Dear Lucy, .Ever since I got your letter asking me to write something for the Helping Hands issue, I have not been able to put a thing on paper. The best I can do is this letter.
If I can be called a recovering professional, I guess I got an early perspective on the nature of disability being a political condition rather than a medical one. Back in the Seventies, when I was an undergrad at the U of Michigan studying to be a special education teacher, one of my professors introduced us to a book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which led to many classroom discussions of IQ testing and the disproportionate number of minority students enrolled in special education.
I was minoring in Urban Education and did some student teaching in an inner city Detroit school. Those factors, plus being a student at a large, radical campus in those "question authority" years made me never take an IQ score at face value again.
There was also a direct connection between politics and disability on my first two teaching jobs. I taught special education students when they did not have the legal right to attend public school but were banished to church basements — horrible conditions for the students and for the people teaching there.
It was not long before I started a union for the professionals and also started getting my students out of church basements and into the world with other people, into Boy Scouts and Sunday School classes, for instance.
My second teaching job was in a private segregated school to which public schools farmed out their special ed students. It wasn’t long before I got into trouble with the principal for taking International Women’s Day off — and telling him why instead of calling in sick. When my contract was not renewed, a male teacher with fewer qualifications was hired to replace me. (I filed a discrimination complaint and was hired back.)
When I went to grad school, I trained to become a vocational rehab counselor. During my internship I was turned off by the burnout of state VR counselors, so when I got my master’s degree in 1979, I couldn’t bear going into that field. Instead, I took a job with an Association for Retarded Citizens (as they were called, then) as an Advocacy Director. For almost ten years I got to fight the system — special ed, voc rehab, public attitudes — every day. I was actually paid to do what I wanted to do.
After those years, I needed to do something completely different. I have sold cars, done market research, and worked at a movie theater. Eventually I ended up back "in the field," with jobs for several nonprofit agencies that "serve" — if you can call it that — people with disabilities. It was after I was fired from one of those fundsuckers that I came into contact with you. (I was already reading Mouth and loving it.) My coworker and I — remember Sandy? — and a small core of disabled people put on a protest action outside a fundraising luncheon/awards deal at the local Goodwill Industries. We carried signs like "Goodwill Equals Bad Will" and enlarged some paychecks to poster size, paychecks that showed Goodwill clients receiving $5 for two weeks’ work. It made the local paper and Mouth, but nothing much changed at Goodwill and still has not. I was fired for something else, but Sandy was fired three months later when our totally clueless bosses finally got wind of what we’d done.
For the four years after that I didn’t have a professional (or even a steady) job. Eventually I was hired as vocational coordinator at a for-profit company that did so-called neurorehabilitation for people with brain injuries. I left that job after two years because my paychecks kept bouncing — despite how high off the hog the owner was living. (Lucy, you’ll be happy to know this cashpig went out of business. Something like insurance fraud finally shut him down.)
I hope you’re sitting down because now I’m going to tell you the work I do today. I’m a VR counselor for the state. Yes, me, the one who always thought I could only make change if I were outside the system.
I am here to say that I can make change from inside the system. As a field counselor, I have the power, the privilege, and the money to bring about opportunities, one person at a time.
It is not the global change I wish it were; nor is it the paradigm shift that needs to happen. But when I sense that a colleague or client is on my wavelength, I will share the Mouth, or one of Barb Knowlen’s books, or encourage my clients to go to the Client Assistance Program, or encourage my colleagues to interpret policy more creatively.
I appreciate your faith in me. Maybe, someday, I will actually feel that I can contribute an article. — Jan