01 September 2018

So He Can Live His Life

I was talking with the director of an organization that helps people with disabilities. She'd come to the college, where I was teaching at the time, to recruit soon-to-graduate students looking for jobs as well as volunteers.  During the course of our conversation, she mentioned that part of her organization's work involved workforce development.

She explained that, once on the job, people with disabilities--whether intellectual, emotional or physical--are no more likely to be absent or have other issues than non-disabled people in the workplace.  "In fact, they often are better"  because "their jobs mean more to them" she told me.

The hardest thing, according to her, is getting them into the workplace.  I thought she was referring to notions prospective employers might have about disabled people.  Those indeed exist, but the biggest difficulty is actually getting them to the workplace.  "They lack transportation," she explained.

Her organization is based here in New York City.  One would think that in a city like this, with all of its mass transportation, one could find his or her way to the job.  But even here, there are "transportation deserts" where the subways don't go and there are few or no bus lines.  Those areas include most of Staten Island as well as the outer parts of the other boroughs--even Manhattan. It's even difficult to get a taxi or Uber car in those areas--assuming, of course, the person needing transportation could afford either.

If transportation can be such a barrier in the Big Apple, it's worse in suburban and rural areas--in fact, most of the United States outside of the coastal metropoli and Chicago--where there is little or no public transportation and people are likely to commute greater distances.  If someone doesn't have a car, or can't drive, getting to work can be daunting, if not nearly impossible.

Having a disability makes it more likely for someone not to have a car or to be unable to drive.  (I used to know someone, in fact, who wasn't allowed to drive because he was classified as "legally blind" due to his lack of peripheral vision. He could--and did--ride a bicycle to work.)  That means either not getting a job or very long walks to work.

Jonathan Clouse with his new bike in front of his workplace.

The latter describes Jonathan Clouse's situation.  It took the 19-year-old an hour to walk to or from his job at an Applebee's restaurant in Burlington, Iowa.  He never told any of his co-workers, but one day Jerry Woodsmall, a cook at the restaurant, saw him walking in--soaked, after trudging through a thunderstorm.  

He spread word about Clouse, and he and his fellow employees pitched in to buy him a bicycle and helmet. For them, it was as much an expression of how they feel about him as anything else: "We all like Jonathan, and I think everyone deserves a chance at working," explained his boss, Lisa Gosney.

He is grateful for the opportunity--and the bike--which, he says, have opened up a new world for him.  "Why would anyone want a job?  So they can live their life," he said.

And his bike will help him with both.

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