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Posts tagged ‘Persons with Disabilities’

Living on the outside

Will had several jobs during the years he was a client with the Ray Graham Association. He worked at a restaurant, a grocery store, a factory, a health club,  and finally, Target. The only way to avoid being warehoused at “the workshop” was to find an “outside job” (I never failed to be struck by Will’s use of prison language – he wanted “to live on the outside”, work “on the outside”). But finding a job was only half the battle. Getting there – transportation – remained key.

It always seemed odd that  the Ray Graham Association insisted on housing “clients”  in the suburbs of Chicago, where having access to a car is vital to independence. 18 miles east lay the city, with its myriad ways of getting around car-less. It was, after all, the main magnet that drew Will to Chicago – the chance to be free from relying on others for transportation. Most of us find that arduous in the short term. Car in the shop, or foot in a cast, depending on anyone else for relaying you to work, school, or stores is miserable. But for Will, it also was a stigma: one more way he felt segregated.

First, he decided to give driving lessons a try. He paid for private lessons, only to find the “instructor” more interested in questioning him in a prurient and inappropriate manner. He refused to answer the questions, and abandoned the lessons. Besides, like many people who try to learn to drive after the blissful and ignorant presumption of indestructibility that comes with extreme youth, he found driving nerve wracking. Ray Graham group living situations were chronically understaffed, and highly unmotivated to help him master public transportation.  In any case, public transportation in the suburbs is horrendous. He got a job at a health club, five miles from his group apartment, and was frustrated to find that there was really no way to get there on his own – except to walk.

So he walked. Five miles there, five miles back, with eight hours of work between the journeys. Eventually he got a bike, and would ride in all but the worst weather (when he’d return to foot). Biking in Chicago in the winter is not always possible, but trodding through snow, though difficult, is do-able. The Ray Graham staff was not pleased. They insisted their concern was solely for his safety, but Will suspected otherwise.

“They didn’t like me getting to work on my own,” he told me. This was part of a pattern: encouraging independence was not financially rewarding for the organization. Dependence, on the other hand – that could garner significant public money. Will’s agenda diverged from theirs. With characteristic tenacity, he refused to bend to their preferences, and eventually, found a job – and rented an apartment – in train accessible locations. Driven by a “singleness of purpose”, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln, he harbored no doubts that might leave room for fear and compromise.

It was remarkable. Navigating the world is damn hard under the best of circumstances. Will, with his challenges, also had to fight a world that often treated him like an incompetent and unworthy half-human, and an organization that profited by denying him independence.

But Will feared dependence and segregation far more than he could ever fear the risks of freedom.