Upside down and inside out

In an independent living center, an organization serving people with disabilities, almost every characteristic of a workplace is inverted.  What do I mean?  I mean that hierarchies, workflow, work standards, the value of the individual, definitions of jobs, and even socializing together are virtually the opposite of what they might be in another nonprofit organization, let alone a corporation.

At least half of the employees must be people with disabilities, and it seems those without physical issues are iconoclastic or coming from a “down-and-out place,” just by nature of the organization.  An employee with a tracheotomy tube struggles to communicate, a woman with osteoarthritis is in pain much of the time and works very slowly.  Someone with MS deals with cognitive issues stemming from the disorder, others are erratic from the ups and downs of fibromyalgia or recovery from divorce.  Yet we are productive, the best kind of crew to serve others with disabilities who come in from the streets struggling financially, vocationally, physically, in myriad ways.

Whereas most work places exist to create products or services, we exist to help people with disabilities adjust to their situations and society, to find resources, inclusion, connection, work—all things vital to human beings.  Sure, a mental health center has a similar mission, but we have a more fluid, community-like approach.   We create an environment that is welcoming, a home-base for getting one’s feet under herself.

In an independent living center, people who are not good at their jobs are given many tries, many months to get it right.  People come in off the street who are destructive, or recently out of jail, are given support to try again.  People who don’t fit in more rigid work environments are given a chance to work in a more flexible, accepting place.   In the center where I work there is little supervision, so we really do find our own way, molding our own jobs and serving in ways that we are most suited to, whether that be as caseworker or bookkeeper, educator or fundraiser,   then we back each other up and take on different roles as needed.

I am struck by the unusual circumstance of being in a community within the disability community within the workplace.  Like a family, we have real dysfunction.  But we go much farther to accommodate “limitations” and personality quirks.  We have people from all walks of life come through our doors, which means we are exposed to people off the streets and some danger, though providing a welcome diminishes the likelihood of harm.

What I find compelling is this juxtaposition with the norms of the mainstream workplace, and what I find intriguing is the display of characters and character.  For example, I have been challenged to change and serve in new ways, while at the same time I have come to greater acceptance of some of my introversion.  I have been exposed to people who are radically different from me in socioeconomic status, educational background, race, and physical capacity and yet found a common ground with them.  I have seen people find new strengths and purpose or acceptance of limitation.  I have heard stories of surviving, coping, and overcoming that happen in spite of the systems put in place to help and stories of people aided immensely by those systems once we helped them use the services more effectively.

When I sit down with my yoga group on Tuesday afternoons, I see a group of people willing to try something new, be changed, challenge their previous experience, grow stronger and more resilient.  There are definitely other jobs where such things happen, but I don’t think there are other workplaces quite as quirky, quite as frustrating and lovely at the same time.

We are very human in this environment.  Under the uncertainty, the stress, the crises people find themselves in we find our natural compassion, our ability to stand up for what is right.  This week my coworker gave a man hell for the dangerous situation he and his relatives exposed his niece to.  I did an intake with an addict whose young daughter was taken away by child protective services.  I heard a success story of a woman getting accommodations from the university to get her PhD.  We helped, or at least provided a sympathetic ear, to all these folks, while at the same time grappling with our own flawed humanity and struggles.  People stripped down, honest, sometimes floundering and sometimes shining, that’s what you find in an independent living center.

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