When John, who happens to have Down syndrome, was celebrating his ninth birthday, his parents began talking with friends and family members about the fact that he would need to be welcomed into the world of work when he left school at age nineteen. His mother, Joan, began asking: “Who will need to know him, and what kind of experience will they need to have with each other so that someone in our circle will offer him employment when he leaves school? What do we need to be doing together over the next ten years for this to happen?”
Our friend Judith Snow defines a ‘great question’ as a question that refuses to be answered, so it keeps leading us into deeper thinking and deeper connections with each other. Sarah was asking a great question, and she was asking it of the right people.
Joan said, “Think about the old nursery rhyme, ‘Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people’. Well, all of the people in our church – in fact every one of the people in John’s life – are connected to something during the daytime. They all go somewhere during the day. I figure if the people in our church start talking about John’s future, and keep asking the question for the next ten years, we can probably figure out how people can welcome him into the places where they work, or volunteer, or do their art, or their music, or add to the community in other ways”.
Somehow John’s parents knew that it was important to do a good job with their personal community – not with ‘the community’ at large, but with the people who knew John, who loved him, and who knew that he would be part of their futures, forever. They knew that if they did the right kind of work, he might have a chance at being independent of the system. A small amount of formal support – money, technology, or job adaptation – could support a much larger commitment from their friends, but John’s future wouldn’t be dependent on the operation of the system.
That same summer, fifty-four families marched on our Provincial Legislature, stridently complaining that the ‘vocational rehabilitation system’ had not made preparations for their children’s graduation from high school. Some of their sons and daughters had been sitting at home for over a year. Their question to government sort of boiled down to ”Where are the dollars?”. Government’s answer was simple: “Other people with even more critical needs are standing in line for the dollars”. The underlying message? Get more skilled at the game of competitive misery. Sarah’s question helped us understand that the march on the Legislature had three meanings:
- First, it was true that the ‘system’ had not done a very good job of planning far these young men and women as they approached high school graduation – somehow they had not been ‘planned for’ or ‘budgeted for’ on their way into the adult system.
- Second, it meant that for eight, ten, or even twenty years, fifty-four families had been systematically convinced that their children’s futures would somehow emerge from the service system. They were told that the most important work that they could do as families was to pay attention to the interface with that system – educating, challenging, advocating, and hoping against hope that the system would do its job when their sons and daughters emerged from school.
- Third, and perhaps most importantly, it meant that fifty-four sets of friends, extended family members, members of church congregations, colleagues at work, schoolmates and neighbors – literally hundreds of people – had never been invited to think about what they might do to welcome these young men and women, who they already knew, into the places in community in which they had standing – including the world of work. A great opportunity had been missed.
When I was 19, our neighbour, Tom Baker, knew that I was ‘at loose ends’ and looking for work. Tom’s family and our family had all moved into a new neighbourhood together. We moved mountains of dirt, planted trees and seeded new lawns together. We went to the same church, and Tom taught me to play chess, beating me soundly every Wednesday night for years. Tom worked as an estimator at a printing company in the city, and when he saw me struggling to find employment, he actually created a little job in his section. Over the next year or so he taught me his job, and when he announced that he was moving to run a small-town newspaper, I became the estimator. That first job led to the next, which led to a whole series of jobs and experiences that completely reshaped my future.
Joan’s simple question is one that can uncover the Tom Bakers of the world. It allows community members to discover that they, too, can be ‘Tom Bakers’. It can reveal and mobilize an enormous amount of community capacity, hospitality, and creativity. Now, how do we get Joan’s question, and other great questions, on the agenda?