Monday, September 05, 2005

A Labor Day Message

Today is Labor Day, a legal national holiday that has been observed in the United States for more than 100 years. Labor Day is the one day our country sets aside every year to celebrate the achievements of the American worker. This national holiday has evolved from a modest celebration sponsored by the Knights of Labor in New York City to honor working class Americans. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday to recognize the collective contributions of all working Americans.
According to the Heritage Foundation, a policy research and analysis organization, there are approximately 138.5 million Americans who work in our nation's economy. Despite rising gasoline prices and a destabilization of our economy due to terrorism, the national employment rate in the United States was under 5.0% in August of 2005. Americans are indeed blessed. We live in a free society featuring a dynamic economy that continues to roll with the punches. And we are equally blessed to have a workforce that encourages Americans to share their diverse talents for the betterment of themselves as well as their families, communities, and country.
Earlier this year, I partnered in a keynote presentation with a colleague of mine named Al Condeluci, the CEO of UCP/CLASS in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Al and I share similar views about the importance of building integrated communities that include the job placement of people with significant disabilities. We spoke about how work is fundamental to our well-being and sense of identity. We also shared our views and experiences about organizational leadership with 300 attendees at the National Organizational Change Conference held in Charlotte, North Carolina.
An animated and compelling speaker, Al talked eloquently about what happens when we meet other people for the first time. The exchange of pleasantries typically runs in a sequence like this. The first inquiry by others is to ask us about who we are. "What is your name?" The second inquiry tends to focus on where we are from. "Where do you live?" Or perhaps, "Where are you from?" The third question almost inevitably deals with our daily occupation. "What do you do?"
Al shared his punch line to a disquieted audience in Charlotte: "Approximately 60-70% of Americans with significant disabilities have nothing to say in response to this third question." Or maybe, they will share something about their daily activities in a center-based rehabilitation program, adult day treatment program, or perhaps the job they do in a sheltered workshop designed especially for people with disabilities.
At this very moment, people who live with disabilities send a defining message about themselves. The particular engagements of people with disabilities, or a lack thereof, communicate to others they are somehow "different" from the rest of us. People with disabilities often carry negative disability and social labels that tend to segregate them from the mainstream of community life.
A basic principle in physical science is that similarities attract, while opposites often repel. Condeluci hammered this point home powerfully in his presentation. "Listen up people, it’s our similarities that attract us to other people, and it's our differences that tend to repel us from others." If Condeluci's thesis is correct (and I believe it is), then we need to do a much better job of marketing the similarities and potential of Americans with disabilities instead of focusing and building programs around what makes them different from the rest of us.
Of course, this includes our values and expectations about working. It’s not that a life without occupation or work is a life without value. Rather, the real barriers in being unemployed are separation from mainstream community life and missing out on the American Dream. When people don’t work, they often rely on others for their caretaking support. And when they become too dependent upon others, they tend to do much less for themselves. This principle is called "learned helplessness," a well-researched phenomenon in the delivery of human services.
People with disabilities don't need dependency, they need interdependency. They need to be included as productive members of our workforce because it is important to their overall personal development. This is true even if they need customized job support to participate. As one participant shouted out loud during our summary session at the National Organizational Change Conference: "What we really need is a new bumper sticker that says--Unemployment is NOT Working!"
In truth, working gives all of us the opportunity to earn money and the resources we need to attain goals of self-governance and self-determination. Work increases the range of fundamental choices we have available to us including how to live our lives and spend discretionary time. Work ushers forward healthy life structures, daily routines, and opportunities to meet and cohort with other people who live in our communities. Work brings about a sense of self-respect through personal achievement, sharing our talents, and becoming productive members of the communities where we live. In summary, work helps to define who we are and how we live a significant portion of our adult lives.
On this Labor Day, I would like to send kudos to individuals with significant disabilities who have already made the choice to work and are participating successfully today in the American workforce. My congratulations to parents, guardians, and families of youth with significant disabilities who hung in there and supported the job placement goals of their loved ones.
A sincere "thank you" is overdue to progressive educators who believe in an "employment for all" philosophy and run the daily obstacle course with secondary and post-secondary students to help them reach the finish line. Similarly, we owe a debt of gratitude to many disability advocates, legislators, and government officials who work tirelessly to promote public policies and funding decisions. Their combined efforts have created new opportunities to customize job placement and employment outcomes for people with significant disabilities.
We need to acknowledge the affirmative actions of American business leaders who had the uncommon vision to see and hire the abilities of people once viewed as "unemployable." A special tribute is hereby sent to forward thinking referring agents, including vocational rehabilitation counselors and county case managers, who believe in the simple idea that work and integration are true cornerstones to self-esteem and personal achievement.
I would be remiss in not acknowledging the outstanding contributions of marketing and job placement specialists, employment consultants, and job coaches who continue to blaze a trail of excellence in the American workforce by introducing innovations and advocating for the means to make good things happen. In my opinion, these folks are the true champions of the customized and supported employment movement in the United States.
In closing, I have one wish to share with my readers on this important national holiday. It is a wish for next year’s Labor Day to be a true holiday, and not just any other day, for unemployed people with significant disabilities who have never experienced the fruits of their own labor.
A happy and restful Labor Day to all working Americans!


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