Friday, May 12, 2006

Truth Happens!

"The first time I viewed the video ad, I was blown away. The second time I viewed it, I was mesmerized by its creativity. And the third time I viewed it, I saw us."
These were my opening remarks to colleagues during a keynote address I delivered at the Minnesota APSE Annual Conference on May 4th in Hinckley, Minnesota. I was making specific reference to a creative advertisement that I had viewed recently and had become the inspiration for my morning message. The clever ad was made by Linux, a computer operating system that is working to penetrate a market so thoroughly dominated by Microsoft, the mega-software corporation. The Linux advertisement is appropriately titled Truth Happens!

Truth Happens sends its viewer on a three and a half minute journey through time and it certainly captured my imagination. The ad sets back the clock and recalls some of the prophetic wisdom made by so-called "experts" of their day. Here are some of the gems shared by the ad’s creator Red Hat:
  • "Everything that can be invented, has been invented." (U.S. Patent Office, Commissioner, 1899)
  • "The automobile has practically reached the limit in its development." (American Scientific, 1909)
  • "The telephone has too many shortcomings to be a serious means of communication." (Western Union, 1876)
  • "The phonograph has no commercial value at all." (Alexander Graham Bell)
  • "The radio craze will die out in time." (Thomas Edison, 1922)
  • "Man will not fly for fifty years." (Orville Wright, 1901)
  • "A rocket will never leave the earth’s atmosphere." (New York Times, 1936)
  • "There is a world market for maybe five computers." (IBM’s Tom Watson, 1943)
  • "604 K ought to be enough for anybody." (Bill Gates)

Ouch! Be careful what you say because someone may be paying close attention.

The underlying point of the ad is this--don’t underestimate what is possible. And don’t underestimate what our company is capable of doing despite the perceived odds. The video montage weaves a profound statement about change within its core message: "Despite Ignorance. Despite Ridicule. Despite Opposition. Truth Happens!"

Powerful stuff indeed.

As I watched this ad, I could hear sounds and see images all too familiar to ardent champions of supported employment. One could hear the voices of "experts" telling us why the job placement of adults with significant disabilities into the workforce was impossible. And one could see mental pictures of people with significant disabilities now working in integrated jobs once considered beyond their reach. Over the years, I have met many individuals who have placed their job barriers in the rear view mirror rendering such dubious claims as baseless facts.

Yet I am still amazed at how such truth claims continue to shape our cultural conventions and thinking. And I am bothered at how many people will miss out on wonderful life opportunities because of misinformation, half-truths, misguided stereotypes, and false assumptions. In truth, many of these claims are only "facts" in the minds of the people who hold them. As I watched the Linux ad, I saw an opportunity to challenge many cultural conventions with new information that is counterintuitive to the stereotypes we often hear about people with disabilities.

So what is the truth? In the context of my presentation, I was referring to human rights and American values. I talked about the importance of extending them to all Americans. The truth is that being fully human means being free. And we are not really free until we have the right to exercise and make choices about our lives, use our talents, and develop our full potential as social and economic contributors. In America, racial segregation was wrong. And gender inequality was wrong. In time, America will come to realize that segregation and inequality due to disability is also wrong.

Supported employment is all about social and economic justice for people with significant disabilities. We don’t often see our jobs this way but I believe that champions of supported employment are really human rights activists. I told the Minnesota APSE audience that I display America’s Charters of Freedom (the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution) on the walls of my office. This gives me opportunities to talk with my colleagues and visitors about the human rights work we do and why our core values are so important to how and where we carry out this support. I shared that full workforce integration must be communicated as an expected and unmistakable goal in our support of all Minnesotans with disabilities.

To emphasize this point, I peppered my presentation with conventional wisdom often heard about why people with significant disabilities cannot work in the competitive labor force. I am guessing that you have heard them all:

  • They work too slow.
  • Their co-workers won’t accept them.
  • Their parents don’t want them to work in the community.
  • They need more structured supervision.
  • They are vulnerable adults and they will be exploited.
  • They are too medically fragile.
  • They have poor social behaviors.
  • They don’t have the physical capacities to do the job.
  • They don’t have access to transportation.
  • We don’t have enough money.
  • Yada, yada, yada...

As I identified each point, I shared real photos and stories of people with significant disabilities who are now working in the labor force under each so called "fact." All of the people I talked about have interesting personal stories and journeys in achieving job placement success. And each person blazed his or her own trail in overcoming at least one conventional barrier from my long list. All of my stories had one thing in common. The people achieving job success were served one person at a time. And each person was supported by a well-trained, creative supported employment practitioner.

Of course, I shared these particular stories because I am most familiar with them. However, I did ask the audience by a show of hands to share how many others had successfully addressed and navigated around an identified "truth claim." Point by point the audience confirmed that they support people who had experienced a wide range of individual, social, and systems challenges. Yet many individuals from other organizations were also able to find their way into the competitive labor force with the right preparation and support. Of course, the number of hands raised varied with each issue but it was quite clear that supported employment is making a difference in the lives of many Minnesotans with significant disabilities. Yep, truth happens in Minnesota!

