Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Working Life

On Friday, I had an unexpected meeting cancellation and it changed my planned schedule for midday. So I decided to take an earlier lunch period and burn some calories instead of my usual tradition in consuming them. I took in an early run at the YMCA that I was hoping to do after work.
As I was racing around the track my eyes locked in a "double take" with a middle age man who was working out on one of the Y’s many exercise machines. I kind of recognized him but I couldn’t associate a name with his familiar face. I was thinking that I knew him from many years ago. From his body language, I was certain that he had recognized me too. So I continued on with my run circling endlessly around the track. I passed by him several times as he worked out on different weight machines.
It occurred to me that I probably knew this gentleman through my work at Rise, Incorporated. I remembered him as a much younger man with an intellectual disability who was referred to us for employment services. However, I was guessing it had to be more than 25 years since he left our services after obtaining a competitive job. Back in the late 1970s, our organization was much smaller in size and I knew most of the individuals receiving job placement and supported employment assistance. But there was no way I was going to recall the name of this gentleman after all of these years.
As I was running and thinking, a disturbing thought came to me. Is there a possibility he is unemployed? I remember thinking privately: "Uh oh, I can’t remember this guy’s name but what’s he doing here at the Y at around noon?" I had assumed he is not working.
After finishing my run, I walked over to an area to stretch my leg muscles (this is a good thing to do when you are as old as I am). As fate would have it, the nameless man in gym shorts finished his workout on the treadmill and began to walk over in my general direction. We were now within a matter of feet of each other and he looked over at me discretely. You know, it’s not in my character to initiate ‘chit chat" with people I don’t know or barely know, but I just had to find out who he was and what he was up to.
"Hi, I’m Don Lavin and I work at Rise," I said, extending my hand in a greeting. His eyes opened wide and he said: "Oh yeah, I remember you! I’m Mike Phillips (not his real name). Yes, it’s been a long time but I was at Rise many, many years ago. It’s so great to see you again."
OK, I couldn’t help myself: "So Mike, how are you doing these days? Are you still working?"
"Oh yes," Mike shot back at me without a hesitation. "I do floor maintenance at a local hospital (he named the employer). I am here working out before I go to work. I work the 3-11 shift."
I just had to probe further: "Wow Mike, you have been gone from Rise a long time. So how do you like your job?"
Mike went on and shared with me that he really enjoyed his work. He is no longer in the original job he was placed in but now works in a position that is much better paying and requires higher skills. He shared that his job was a great fit and provided excellent wages and benefits for the work he does. And apparently, it has offered Mike the opportunity to develop a membership at our local YMCA to keep physically fit.
After a warm goodbye, he scurried away presumably to get ready for work. My brief encounter with Mike had made my day. As I continued on with my workout, I was thinking further about how Mike’s life had been altered by the opportunity to work. He was referred to Rise as a young man with a so-called intellectual disability. Some 27 years or so later it didn’t matter. Mike had a very good and integrated job with a well respected health care provider in our community. He was earning good money and benefits, was self-supporting, and was independently engaged in community recreation.
This chance meeting with Mike got me to thinking about how expensive his public assistance and ongoing "rehabilitation" services might have been over these past 27 years. Trust me, it would have been many thousands of dollars. A modest public investment in supported employment was well worth the money and Mike has been a taxpayer and economic asset for all of these years he's been out of my agency's orbit.
A competitive job in the workforce without ongoing rehabilitation or agency-assisted supported employment services? Unfortunately, Mike's arrangement is not an every day occurrence. Mike’s 27 years in the workforce, however, is a testimony that people with intellectual disabilities can succeed and be a productive force in our economy. And it made me feel good that in a small way Rise gave Mike the wings he needed to succeed on the job with natural support.
That said, it's kind of sad that Mike’s long career in the workforce is such an anomaly for adults with intellectual disabilities. So many of his peers with disabilities are not considered economic assets. Nor will many have the same opportunity to share their talents at competitive wages and benefits in the workforce unless significant social and economic changes are engaged. It's a real shame.
Mike Phillips is enjoying a working life. And through an unplanned follow-up connection with him, I witnessed firsthand what the future can truly be.


Anonymous erikcia said...

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10:47 PM  

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