And then there were the workshops.
When Will first walked into Access Living, a fine and truly dignified organization dedicated to advancing the rights and full integration of persons with disabilities into the community, the very first question he asked was “Do you have workshops?”
They most certainly did not, as “workshops” (which rarely had work) segregated people with disabilities, seldom taught skills that helped people transition into the community at large, and paid substandard wages.
Will was sold on Access Living from that single answer, though the rest of his experiences there were equally empowering.
It is entirely possible that for some people with more severe disabilities, “sheltered workshops” are, or were, a fine thing. That is a question for another analysis. But for someone like Will, who’s abilities had proven he could live largely independently and hold an “outside” job, they were a human parking garage. He hated them, passionately.
“So”, he told me, “every day, whether we were sick or not, they made us go to the workshop. Ray Graham didn’t want to have to have someone stay at Sunrise Courts with us if we didn’t go. But there was almost never any work.”
What would people DO there when there was no work?
“Some people did nothing. Some people watched tapes on the tv. Or played games.”
So what would he do?
“I’d bring my notebook and practice arithmetic. Or writing. Or I’d read.”
Five days a week. 7 hours a day. Month after month after month. And getting to and from the workshop, that was almost as bad as being there. Will, who was acutely sensitive to being labeled, having experienced the pain of being limited and defined by those labels, segregated and isolated by them, found himself riding in a large van with ‘FOR PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES” inscribed on the sides.
“Why did they have to put that on the van?”, he asked me, angrily, rhetorically. I tried to imagine myself in similar situations. “THE CITY OF CHICAGO BUS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE TROUBLE DRIVING IN THE CITY AND CAN’T AFFORD A TAXI”. “THE COMMUNITY HOSPITAL COURTESY VAN FOR PEOPLE TOO SICK TO DRIVE AND WITHOUT FRIENDS OR FAMILY TO TAKE THEM.” Having a disability was not a weakness or a flaw, but it was a label that was often used to discriminate and make individuals feel they were different in a negative way – certainly Will loathed being defined by his challenges alone. I told him I really didn’t know. I suppose it was advertising – of the most insensitive sort imaginable.
Will had had jobs in the community before coming to Ray Graham, and he’d often been “Employee of the Month”. He worked hard, he worked well, and he went to extraordinarily lengths never to be late or absent. He saw a natural dignity in work well done, and was very driven to learn new skills. The same strong, clear vision that directed him in pursuing better reading skills his entire life (up to and including the last lucid days before his death) meant that sitting in front of the video tapes or pointless games the “workshops” (now renamed “Community Learning Centers”, equally deceptive misnomers) was impossible. He had to get out of there. And having gotten out, he would never, he swore to himself, no matter what the alternative was, return. He was not suicidal, not ever. But he was clear on this: He would not return to a life half lived, he would not voluntarily surrender himself to being an exhibit in a human petting zoo. He would, he told me, far rather be homeless – and he meant it. He was fascinated by the homeless, sharply aware of their plight, open to their conversations at coffee shops, libraries, and train stations. He had extraordinary sensitivity to their stories, a willing listener. He was learning, I thought, trying to ascertain how they were surviving. It would never come to that, of course. But I found it sharply poignant and extremely telling: Will was determined that he would choose anything, homelessness, even death, over the loss of dignity and independence he experienced