Disability, jobs and education

On the day before my brother’s 22nd birthday, his class threw him a party, his teachers gave him his diploma, and he left high school for good. My brother David has a mental disability, and the state of Illinois provides public schooling for people like him until they turn 22. After that, families are largely on their own to find support and post-high school opportunities. 

In a state like Illinois, whose post-high school services for special-needs adults rank last in the nation, the task is daunting. My mom had to quit working to take on the bureaucratic leviathan of applying for disability benefits and navigating Illinois’ state services. At first, David’s prospects for work were few and far between; the most promising options would only have him work for eight hours a week, which is hardly meaningful employment.

I left for college with David on my mind. For neurotypical people, the post-high school path is straight forward: work, college or trade school. But for David, these options don’t want him, even though he and other special needs adults want fulfilling education or employment as much as their neurotypical counterparts. That’s why when I arrived at Calvin, I was pleasantly surprised to see people with disabilities working full-time jobs on campus or attending classes with the Ready for Life program. Shortly after, my mom found a Christian vocational three-year school for special-need adults that David could attend and study horticulture.

We talk a lot about the idea of vocation at Calvin and for good reason. Work is a good thing, and repeated studies show meaningful work is necessary not just to put food on the table but to find purpose in the world. When we talk about work, we think about it for people that think like us. We seem to assume that people with special needs don’t have the same desires for purpose or don’t have the capability to find purpose. Calvin’s hiring of persons with disabilities and cultivation of the Ready for Life program rebukes these assumptions, and I am very grateful for that. Calvin can still improve on these offerings and be a counter-cultural witness that people with disabilities deserve opportunities to be in the workplace and in the university.

As the university continues to rethink its offerings for the non-typical student, Calvin should consider people like David. Those with disabilities desire vocation too.