Power and Love | GUEST OPINION

Working together confers power, not just in the sense of “power over” (although goodness knows many workplaces are characterized by this type of power too) but also in the sense of “power to.”

Our jobs give us the “power to” earn money, achieve autonomy, produce something others want, feel important, be part of a team, be a fully functional part of society. No one wants to be or feel like a broken player sitting on the sidelines, even if some people are nice to you. We want to be in the game, win or lose.

People with developmental conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and so on are usually lucky if they receive even the sympathy and help of others, much less an opportunity to experience the power of accomplishment and belonging.

But sympathy and help without power can be anemic and insufficient. It is the way we treat lesser people, people whom we consider weak and incapable. It is not the way most people treat each other or want to be treated. We see it often in our own work. The well-meaning volunteer or staff member “doing something nice” for a person who experiences the world differently than we do. Don’t feel like working right now, then how about watching a video? Or coloring? Not that being nice is wrong.

Take Tim, for example. For many years we assumed Tim couldn’t do much because of his developmental condition, that he wasn’t interested in or capable of work. We showed him love by making sure he was comfortable, by trying to make him happy while he was here during the day, by entertaining him and being nice to him, and by finding some trivial thing for him to do to keep busy.

Then one day we asked Tim to work on one of our more demanding production lines with an integrated team of workers, people of all abilities. The first few days, Tim would work for a while then get tired of it. “I don’t want to work any more,” he would say. “But we need to get this order out, Tim,” the floor supervisor would say, “the customer is counting on us.” Tim’s co-workers were empathetic but firm. “I’m tired too,” one would say, “but it’s almost lunchtime.” Or, “only half an hour more until our shift ends, Tim. I can’t wait.”

The power of working together is infectious, and Tim caught fire. In this new inclusive environment, Tim has become one of the most productive employees on our line. When I stopped by to see him on the shop floor the other day, he waved me away saying he was too busy to talk. We have work to do here and orders to fill, after all. Most of us work all day. Even when some part of me doesn’t feel like working — because I don’t feel well, because I am worried about something at home — I keep working most of the time, often buoyed by the encouragement of my peers and co-workers, and the example we set for each other.

And take Margaret, who has always made her enjoyment of work very plain to us despite the unique way in which she experiences the world. Margaret has moved up through our company mastering jobs of greater and greater complexity. She was recently promoted to an important pre-assembly job in our magnetic components manufacturing plant.

One day her manager was teaching her how to prepare components for assembly. “You take a cap in one hand,” he explained patiently, “and a wire from this box in the other, and you put the cap on the wire like this.” The manager demonstrated, putting cap after cap on wire after wire holding his hands in front of him. Margaret tried and tried, but the hand with the cap simply could not find the hand with the wire. Maybe she can’t do this after all.

But then Margaret had an idea. She lowered her hands – one with a cap, the other with a wire – onto the workbench in front of her and slid the parts together neatly. By turning the supervisor’s three dimensional process into a much simpler two dimensional process, Margaret taught the whole factory a lesson in Total Quality Management.

Love alone says — poor Margaret, poor Tim. But that’s not how the rest of us live. Love and power together say — yes you can, we need you, the customer is waiting, we’re all in this together. So how do we access the potential of people with developmental conditions? The secret is — there is no secret. Where people of all abilities work together, people respond to the power of their work with all the expectations and trust and autonomy that working together confers.

Love by all means, but also “power to.”

Tom Everill is President and CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.


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