“A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places where they did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plants were scorched and withered when the sun came up because they had no roots. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.” — Matthew 13:3–9
Last week, the bird came and ate up the new ideas. But what happens next? The seeds will hit shallow soil.
Early in the last century and until the late 1900s, if you lived away from your family and had an intellectual disability, you lived in an institution. Not everything that occurred in an institution was bad. Some folks did vital work and loved it. Unfortunately, the reality was that the work was not valued the way most of us expected: pay, benefits, an opportunity to make a life, and make life changes with what we earned.
Then, along came the deinstitutionalization movement. It was heavily motivated by inadequate care and an ineffective social environment rather than the pay to the workers. Nonetheless, we proceeded into a brief growing period. Here is where the new ideas took hold. Looking back, it was only a short period of time, but there was energy in getting people jobs and helping them find places to live. Then, the energy stopped.
And here is where the seeds come in. We rapidly got community jobs for people. We helped them find apartments and coached them to quickly learn how to shop, cook, pay bills, and manage time. Then, we failed to keep going. We needed to provide a place for the ideas to grow. The soil was shallow, the energy was not sustained, and the seed died.
Interestingly, many people defend sheltered employment with ideas like… “My son wants to be with his friends,” “This is a safe place for my daughter,” or “This is a wonderful way to support people with others like them.” If you dig into that language, you will find bias and discrimination. Sure, the world is not uniformly welcoming to difference. It is also true that we learn by connecting and seeing what is similar and different.
Consider this story from my early work years, which could be true today. I met a participant in a sheltered workshop and was asked to connect with him to identify what was most important to him in his life. But a challenge was that he wanted to avoid discussing work at all. But he did tell me that his main goal was to learn how to ride the bus to visit his mom when he wanted. And no one had imagined that ability and service for him. How had we started believing that setting production goals for everyone was the best possible service?
Today, we know that many individuals want to work, yet their plans still need to include a track to a job. We also have social policies that support getting you the first job but do not offer support for advancement, a very present challenge for people with disabilities.
Anyone who has grown something knows you can enrich the soil, add more, and develop it, but if you fail, the plant you’re trying to grow will die. So, in our industry, we need to consider all the ways that we have thrown ideas on shallow ground and what we can do to build that ground up!