By Jean Searle, with assistance from Tyra Virden
All of my life, I have been told what I can and cannot do. My name is Jean Searle, and I am a person with a disability. My brothers, sisters and I have moved around since we were children because my parents could not take care of me, and there were no community supports. I spent part of my childhood and my young adult years in an institution. All I ever wanted was to live a happy and independent life, which included working and being a contributing member of society.
The institution where I was at had a sheltered workshop and a school on the property, and no one was allowed to leave. I went to school for a half a day and the other half was in a workshop making very little money, like a penny, for everything that I did. (Sheltered workshops are facilities that employ people with disabilities apart from others. Workers with disabilities assemble or produce everyday products for businesses and for the commonwealth. These sheltered workshops are allowed to pay sub-minimum wage under a law from the 1930s. About 13,000 Pennsylvanians with disabilities are paid below the minimum wage.)
With the help of an advocate, I left the institution. I was told I had to go straight to a sheltered workshop. I had to be there all day even if there was no work to do. Many times, all I did was sit and talk to friends or just keep quiet. I did not want to be in the sheltered workshop, but I had no other choice.
In all, I spent 17 years in sheltered workshops. I was unhappy and wanted to leave for a real job, but I was not allowed to. I was not given any other choice.
In 1991, the opportunity finally came for me to be a part of the workforce. I was able to find support in the form of a job coach who helped me to find employment and learn the job. I began working at a fast food restaurant, which was close to home. I stayed at this job for seven years until an injury did not allow me to work there anymore. I was happy to be a part of a team and earn a paycheck like everyone else.
Since my time at the fast food restaurant, I held several different jobs, some good and some not so good. I was happy to be able to make my own decisions and work at any job that I was able to work at, just like everyone else, and earn a living wage.
Last year, I celebrated my 20th anniversary at my current place of employment, theDisability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. I was recently promoted to a new position in the organization. I feel happy, independent and empowered. I still need help occasionally, but I feel like I can do anything that I put my mind to.
This July is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I know that with the right supports and accommodations, all people with disabilities can feel the same way that I do. More funding for vocational rehabilitation services, as proposed by the governor and supported by many lawmakers, would help us to have those opportunities to work in the community.
People with disabilities want to work and earn wages like everyone else. We want what everyone else in life wants, to be happy, to make our own decisions, and to live an inclusive and productive life.
Jean Searle is a policy advocate for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at 215-238-8070, ext. 219, or email@example.com. Tyra Virden is a community work incentives coordinator for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at 215-238-8070, ext. 216, or firstname.lastname@example.org.