By Greta Harrison

Picture this. You are at a conference attending the opening breakfast. A presentation begins and within minutes you see a picture of a man in a wheelchair with one arm. The executive who is speaking is also a nurse.  She tells you that this man does not use language, and cannot count or read. Yet she shows you pictures of him at his job rehabbing a piece of hospital equipment, so it can be recycled, instead of thrown away. Because he cannot count, they put notches in a wheel and he knows to just fill up that wheel, and what to do with them afterwards. This man makes a living wage and receives benefits. He is happy and proud. The hospital saves hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It is a win / win for all.

The next picture shows a young lady working in a very large hospital emergency room set up. She is stocking many rooms. She is very busy—and always on task. She is known for her work ethic. So much so, that the head of the very large dental clinic a few floors up, asks the executive nurse if this young woman would mind going to their department. The young woman goes there and quickly learns to sterilize dental instruments for over 20 operatories.  She gets a significant raise and is still there over twenty years later. That woman has Down syndrome. 

Those two examples sold me on Project SEARCH back in 2007. I knew then and there that we needed this program in Virginia. I also knew we had the right community to bring this together. So a year later, Hampton had the first official Project SEARCH site in Virginia. Now there are many sites in Virginia and hundreds all over the world. Project SEARCH has been around since 1995. All due to one nurse executive who was looking to stop turnover at Cleveland Children’s Hospital, the third largest hospital of its kind in the US. She had no kids of her own, and did not know any people with disabilities personally. The program was born out of employer need—and now runs globally on her passion that germinates quickly. 

So when people tell me things like, “my child just can’t work”, or “it is a fantasy for my child to make minimum wage” – the visions of the man rehabbing equipment and the woman sterilizing dental instruments are in my head. I know that many parents, educators, and non- profit staff are unaware of possibilities in 2019. They are stuck in a time sixty years ago when sheltered workshops were the progressive choice. Some of these well – intentioned parents actually pay a non – profit so their loved one can ‘work’. For pennies or a few dollars an hour. They think that is all there is. They have very low expectations. And they don’t know what their loved one can really do.

Instead, we need to be pooling our resources to support employment in the community. We need to properly fund entities like Virginia’s Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and provide better training for large employers, so they too can expand their workforces. 

Yasmine in front of DARS.

For the very small percent of the population that truly cannot work, and that is a very small number, we should have enrichment programs for them that offer continuing education, art, drama, photography, etc. The traditional day programs are also a sixty – year old idea—that started with good intentions. We can do better—and we should. 

Fear, and overprotective natures often guide parents to petition for segregated regressive services. If we all move forward—proudly showing the great examples out there of supported employment—we can help these families move forward with us. Change is never easy. Every radical movement forward in American society has also faced people who did not believe. Let’s talk this out and make sure everyone’s fears are addressed. Let’s address each person left in a sheltered workshop individually and make sure person centered planning , and time, equal the best result for them. Let’s put an absolute stop to putting new graduates into sheltered workshops. Then let’s all move forward together. 

I am writing this for three reasons. I have a daughter named Yasmine who is now nineteen. Yasmine has Down syndrome. Last summer she completed a successful internship with the City of Hampton working in their human resources department. It was such a positive experience that words cannot describe the joy she, my husband and I, and the City of Hampton all feel when we talk about it. Now my daughter has an internship with DARS-working in their local office.  Thanks to my daughter’s inclusive and challenging education, and to DARS Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) program that targets people with disabilities before they graduate, she has many possibilities for the future that range from working for the city to working in the medical field, to starting her own business. She may go to community college as well. Working for subminimum wage is not even on the radar. In different circumstances, a different family, different support system, different schools, that is still an option for young women just like her. That should not be. Her future, full of possibilities, is what we should all be shooting for.

Yasmine speaking at the congressional briefing in September of 2018.

The second reason is that my daughter Yassy spoke to a congressional committee in September 2018, talking about her summer internship experience. What a parental moment that was—one etched permanently in my mind. Who thinks their child is going to give a speech before a congressional committee? My guess is not many parents—regardless of the fact that their child does or does not have a disability. She is a shy, but strong and articulate, self-advocate.  You can read her testimony here (and I also spoke, my testimony is here).

The third reason is because in March I launched a podcast called Born Fabulous. It features in depth discussions with the parents of very accomplished individuals who just happen to have disabilities. Every single case shows examples of what can happen when there are high expectations. I did this because these successes need to be highlighted and need to be the norm. Youth, parents, business, community, and political leaders all need these positive examples.  In future seasons I will interview the self- advocates themselves. 

The data, continuing education, and decades of experience all back up what I am saying. There is no data that supports segregated education or employment. And definitely none that supports a subminimum wage. Substitute the words black, Hispanic, gay, or any other minority into this equation. Sub minimum wage is not human in 2019. 

When you are confronted with naysayers, please remember they are scared. Then make sure you are part of the solution that will not only assay their fears but will also move us forward. Please help make this world a kinder, gentler, and more productive place. 

Let’s all move forward together!

About the Author: Greta Harrison

Pictured above: Greta with her daughter, Yasmine.

Greta hosts Born Fabulous Podcast which explores the lives of very successful young adults with significant disabilities. A former retail manager and business owner, she has been a civic leader for 19 years with various organizations that work with people with disabilities. She has been married almost 39 years, and is the mother of Nia, 31, and Yasmine, 19. Yasmine has Down syndrome. Yasmine is fully included in Hampton City Schools, where she has made honor roll each year, and will soon be a senior. She has had two internships via her participation with DARS Pre-ETS program. The first was in the Human Resources Department at the City of Hampton last summer. The second is a current placement at the Hampton DARS office where she does office work. Yasmine is an artist, and loves her anatomy class. She is pursuing ‘a life like yours’.  

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