Seven years ago I was working in a sheltered workshop and I earned less than minimum wage. Those of us working in the workshop were told by management that by paying us subminimum wage they were “protecting our social security income.” My work consisted of putting three seat belt parts together as quickly as I could to fill as many buckets possible in a day. One of the worst things about my work was the horrible work culture. The employs of the workshop had a variety of physical and intellectual disabilities. People with less significant disabilities saw themselves as superior to those with more significant intellectual disabilities, who were seen as being lucky to have work.
This created a hierarchy of disability that I call an “us vs them culture.” “Us” being those individuals who figured out the job easily and “them” were people who needed more help. People gossiped as part of this culture. This combined with stress from the job made me limit myself. I did not look or expect any new opportunities and because of my low income and people having negative opinions on disability I felt boxed in. These ideas came from my own ignorance and are an example of me having internalized ableism.
I took a job at the sheltered workshop because it fell in my lap after I gave up looking through Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) for competitive work. I got an apartment owned by the sheltered workshop and rushed to get a job at the workshop. If I was more patient I could have avoided this. In the workshop I was on a list of people interested in work outside of the workshop. My case manager saw a job posting, at Michigan Disability Rights Coalition (MDRC), that she thought was perfect for me so she helped me with my resume and gave me time to interview. I was lucky to have a good case manager. Less than 5% of the employees of the workshop make it out and gain competitive employment.
When I went from a sheltered workshop to a competitive work environment at MDRC, a disability advocacy organization, I was excited. I started working on grant projects that promoted disability inclusion and pride. My non-competitive co-workers are my friends. We chat and give each other advice. I have worked at MDRC for seven years as a community inclusion specialist. I have freedom at work, I trust my co-workers and we encourage each other to do our best.
My main responsibilities has been as a public speaker. I was nervous when I began but since then I developed my techniques and skills. Now I speak to students, professionals and advocacy groups about disability pride, history and culture. The grant I work on now has me going to Michigan schools and speaking to classrooms of students about disability pride, history and culture. I speak to students with and without disabilities ranging from kindergarten – 12. I like talking about pride and helping students to understand there is a proud disabled community and that they should not judge people with disabilities because of their disability.
I will admit I learned this philosophy while working at MDRC but I believe my positive view of life is from the freedom I get from my competitive work environment.