I make no secret of the fact that I dislike my state’s rehabilitation commission, or SRC. It is the state agency that is charged with helping disabled people find and keep jobs, but despite my having worked with them for over a decade, they have never actually found me one. They have never actually helped me in any way. Every employment opportunity that I have had is the direct result of my own hard work and making connections – it has nothing to do with them. Yet, a requirement of receiving social security disability is that you work on getting a job, and so again and again, I find myself in a small, closed room with an overworked, underpaid counselor.
Recently, in order to save money, the state announced that they would close the current SRC office that I go to. They printed flyers about how they were ‘moving’, and this angered me, because they were not moving. They were closing. The office – a windowless warren of rooms behind a Chinese restaurant that somehow always smelled bad and where the only parking available was for one-hour increments – was closing. The counselors were being scattered – some close by, some much further away.
With only a few weeks notice, they held a meeting. I, being the kind of person who truly wants to improve the services I receive, showed up. Unfortunately, due to a confluence of factors – the short notice, the difficulty of the location, the fact that it was on a night when many other meetings were taking place – I was the only consumer there, aside from two young adults brought by their parents, neither of whom said anything.
I entered the room. A stranger asked me who I was – not for the first time, because I don’t have a visible disability and was dressed neatly in a sundress and sandals, I was mistaken for a disability professional. (Which I am. I just also happened to be a SRC client. They had trouble with this concept.)
“Oh, who’s your counselor?” they inquired then.
I told them. “Name, name.”
“Oh she’s awesome!” they enthushed.
I considered. I considered the fact that in three years I had yet to get a viable job lead from her and that she had outright said that my many medical problems made helping me look for work difficult. “Well,” I said with as much diplomacy as I could muster, “that’s one opinion.”
The truth is that I like my counselor. She’s a good person who shares similar values to mine. But as an actual vocational rehabilitation counselor, she has done almost nothing for me. I would say that is a failing of her, except that I have had other counselors who also did nothing. By this point I have basically concluded that it is the agency, not the individuals, that is the problem.
About two dozen people eventually showed up, the vast majority being staff from the office that was being closed. It began badly because there was no microphone. None of the staff thought that this was a problem because ‘they could all talk loud’. To me it was a simple matter of accessibility – I mean, the meeting is supposedly for disabled people and you don’t have a microphone? Nope. They don’t. and they don’t care, and then – the Commissioner entered, the person in charge of the entire state agency.
“I’m 99% certain that this is just going to be a gripe fest,” I texted a friend. To nobody’s surprise, I was right. What I was surprised by was how the Commissioner seemed unable to deviate from her script, how she truly did not seem to care about the consumers or the staff, and how incredibly ableist her comments and attitude were.
Commissioner lied. This is a basic fact. The flyers that her office printed out and mailed said that the office was moving. Moving implies packing up an office and relocating it to a different place. They were in fact closing. Just because everyone at Dunkin Donuts is now working at another Dunkin Dontus doesn’t mean that the empty Dunkin Donuts is still open. If you can’t physically go to a place and find the same staff and administration, if you have to go two cities over to another Dunkin Donuts entirely, then it hasn’t moved. It has closed. The employees, of course, denied this.
The commissioner readily admitted that she didn’t have a disability, and that she knew that her hiring, last summer, had been somewhat controversial. But! She took pains to point out, she did have a very good sob story about a family member with a disability. No, she didn’t have a background in disability services or vocational rehabilitation or disability studies, she had a background in workforce development, but! She had shadowed a counselor for an entire day! So she knew exactly what it was like.
I stared at her with what I hoped was an expression of utter no-shitting-me. I asked, “If you were asked to be the head of the NAACP, would you accept the position?”
Commissioner is white. I had hopes that she would understand the metaphor. Despite my being the autistic one, it went right over her head. “Yes,” she said. “If they asked me to, yes, I would.”
It was at this point that I probably should have left. Instead I kept texting my friend (which is why I have such accurate notes on what happened despite it happening a few months ago.)
I learned that 67% of consumers were under the age of 35, which was why the agency was focusing on them and on high school aged youth, because people had to get into the work mindset early. I didn’t understand.
