A Bit Of Local Advocacy

Close up picture of a dictionary page with the word "advocacy" being highlighted in green with a highlighter pen

A little over a week ago, the local newspaper where I live published an article about a community forum on New York State’s plans for reforming and all but phasing out sheltered workshops. The exact directives and lines of authority are a bit murky, but the article mainly focuses on the idea that due to the Olmstead decision, a well-known sheltered workshop in Plattsburgh, my home town, is being forced to adopt changes that threaten its survival. What caught my eye, of course, was the headline:

Advocates for disabled: Integration not the answer
Tom Marble, Press-Republican - May 5, 2016

“Oh, crap!” I thought. I had a pretty good idea before I even read the thing which agency or type of agency was probably involved, and what the message would be. It was our local ARC, named the Advocacy and Resource Center, which runs a sheltered workshop called Champlain Valley Industries, (CVI). And the article basically recounted a bunch of CVI staff, workers with disabilities, and families saying, in effect, “Please don’t close the workshop. I like working here!” with an added implication that with unemployment a big problem around here as it is, how in heck are these people supposed to get a normal job? How is it an improvement for them to be kicked out of productive work in a safe, sociable environment and then not be able to get a job at all?

The overall point seemed to be that the big bad State is ruining things as usual, sticking their noses in and touting pie-in-the-sky ideas that have no relation to the way things really are.

I'll stipulate that this workshop probably IS safe. It's certainly nothing like those horror story places where people are virtually imprisoned, plucking dead chickens for pennies a day, housed in unsanitary bunk houses, exploited for huge profits. It's not like that. However, it is a highly regulated workplace, cut off from the wider community, and I'm not at all sure socializing is encouraged in the actual workshop. It's more likely that being chatty and having fun is carefully documented as inappropriate behavior, and taken as clinical evidence that these workers aren't ready for mainstream work. But the important thing is that they have something to do and a place to go during the day, which is quite a win-win for everyone ... or so the reasoning goes.

The day the article came out, I think, I happened to be talking or emailing with Robert Poulin, who is the Executive Director of the North Country Center for Independence, where I used to be the ED. He said he was going to work on a response and asked if I wanted to work on it with him. I was happy to do that, and today the Press-Republican posted our “In My Opinion” online. The article will be out in print tomorrow.

In My Opinion: Sheltered workshops not the answer
Robert Poulin and Andrew Pulrang, Press-Republican - May 17, 2016

Incidentally, another local disability activist reminded me last week of a Press-Republican article in 1993, about another community forum where the ARC brought lots of it’s “clients” to protest another effort towards more community integration … in that case a plan to fold the ARC’s buses into a county-wide combined fleet open to everyone. This, of course, would have meant people with developmental disabilities riding the bus with non-disabled people, and just about everyone who spoke were against it, though most of them put it in terms of losing a service, not directly objecting to integration. There is a similar dynamic at work now with the sheltered workshop issue. They don’t directly oppose having a better job or getting paid more, it’s just that they don’t want to loose a thing they have, whatever it is, for any reason.

The reminder of that hearing triggered vivid memories. It was the first time I saw how internalized ableism among people with disabilities sometimes motivates us to oppose things we should not oppose. It’s also the first time I really understood that the “disability community,” like every community, doesn’t have agreed upon opinions about things. The most you can say, I think, is that those of us who are engaged in disability policy issues by choice share a fairly predictable and distinctive set of ideas about disability. Those of us who aren’t engaged, or are engaged only when forced to be, are much harder to predict, and more likely to be swayed by fear of change.

Ironically, we share most of the same negative experiences of ableism and being “screwed” by ham-fisted “authorities,” but we come to different conclusions on what to do about it.

I also want to say that it was a real pleasure to work with Robert on our response.