What is work? What does the concept of work mean to you? What compels billions of people around the world to leave their homes and engage in work each and every day? What is the purpose of work?
A quick Google search defines work as an “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” For many of us, the effort we put into work is directly related to earning a paycheck. Essentially, the purpose of our work, at the most basic level, is to obtain enough money to provide for the necessities of life, a few simple comforts and, if we are lucky, savings for a future retirement.
But beyond the monetary incentives, work empowers us to be self-sufficient. It allows us to be self-reliant. And it provides us freedom, a freedom greater than purchasing power and far more satisfying. It provides us the freedom of choice. The freedom to make decisions that will impact our lives for the better and the means to help make them a reality.
In other words, work is independence.
For individuals with disabilities, however, the independence offered by traditional work is often difficult to obtain. In fact, statistics from 2019 presented in the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium showed that out of the 1, 077, 425 individuals with disabilities living in New York state, only 378,105 were employed. This translates to a 35% employment rate and stands in stark contrast to the 78% of the population without disabilities engaged in work. Factor in the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the workforce overall and the disproportionate effect it has had on this segment of the population in particular and the picture becomes even more bleak.
So what does this all mean for our students? How will the challenges presented by their disabilities, reluctant employers and limited access to support services impact the quality of their lives? With so many potential barriers preventing employment, what, then, is the purpose of work for our students?
If we allow ourselves to view it as more than just a way to earn a livelihood, work can begin to take on a whole new meaning. The entire concept can be reimagined, re-purposed to better meet the needs of our students and prepare them for the realities they will face when they step out into that big, scary place known as the "real world." Work can be redefined.
For the vast majority of our students, the ultimate goal, the result they are working toward, is to acquire the skills and hone the abilities necessary to reach for the least restrictive environment possible upon their graduation from Wildwood. Whether it be obtaining opportunities for meaningful employment, participating in prevocational training and supports or securing coveted openings in community based adult programs, the ability to do for oneself… To be self-reliant to the greatest extent possible, often becomes the determining factor. How, then, can we redefine the concept of work to better prepare our students for the world awaiting them?
Let’s start with the definition. Work is an “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” Next, let’s rethink the purpose of work. If we determine that "work is independence" and the desired result is achieving it to the greatest possible extent, we can redefine the purpose of work for our students in new and meaningful ways. We can use ‘work’ to help them achieve the best results for their futures…we can use it to help them be as independent as possible.
So here we are…it’s time for a new definition…one that truly accounts for the needs of our students without diminishing the value and importance of traditional employment. A definition that “works” for us all, pardon the pun…
“Work is the activity of acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue and achieve the greatest level of independence possible.”
Now that we have allowed ourselves to view the concept of work in a different light, we can begin to use it as a tool for building the independence our students will need beyond the walls of Wildwood. We can truly focus on the skills necessary for improving their lives and increasing their opportunities to achieve futures full not of restrictions, but possibilities. We can begin to teach, develop and help strengthen the foundational skills they will need to obtain the greatest level of freedom available to them upon graduation. We can use work to help light the pathway to a greater level of independence.
We all should reach for the stars. The desire to pursue and achieve the best versions of ourselves should not be limited by a disability. Those of us fortunate enough to be in a position to help guide the students of Wildwood along their path toward a less restrictive future want nothing more than for their highest aspirations to be fulfilled. But as we help them reach for those stars, we have to remain cognizant of the work that it will require.
For it is easier to reach the stars when you are standing on a sturdy foundation.