Thursday, September 2, 2010

Work, Sweat and Dignity

Close to fifty clients of The Arc converged on McKinley Square Park today in response to a call for help to clean, clear, weed and restore the small but beautiful park that sits at the top of Potrero Hill.
Billy was among the group and I was curious to see how he'd respond to this new experience. Billy is a young man with severe autism. His speech is limited and when I see him at The Arc's offices, he's often pacing around the lunchroom or sitting in a corner rocking back and forth. He sometimes hits himself repetitively.
But today was different.
At first, he stood apart from the group studying the other Arc clients who were raking dead branches on the park hillside.
It was clear he wanted to get involved, but didn't know how.
Eventually, one of the park gardeners took him aside and helped him put on some gloves. He then patiently showed Billy how to pick up a few fallen branches and bring them to the big pile of slash at the top of the hill. Billy listened quietly and then started gathering branches for the pile. Not just any branch would do--he was selective. But when he had an armful, up the hill he went, joining the line of other guys as the big slash pile grew and grew.
Over and over again, Billy made the trek up the hill with his small pile of carefully chosen branches. He stayed on task, going up and down in the hot sun without complaint. Occasionally, his friends would give him a shout of encouragement; their spirit of camaraderie and support was infectious.
A small smile crept over his face and stayed there--all morning.
I see Billy every day at The Arc. But I have never seen him as quiet, as focused or involved in anything as he was today.
It's great that the folks at McKinley Park welcomed The Arc volunteers. It's good for our clients, our community and the parks we love.
But what our clients' enthusiasm says to me more than anything is: "We want to work."
People with developmental disabilities don't want handouts or charity. Or pity. Like everyone else, they want a job that makes them feel useful, doing something that really matters and earning a decent wage in the process.
Sure, not everyone on the hillside today was working at the same level of productivity. It was hot; it was heavy lifting. But even those sidelined by limitations had responsibilities; handing out water bottles or watching the backpacks--everyone had a job to do.
Billy and other people with Down syndrome, autism or cerebral palsy can learn--that's clear. And then they need a place to apply their abilities.
When people are denied the opportunity to work, they are denied respect and acknowledgment of their worth. Conversely, people who work have the means to express their individuality and realize their potential as human beings.
Teaching Billy new tasks takes a little more time and effort, but isn't it worth it?
Let's think about how we can put more Arc clients to work. 4 hours a day or 4 hours a week, I can promise you that you'll find no more dedicated, loyal--and grateful--employees than clients from The Arc.
To help someone become a real adult in the real working world--it's giving back at a level that's truly transformational. To change someone's entire life through no more than a simple part-time job is an accomplishment we can all be proud of.
If quality of life in San Francisco really means something to us, we've got to put more people with developmental disabilities where they belong: in our workforce.
Meredith Manning
Community Relations