in the embrace of people who worked hard to include, encourage, nurture, and support me rather than finding excuses to suppress and exclude me.  I have found a caring and compassionate movement full of autistic adults, parents of autistic children, and autism and disability professionals who are committed to the vision of including disabled and autistic people in the workplace and society.  And most of all I have found a group of people who accept and embrace me for who I am and who do not try to force me to conform to the social norms of neurotypical society.  Thanks to your support, I am writing articles and book ideas and feeling emotionally safe in the workplace for the first time in my life.

I also believe that segregated education and employment are wrong for disabled people in general, including adults with intellectual disabilities.  Segregated education and employment prepare us for a life of poverty, exclusion, and discrimination and are designed to limit the range of our career, financial, and life options.  The purpose of inclusive education and employment is to allow adults of all abilities to reach their full potential in work and society.  For some people, inclusive work might mean competitive employment or supported employment.  For others, the best career option might be a self-employment venture or a job that involves working from home.  In general, the goal should be to maximize the ranges of work options available to adults with disabilities rather than finding reasons and ways to limit and exclude disabled adults in the workplace.

Also the employment world for disabled people should focus on celebrating our unique strengths and talents rather than focusing on our differences.  Too often the mainstream work world looks for reasons to exclude and suppress adults with disabilities.   For this reason, adults with disabilities need alternatives to the standard workforce environments that allow to focus on maximizing our strengths and talents.  In many cases, particularly for photographers, visual artists, writers, and foreign document translators, these alternatives can include self-employment and working from home.  For adults with skills in computer sciences, design, illustration, mathematics, and the sciences, these options can include working in a fully or partially integrated corporate environment.

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