I am the younger sister of two older brothers. I get many people asking how I survived my childhood being pushed around by the boys of the family. Those same people have to hide their shock and embarrassment after I tell them I was the one to initiate most of the pushing around, and any sibling rivalry there may have been was exclusively between one of my brothers and me. I never fought with our oldest brother, Lewis, because he is the gentlest soul you could ever meet.
Lewis is also blind and developmentally disabled.
Growing up I did not question Lewis’s disability because it was all I had ever known and I constantly saw just how independent he could be. Of course, life was not easy for him or my parents, but the positives always outweighed the obstacles because Lewis is the most optimistic human being I have ever been around. I truly admire him and the things he is capable of doing, despite the odds that were stacked against him from birth.
So, I guess technically, Lewis is the youngest sibling and I am just as protective of him as any older sibling would be.
When you get to know Lewis you find out a few key details about him, such as, his undying love for tea and coffee beverages (he will tell you all about his favorite flavors), he gets visibly upset if his routine is disrupted and he loves going to work every day (especially the bus ride to and from work).
Lewis is part of the CWI (Community Work Independence) program in New York State. This program allows my brother and thousands of other disabled adults to become part of the community by working a regular schedule, completing a variety of tasks. The members of CWI do get paid an hourly wage for their work, but it is not anywhere near minimum wage.
That doesn’t matter to Lewis, though, because he just enjoys the social aspect that CWI offers, along with a consistent routine that rarely is interrupted. Every day, for at least 15 years, he performs his usual tasks to get ready for work and rides the bus with his friends. Without CWI, I am not sure he would be as independent as he is now.
According to their website, “Today CWI assists 1,200 individuals at nearly 40 locations across four counties. In addition, the not-for-profit organization has grown to become one of the largest employers in the area with over 700 employees and an annual operating budget of nearly $30 million resulting in a substantial impact on the region’s economy.”
However, according to the state of New York, CWI and programs like it actually are not beneficial to the community they serve, which is resulting in all CWI locations closing their doors in March.
The reasoning: CWI encourages discrimination against disabled individuals and hinders their ability to gain employment for a fair wage.
Whereas I agree that receiving at least minimum wage for time spent in the workforce, I cannot agree with the reasoning. Like I have mentioned, I have seen Lewis’s capabilities to live on his own, but I also am realistic. My brother simply cannot perform tasks that the regular working world expects.
Grocery stores and other businesses tend to hire those with disabilities to greet customers, take care of shopping carts in the parking lot or bag items at the register. This allows disabled individuals to learn the skills to be social and successful, and get rewarded for their work with a fair wage.
Except, Lewis couldn’t bag items at the grocery store, because he cannot see what the products are. He cannot walk into a busy parking lot on his own to round up shopping carts and put them back in their correct place. Lewis would certainly love to greet customers at the store entrance, but I think that busy times would stress him out too much with all of the unpredictable noise that accompanies shoppers.
Along with the state’s reason for shutting down CWI, I would have to argue that if a day program that offers a separate place for employment for the benefit of its employees, then wouldn’t handicap parking spots perpetuate discrimination? Wouldn’t classrooms that offer specialized aid to those with disabilities be hindering the quality of education that those individuals receive?
I do not actually believe those points, but I am making the comparisons to prove that shutting down such a helpful program, that many members have served many years of their lives at, would only displace its clients and the hundreds of employees who rely on CWI as their primary source of income to survive.
In a perfect world I would love that discrimination toward any kind of group of people would become nonexistent. I would love to see companies hiring more individuals with disabilities and paying them the same amount as any other employee, but the reality is that employers discriminate whether we like it or not. Along with the fact that many of the clients of CWI have varying degrees of disability, many of them really may not feel comfortable working outside of the program, Lewis included.
I will mention that these people will be offered placement at many other day programs in which they can develop social skills and keep a daily routine. However, that raises a lot of unanswered questions of transportation to and from the program, how the people of CWI will feel building a trusting rapport with new employees and where the employees losing their jobs will go for financial support.
So, what the future of our disabled community members will look like, and how my brother will be able to adapt to these changes is unknown to me. I am hoping for the best, and honestly hoping that my hesitations are proven wrong because those with disabilities are some of the kindest and happiest people I will ever meet, and I really do not want our systems to continue failing these beautiful human beings.