As an advocate of Minnesota’s supported employment movement, I wanted to share some lessons that I have learned during these past 30 years. In short, I have learned that truth happens when the conditions are right. For example, truth happens when we...

  1. accept disability as a natural part of the human condition, not a tragedy
  2. stop dehumanizing people with derogatory language and patronizing services
  3. adopt standards of universal design in education, employment, and community living supports
  4. educate, not scare employers, parents, and the general public
  5. redefine what being job qualified really means
  6. encourage employers to take ownership and build their internal support capacities
  7. eliminate job readiness from our vocabulary and service models
  8. are persistent in finding the right job niche for challenging-to-employ individuals
  9. refuse to be intimidated by the size of our challenges
  10. are willing to take sensible, calculated risks
  11. reform inflexible policies or develop new ones that encourage working
  12. are willing to work together and not worry about who gets the credit
  13. stop believing that money is going to solve all of our problems
  14. stop blaming and start solving the real problems blocking our goals
  15. forget rehabilitation and learn to customize employment and job supports instead
  16. serve people one at a time.

I am a firm believer in this idea that truth happens. However, we need to turn down the "noise" that distracts and tells us that it cannot. The truth is we need more people to be the light in a dark room. And we need more people who are willing to raise the curtain so truth is clearly exposed for all to see. Only then, will we be successful in silencing the noise coming from "experts" who tell us workforce inclusion is a noble but unattainable goal for many.

At the end of the presentation, I returned to my premise about human rights. And I tried to convey the importance of engaging higher levels of leadership to expand this vision to all Minnesotans with significant disabilities. We need more leadership at all levels and in many places to improve employment opportunities and workforce inclusion. And it was my job on this early May morning to encourage everyone in the audience to take on more responsibility to make it happen.

Leadership and responsibility is what APSE is truly all about. And we need more educators, job coaches, employment consultants, job placement specialists, program managers, agency directors, employers, parents, policymakers, job candidates with disabilities, and the general public to understand this point--it’s going to take ALL of us to get this job done. We need to work together toward a common vision and goal. And only then, will the full promise of supported employment be realized by everyone who can benefit.

Hmmm. Supported employment and human rights? You must be thinking: "Hey c’mon Don, I'm only your average employment consultant or educator here trying to make it work where I live. I don’t have the oratory skills of a Martin Luther King or the vision of a Susan B. Anthony. And who am I to take on this challenge of social change and workforce inclusion?"

I left the Minnesota APSE audience with a final image. It was a photo taken in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China during a student-led human rights protest in 1989. The photo portrays one Chinese student who had the courage to stand down a line of military tanks sent by his oppressive government to break up the protest. The photo is a powerful image of one unnamed person refusing to yield to a powerful force of resistence. In this country of one billion people, here is one commoner choosing to take a stand and winning the showdown (even if only a temporary victory).

I asked the Minnesota APSE audience what "tanks" were standing in their way? And I challenged them to take a stand because it was the right thing to do.

In closing my message, I shared a quote taken from the Linux ad. The words are prophetic, insightful, and highly relevant to the supported employment movement in the United States. The uncommon wisdom comes from India’s Mohandus Gandhi who once said:

First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.

If you would like to view the Linux ad that inspired my presentation, click here.


Anonymous Del said...

I really enjoyed reading this.
You make some excellent points.
I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future, a timetable of achievements predicted in the future by Clarke. He lists things like teleportation and time travel. He is a reputable scientist, and I wondered why he would include such things along with things that were not as outlandish. He referred to people that made similar statements as the ones you quoted. His main point, to me, was that these shortsighted people all had a failure of imagination. These people frequently would predict that something was impossible and would never happen, but they did happen.
Robert A. Heinlein, another well respected science fiction author like Clarke, though not a scientist, wrote a story in the 1940s called "The Roads Must Roll". In it, he predicted that cars would not be very popular in the future, for what he thought to be very good reasons, including pollution and difficulty building and maintaining all the necessary roads. Today, it seems that he had a failure of imagination with respect to that particular idea.
Thanks for writing your piece.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Hi Del,

I love the way you phrased it--"a failure of imagination." We live in a world where there is a structured failure of imagination when it comes to the inclusion of people with disabilities. This blog is one small way of pointing out this fact and encouraging more people to use their imagination and creativity. When we systematically exclude a large group of people from participating in our workforce, we all lose. And we pay dearly in monetary terms I might add.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous del said...

Thanks, but I do not take credit for the phrase as it was Clarke's.
We are paying dearly.
It costs more to support an unemployed person that it does to pay for job training and job accomodations.
The same people that complain about "wasting" their tax dollars on job training, etc., will probably not hire disabled people and they and us end up paying more taxes. How short sighted.

8:36 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home