In 2007, we were exploring the concept of Starfire U, and part of that research included a conference in Columbus on post-secondary education opportunities for people with disabilities. Bridget and I went up there excited to learn about all the possibilities out there. Little did we know that we would have everything we’d known about ourselves, our work and our calling challenged.
Instead of spending the ride back talking about how to build on what was out there or invent new ways, we were speechless thanks to one little phrase mentioned by one of the speakers (Candee Basford):
“disability industrial complex.”
You’ll need some history to understand the term, but basically, Ike warned us that if war makes people money, then people have a vested interest in making war. (And while you’re researching, you might as well get John McKnight’s The Careless Society off of Amazon or from the library). So following the analogy, without people with disabilities, lots of people don’t have jobs, yours truly included.
So, do we have a vested interest in sustaining dependence upon our service systems? Let’s say I run a work skills program. Let’s say I am charging the State $50/person/day to teach people how to work. The day they walk through my doors, it’s better for my business if they never progress. That way, they’ll always need more work, more practice, and I’m there to provide it. I’d say that in that case, I have a vested interest in keeping people unemployable.
The real question, I think, is if the disability industrial complex is the work of cynical profiteers or well-intentioned, but oblivious people. I’m hoping it’s like 99% the latter, but admit to not knowing.
Personally, I can tell you two things:
1. Candee Basford will forever scare the crap out of me.
2. I’m so thankful to her for opening my eyes.
The only answer, I think, is to be aware of the pitfalls so you can work to avoid them. For example, because of this one phrase, Starfire U is capped at four years. Instead of having a vested interest in people’s lack of development, our success is tied to theirs, and there is not an infinite horizon for our work.
So thank you, Candee. Even though we’ll never meet because I will hide in fear if I ever cross your path again, you opened my eyes to a new way of looking at myself and my work.
One last note on The Careless Society: One of John McKnight’s great illustrators of his point is the “grief counselor.” In the good ol’ days, when someone died, neighbors and family were there to take care of them and help them work through it, bringing them dinner (most likely the ever-popular funeral staple: lasagna) and helping them out. When the “grief counselors” entered the scene, the neighbors and family withdrew, feeling under-trained and inadequate for the job. The grief counselor gets paid and jets when the allotted sessions are up, leaving the mourners alone without that previously rich network of support.
I get that.
But what about people who live with disabilities? When were their good ol’ days?