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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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FOR DISABLED STUDENTS:

THE VOCATIONAL OR THE ACADEMIC TRACK?

Copyright 2000 Roger N. Meyer

All Rights Reserved

 

 

       [The following is an email post sent to a student in Canada studying the curriculum for special education students.  She wrote to ask whether vocational education would be best for persons with disabilities.]

 

Sheri:

 

     Thank you for the question, and if you have a chance, thank Barb Kirby [Webmistress for O.A.S.I.S.] for the referral.

 

     I've written an article about jobs and disabled people.  It is included below.

 

     But to answer your question first.  When you say low academic skills, it is important that you understand what is meant by the term.  Students who perform badly because they are incompetently taught may measure with "low academic skills," but what may in fact be measured is achievement, and NOT their skills or their true capacities.  Most  teachers haven't yet gotten the message that there are different ways to teach because people learn differently.  This is especially true when teachers are under pressure with large classes or are isolated from other good professionals who can share promising practices.

 

     It is inappropriate to consider any particular track for any "class" of people.  Special education, even in Canada, I'm sure, emphasizes that the educational program for disabled children should fit their needs, and their needs aren't all the same.  In this country, we have laws that are supposed to provide parents (and their children, naturally) with protections against categorical "box" type thinking.

 

     Work versus academics is not the answer when other questions haven't been asked.

 

     Students who may have developmental delays, especially, may not be at the same "place" as their age mates, but that doesn't always mean that they won't catch up, or, if appropriately supported, be able to benefit from the same curriculum taught using different methodologies and techniques.

 

     Yes, there are persons who may be slow learners.  If there were nothing other than simple mental retardation, life would be easy.  But it isn't.  It's rare to run across a student who is "simply" one kind of anything.  It's more likely that a child experiencing challenges in one area has other challenges as well, and it is the whole child that requires evaluation, not just the "academic side."  That same student has some characteristics that, in the adult world, may be very valuable, and it is to those talents and larger features of the person that educators should bend their attention.  After all, it is rare to hear of a straight-line relationship between academic prowess and life success.  On the other hand, it is a breaking of the social contract between the government and its citizens if entire classes of citizens are adjudged wanting and consigned to limbo because of the narrow thinking and cloistered mind set of many professional public "experts" in education.  In all instances, parents are far more knowledgeable about their children's abilities than any professional will ever be.  A professional's evaluation is based upon a short-term snapshot of the child, while the parents live with the same person day in and day out.

 

     Education is a preparation for life, and sentencing a developmentally delayed or cognitively impaired person to a single track, vocational education, may be a life-long death sentence.  Vocational education teachers, especially, are least enlightened about what to do with disabled students.  Professional literature written specifically for vocational education teachers and professionals has only recently begun to "catch on" to the same message other general curriculum teachers have been hearing for over two decades.

 

It's sad but true, and to run into a vocational education instructor who IS enlightened about the educational possibilities open to disabled students is a rare phenomenon.  It is unfair to call them the dim bulbs of the educational system, but their own training and low expectations of their students do not bode well for an otherwise able student who is cognitively impaired.  In institutions which specialize in vocational training or even "make work" for disabled persons, one runs into a constant wall of low expectations among the professionals that forbodes self-fulfilling consequences for their charges.  

 

     It you think little of people, they will show you little.  If you don't look for talent, it won't be demonstrated.  If you assume someone to be incompetent without checking, in all likelihood your presuppositions will be rewarded with demonstrations of ineptitude.  Finally, if you don't respect the person, they will sense that and not be interested in "showing you up."  They will settle into a mediocrity you expect from them.  Chances are, your modeling is mirrored in your students.

 

     I say all of this because I spent most of my working life "on the shop floor."   Granted, it was in a skilled blue collar trade of cabinet making, but I could see the results of inadequate academic preparation all around me.  In the new work force, problem solving skills and capacities to accept change are critical to worker survival.  Teaching a student a single craft or trade is to consign the person to the likelihood of redundancy once that industry shifts or changes with the increasing pace of alterations in the world of work.  Teaching the student how to be ready for change, to expect the unexpected, and keep their eyes and ears open without feeling threatened by the changes they experience is THE most valuable lesson, and it can be taught in an academic as well as a "vocational education" setting.  The fact of the matter is, however, that general education because of its greater sensitivity to special needs students, has a far better handle on this phenomenon than does vocational education.  Plainly speaking, vocational education is still viewed as a "place" for dummies.  Students as well, unfortunately, as teachers.  For an otherwise bright and capable person who has learning difficulties, the answer to success doesn't lie with the easy way out.

 

     Or the cheap way.

 

     Yet that is what the public education system generally delivers to learning disabled and other cognitively impaired students.

 

     In the end, the answer isn't the particular type of "placement" the student receives, but what that placement prepares him or her for.  Placement in special education isn't a location or situs.  It is a status.  It represents the appropriate educational program for the individual student, not some convenient off-the-shelf or "we've always done it this way" approach common in public education.  Standardized approaches do not work with non-standardized people.