“What makes you think that you’re doing such a good job with those over the age of 35?” I asked. “What are your statistics there? Are they all getting jobs and enabling you to focus on young people?”
Commissioner and her staff had no answer but assured me that they could get me the statistics. I declined. I knew that any statistics they gave me would more than likely be bs. Just a few years earlier, after all, the agency listed me as having a full time job, a total success, when in fact, it was an eight-hour-a-week academic fellowship for nine months.
The office was closing because of lack of money. Period. There was no money, the money didn’t exist, they didn’t get it, blah blah blah stuff I don’t understand. The building owner, seated at the back, offered on the spot to reduce the rent to 1/3 of what it was now. The Commissioner said nope, there was no money.
“But you’re asking staff to drive more to meet people?” a counselor who was being relocated asked. “And to meet them in the community? And to move all of our offices to X, Y, and Z?”
“Yes,” the Commissioner said. (Later on at the meeting she would emphasize how staff should be driving less to save money. This was the point where I began to look for her second head.)
“So how much will that cost? Will it be comparable to the rent?”
Commissioner didn’t know. She had absolutely no idea of how much it was costing to move the office or if the savings would make a significant dent in the budget. She just knew that by crossing an item off a list, she could save X dollars a year. She didn’t care about the fact that moving offices was not just a hardship for the counselors, it was a hardship for the clients, too. The office that my own counselor is moving to is one where I had numerous meltdowns because counselors there insisted I act neuro-typically and I was unable to do so. I am scared of that office. I am scared of the people I might see there. My counselor knows this. She says we can maybe meet at X library.
“You mean the library where that guy was stabbed last fall?” I was shocked. “I don’t want to go there! It’s scary!”
The commissioner engaged a lot with me because I was the only consumer engaging with her. She admitted that she needed a lot of guidance and help from disabled people, but shut me down when I said I was happy to do so only I was a professional and I expected to get paid.
“It’s a huge change for everyone,” she said.
Well, yes….but it’s worse for us. I have meltdowns over daylight savings time. It is really, really hard being disabled, it is a huge inconvenience, and she was moving people around like checkers, with no consideration whatsoever for our feelings and lives.
“You could always do skype meetings!” Commissioner suggested. “Or Facetime!”
“Oh, no,” one counselor said, aghast. “That would make it too easy for people. When they have to come into the office, they have to get dressed decently and make it here on time, just like you would for a job. It gives people practice. Skyping would make it too easy for people because they wouldn’t have to leave their house.”
Given how incredibly difficult it is for many disabled people, including myself, to leave the house I was unmoved by this. Also, I had no idea that I was being judged on my appearance every time I visit the SRC. I happen to wear dresses and skirts a lot because they are more comfortable, but would showing up in jeans and sneakers mean that I’m not ready for a job? Sheesh. The counselor emphasized her master’s degree. I felt like rolling mine up and whacking her with it.
The basic fact is that the state agency charged with integrating disabled people into the workforce doesn’t give a single flying squirrel about disabled people. They have no idea how hard it is to live our lives, to juggle doctors appointments, to remember to eat and take meds and exercise and find housing in this brutal market. They only care about statistics. They couldn’t tell me how many people with disabilities were employed by SRC, only that they were the 2nd highest in the state in terms of the proportion of PWDs employed there. They talked about entrepreneurship like it was a brand-new idea straight off the Starship Enterprise. They listened, but they only heard what they wanted to hear.
I’m still disabled, they’re still jerks, and I still don’t have a job.
“When your health problems clear up,” my counselor tells me.
It is looking increasingly likely that my health problems will never clear up. That I will always be as disabled as I am now, that I will always be in pain. But isn’t the whole point of the SRC to show that disabled people can be good employees, that we can do things and achieve things? Yet how can that ever be done when the Commissioner, who sets the tone for the entire agency, so obviously doesn’t care about the people whose lives she affects so much?
She doesn’t care. So why should I? So why do I?
“Imagine,” I said to her at the end as I handed her my card, “imagine if instead of being against you, I was working with you.”
I can imagine. I can imagine a system of mutual respect, where strengths and not deficits are emphasized, where all people, regardless of disability or severity of their impairment or their age, are treated the same. I can imagine. It is too bad that the commissioner cannot.