Challenging the Myth of ‘Readiness’

By David Morstad

When I was in college, I applied for summer employment with the public works department of  a city which shall remain nameless. The job application asked if I knew how to drive heavy equipment. Without hesitation, I did what many desperate job-seekers before me had done.

I lied. 

Of course I know how to do that, I assured them. In reality, I’d never even driven a car with a standard transmission. But, I thought, how hard can driving a two-and-a-half ton dump truck really be? I would discover the answer to that question mid-morning of my first day when I was asked to move the truck about thirty feet. Following the advice my older brother had given me over the phone the night before, I ground the gears and jerked the truck forward the required distance.

Things got better after that. I worked three summers and eventually drove all manor of tractors, graders and loaders – everything I’d dreamed of doing as a little boy.

Let me be clear — I do not recommend blatant lying as a viable job-seeking strategy. However, the experience does serve to illustrate an important point about time spent acquiring job readiness, i.e., it’s often overrated. In fact, languishing for years in ‘readiness’ training for jobs that will remain forever elusive has become a common plight among people with intellectual disabilities.

The ‘Pre’ Syndrome

Professionals in this field have a long history of assuming that people with disabilities are not ready to be with the rest of us.

  • Pre-vocational’ settings have long been artificial stepping-stones presumably building skills for job readiness. It has a certain intuitive sense to it. The problem comes when one discovers the process rarely leads to real jobs.
  • Some organizations (my own included) designated smaller residential segments of their large residential campuses to act as ‘pre-community living’ settings.

In Disability is Natural, advocate Kathie Snow observes that, for generations, people with disabilities “have been told they’re ‘not ready’ for inclusion in school, at work, and in the community until they’ve achieved a level of ‘readiness’ as defined by professionals and others…and, in general, been prevented from experiencing real lives.”

Longtime advocate and teacher Lou Brown , summed it up years ago when he observed that, in the field of developmental disabilities, “‘pre’ means ‘never’.”

Even at its best, non-specific skill development in artificial environments runs contrary to what we know about learning and skill generalization and people with intellectual disabilities (i.e., teach the skill where it will be used). At its worst, it’s a cruel hoax.

Where Job Training Happens

Imagine that, starting tomorrow, you had to teach your job to someone else. How would you do it? Would you find a classroom and  prepare a number of lectures? Construct an elaborate facsimile of your own work area and then lead the new person through a series of related skills? Neither approach seems very likely.

A more logical option would probably involve direct instruction on real tasks, giving progressively greater responsibility and offering coaching and advice when it’s needed. At some very basic level, we seem to know that learning real job skills requires real support in real environments.

Is there risk involved when someone starts a job that requires learning new skills, new people, new methods of communicating, and new expectations, all within an unfamiliar environment? Absolutely.  In fact, it’s bound to be a little jerky for a while – like moving a dump truck for the first time. But I’d be willing to bet there are on-the-job teaching and coaching strategies that can minimize the risk.

2 Responses

  1. Well said Dave…Persons with ability need the support to show off their talents, to learn and work within their homes,(schools)l and community so that their lives are enhanced with independence, social well being, a sense of belonging and are contributing members to our communities. God Bless BLC Institute’s efforts – thanks for writing this!

  2. As a result of your blog post I was led to think about what it must be like for someone with a moderate to profound developmental disability. I’ve worked with a lot of them that have shared their stories with me… especially their life between the ages of 15 and 21. During this stage of life… there are a lot of decisions, changes and major life factors (Graduation, college, job searching, moving out of the house, etc.). Many young people with moderate to profound disabilities have fewer options than one might realize. Since many of them are mainstreamed… they can participate in graduation. However post-secondary education is out of reach for many of them… simply because of the level that one must reach while they are in high school in order to be even considered for college is above much of their coursework. Job Searching is often up to the decision of a County or State Case Manager that has little knowledge of how to think outside the box… regarding supported self-employment, Federal Work Incentives, etc. Moving out of the house is often postponed until it is a necessity. With this being said… many young men and women with moderate to profound developmental disabilities have nothing left to strive for after they reach high school graduation. Can you imagine how humbling this must feel? It brings me to my knees just pondering it. If I had the attitude that some of my former clients had about their jobs… as Hanger Sorters, Dog Walkers, Egg Packers and Wash Cloth Sorters… I would have a much better attitude than I do now! It is absolutely amazing how much we can learn from something as simple as a meaningful days work… no matter what the job, what the pay, what the status, etc. etc. etc. Life for those with moderate to profound developmental disabilities does NOT stop after graduation. In fact for many of them… it should be just like the rest of us… it should be just beginning! In whatever capacity this means… we as a Christians need to be support them through this transition… so that they can continue to strive to become more and more like Christ in all walks of life (Ephesians 5:1).

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