 

     And if you think of it carefully, none of us are standardized.  When considering advising students about career directions, or further education, try as best you can to put yourself in that person's place, and then imagine yourself as that person going through that set of steps.  Think one year ahead, then five, then ten, and then imagine yourself as that person twenty five years down the line.  This isn't some dry, academic exercise.  What you will be doing is experiencing, for a short time, what that person may experience for the rest of his or her life.

If you are uncomfortable about what you envision, give the other person the same right to be equally uncomfortable.  He or she will be.  They may not show it in the ways one would expect, but they may be uncomfortable and unfulfilled all the same.

 

     And then ask yourself what right you have to make the judgments many people make of disabled persons, and truly, in whose best interest those decisions are being made.

 

     Now, on to the article:  This was written to address issues raised by an adult with Asperger Syndrome who had taken to whining about the need for "special jobs" and places being made for disabled persons.  I personally don't believe persons with disabilities should whine to get what they want.  It is a contrast to what I have written above, because what I have written above applies to the educators and the experts who work with less able persons as youth and adolescents.  The article is a wake-up call to many disabled adults who have a serious case of "attitude" about work as disabled persons.  For adults, some lessons can't be made gentle.  They've had too many hard knocks.  Begging for more seemed to make little sense, and so I wrote the article below from the perspective of a job developer who works with less able persons.

 


 

 

"ARE THERE PLACES FOR DISABLED PEOPLE TO GET JOBS?"

 

Copyright 1999 Roger N. Meyer

 

[The following article is taken from a post to a list of Asperger Syndrome Adults.  It is in response to numerous inquiries by members about employment.  Names are changed to maintain list member anonymity.]

 

     Here in the US there is a very active network of "employment" sites.  Every state department of employment maintains them. Many states, like mine, Oregon, are connected to a national employment information network where oodles and oodles of jobs are listed.  There are also agencies, hundreds of them, which specialize in linking disabled folks to jobs.

 

     I want to be clear about one thing.

 

     There are no such things as "jobs for disabled people."  I urge folks to stop thinking that they are so special or so "disabled" that having a job defined that way will get them out of the mental box their head is in.  Any job, and I mean any job (providing you are otherwise qualified for it) can be modified with reasonable accommodations to allow the jobholder to excel.

 

     There aren't any secrets about this.  Peddling yourself as a disabled person is the wrong way to go.  Peddle yourself as a person who "can do" something, not as someone who "can't."  Maybe you have to use the entitlement systems to get the training, but as soon as we are "in", most of us want "out."  And there are ways to do that.  More about this later.

 

     No employment service or job developer wants to know primarily, what you can't do.

 

     Simply put, they are not interested in your bitching and moaning. Fine, it's maybe necessary to start with.  But not every time you walk in their door.  People who are there to help you aren't doormats, and they aren't spittoons either.

 

     We all know disabled folks who get up every day and go to work.    Maybe some of us don't have full time jobs.  Maybe many of us have lousy jobs. But we sure didn't get them by playing for sympathy or rattling a tin cup.

 

     Please folks.

 

     Get real.

 

     The world is harsh and cruel, and there is no free lunch.  If there is lunch, many of us know that the only way to eat the sandwich is to take the ingredients, learn how to make the sandwich and wash it down with the milk or coke or whatever your favorite liquid is, with pride.

 

     Pride.

 

     Please don't continue to buy into other's low expectations of what you can do, and please, everyone who is doing it, stop indulging yourself with those same low expectations.  You get what you expect to get.  If you have low expectations, you get a lousy job.  If you have higher expectations, you can still get a lousy job and make something of it, and yourself in the process. We all know of people who take their interests and talents and become creative, independent, self-assured persons.

 

     If they are working for others, it took a boss willing to take a risk.

 

     But then, every time the boss hires someone he or she takes a risk.  That's true whether you are disabled or not.

 

     And everyone looking to be hired takes enormous risks.  Time after time after time until you land the first job.  Maybe a lousy job, or a volunteer job, but YOU land it, and you HAVE accomplished something.

 

     Sometimes entitlement programs are designed to keep us out of the job market by penalizing us if we get work that puts us "just" over the entitlement edge.  You know what?  That's life, and get ready to live it.  There's going to be more of this, not less, not just here, but everywhere.  Somehow, somewhere, someone figured out that the old system is broken.  So, they tried to fix it.  Maybe they did a bad job of it, but we are going to see more fixing from now on, not less.

 

     In our economy that has record employment--and that is chugging along quite well, thank you--this is the time to get the job.  Not when everyone is looking and no one is hiring.  And that time, given the cyclical nature of the business cycle, may be long overdue.  Economists keep telling us we are either in the midst of a new economy where the old paradigms don't work, or we are way overdue for the next recession, maybe even depression.

 

     How many people who want to work does either "argument" affect?  Why spend time worrying about other people?  That, folks, is called rumination, and we, of all people, are really good at it.

