“It is very important to look at people with disabilities and their unbelievable willingness to be part of the workforce. We need to provide more support."- John Milloy, Ontario Minister of Community and Social Services
It’s all coming together.
There are service providers out there who are beginning to wonder if a strict focus on their individual programming is in the best interests of their clients, or if a collaborative approach might better serve everyone. Police officers are proactively getting training on how to communicate with persons with mental illness, who are over represented among the homeless. Employers are beginning to look at their employees as people, rather than means of production.
And we have, in the McGuinty government and Ministers like John Milloy, people truly absorbing the “teach a man to fish” mentality.
We don’t throw our kids into the deep end of the pool without instruction – they’d drown. We don’t throw our youth into the workplace without an education – they’d flounder. We don’t send soldiers off to war without training and weapons – they’d be slaughtered. Likewise, we can’t expect people with physical or mental disabilities to adapt to a system that isn’t designed to harness their abilities. Would you expect Stephen Hawking to manage his way around the TTC on his own? That would be abysmally cruel. By the same token, you wouldn’t assume his mobility challenges suggest he has no value to offer society, either.
The way forward isn’t to simply “take care” of those who require greater accommodation to function in society, nor is it to insist that people who have difficulties within existing social models have to shape up or ship out. Banging our heads against the wall again and again does nothing but give us a headache. Not when there are alternative solutions available.
The suffering of the poor will not be answered by a higher monthly cheque from the government, but better employment counseling, or the ability to stay on the provincial drug plan for a while when you find a job.
The Way Forward:
Comprehension. Disabilities are poorly understood. We tend to have a broad model in our heads – if a disability seems challenging enough, we view the person with that disability as a write-off. If we don’t see the disability, as is often the case with mental disability, we write the person off as being the problem themselves. It’s a simplistic, outmoded perspective that actually hurts opportunity and adds to the social services burden. Countless people relying on social services have a great deal to offer, but have been told again and again that there’s no place for them in the working world.
Training for persons with disabilities; help them find their skills and develop them, then connect them with the working world. Set realistic goals for people, then encourage them to nudge those goals a little further. Personalize work – when work is about meaning, about personal achievement, people will be highly motivated to work hard and to collaborate with colleagues, not compete against them.
Accommodation. We focus so much on the problems of individuals that we completely miss the broader challenges caused by environments. There was a time where we wouldn’t have thought to put a safety guard around a buzz saw; more recently, we would have dismissed people complaining that their wrists were sore from too much typing as being weak. Now, we know better. Through implementing soundfields, employing ergonomics and beginning to understand the cognitive workplace, we can design environments that enhance rather than stifle innovation and productivity.
Culture change. Everyone, especially those at the top, tend to look at problems and opportunities through the lens of “what’s in it for me.” Long-term benefits are great, but how does that help the bottom line today? If an initiative will help competitors as well as ourselves, why would we want to pay for it? Feudalism as a social system collapsed for a reason, yet silo-based, horizontally integrated businesses and public agencies still employ that model today. The future is in shared service models, specialized collaboration, corporate altruism. The “what’s in it for me” can only truly be realized by understanding how “me” fits into “we.”
The problems we face aren’t new – they’re simply expansions of the same challenges we have always faced. Now, the sheer density and interconnectivity of our society is forcing us to face these challenges head on. The solutions won’t be found in isolation; we need everyone at their best for society to be at its strongest.