 

     But need we hold that up as a matter of pride?  Well, yes, if we are being paid to ruminate.  There are many folks in academia and research who do just that, and there are more than a few of us on the spectrum in just those kinds of jobs.  Ask Kathy. She knows all about survival in academia.  [Kathy works as a program administrator at a major university.] And Kim Johnson. [Kim Johnson teaches creative writing at a community college and recently became a Department head.]  And we have other folks here who are either in school or just recently out of it and who work.  June is a person caught in the magic of the midstream.  [June earlier flunked out of medical school, but is in a graduate school environment and working full time.]  And, like many of us, she is always scared about keeping her job.  And there are others as well.

 

     For the rest of us, where either teaching isn't a possibility or an interest, there is the whole other world of work out there.  We're not necessarily going to find it in the newspapers, or even the job announcements on any of the literally hundreds of job announcement locations, all available at the click of a browser mouse.

 

     They will be found when we get off our duffs, and out from behind our keyboards, and start talking with folks who are looking for work.  I mean, really looking.  I know that for some of us, most of us, that is a hard step.  But it's a necessary one, and the first one, and there are people out there to help us make the first one.  There are lots of folks out there who hold themselves out as "pre-employment" or job-readiness trainers.  Some of them are good.  Some are absolutely lousy. 

 

     You know what?  That's what life dishes up.

 

     You've been hurt before, and maybe you're hurting now.  Is hurt all that the future holds?  Are you really sure?  Remember, folks, we do have problems generalizing, with all-or-nothing, black and white thinking.  And we do have trouble getting off our histories and our favorite war stories.

 

     And we are good story tellers.

 

     Yes, very good.

 

     Folks who aren't disabled can't "do" a lot of things, too.  You don't find them emphasizing their lack of training or the physical or mental incapacities to perform certain kinds of jobs.  Those who do are what society calls "lazy."  These folks wallow in learned helplessness.  Maybe they were helpless at one time, but now they not only think of themselves as helpless, but they depend on others to think of them as helpless as well.  This works.  It works real well.

 

     Ask them whether they are happy.

 

     It's real easy for us to be there as well.  It's very easy for people who don't understand us to call us slackers.  And that is an unkind cut.  For some of us, anyway.  But where does the name-calling get us?  And just how long do we allow others to continue to define who we are?

 

     Over a year ago, we had a member who was living at home with his mom and who finally landed a federal job some 300 miles from home.  He was very proud of it, but he knew he had problems.  And, because he wasn't prepared to deal with the very problems that got him in hot water during the probationary period, he left before he was let go.  Maybe the job was a bad match.  Maybe it simply wasn't meant to be.

 

     Many first jobs are just like that job.  They don't work.  And for many reasons, as many as there are those first jobs, we don't work out well either.   For him, for a while, this was the end of the world.  He moved back home to Mama, and resumed his ruminations about how much the government owed him, and how much disabled folks could really contribute to society if given a chance.  He had it all figured out in dollars and cents.

 

     This was all well and good. There was only one thing missing from the formula.

 

     When he started out he never gave himself a chance.  He thought it was up to everyone else.

 

     Wrong.

 

     When he landed back home, somehow the job experience, although it was a horrible one, had changed him.

 

     Then, he took a chance.  Once he got hold of a VR counselor who started to point out the obvious, he started to take a chance by believing differently about himself.

 

     I don't know where he is.  I don't know whether he got a job.

 

     But the last I heard, he was on the way to work.

 

     And he was doing it with the support of someone who helped him believe in himself.  At first, the other person held the mirror.  Then he held the mirror, and all the while he saw himself with different eyes.

 

     Without depending on Mama.  Oh yes, his mom was in the picture.  But in a different place.  He knew it. Mom knew it.

 

     A small movement.  Maybe that's all it takes.  Maybe that's all you can stand for the moment, but movement.

 

     Movement.

 

     Yup.

 

     I'm lecturing.  I shouldn't lecture.  I should leave people alone.  I should accept them just the way they are.

 

     I believe all of that.  I also love people, and I can't stop loving them just because I misbehave and lecture.  Most people understand that.  They see behind my bad manners and my disarming "naming it for what it is," and they let me do it.  You know why?  Because I care.  I really do.  I care about myself.  I care about other people.  And gradually I'm learning how to "do it better."

 

     I should accept them just the way they are.

 

     You know what?

 

     That's a starting place, not a resting place.  Accept the person the way he or she is, but make sure when you do this, if you really care, that you are happy with where you both are.  If you are, fine.  If not, is there something more you owe to the relationship?  Is this going to be a relationship where both parties sit like self-satisfied frogs on a log in the sun?  It may be, if there is friendship.  But there is more to friendship than just unconditional acceptance.  There is caring.  There is pain, and empathy, and passion, and irritation, and joy, and "wanting" for your friend when he sometimes forgets to want, and all of those things.

 

     We're not frogs.

 

     Not last time I looked, anyway.

 

     We are sentient, alive human beings with dreams.

 

     And that is what the road to searching for work, which is really searching for yourself, is all about.

 

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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