Braille Monitor                          November 2019

(back) (contents) (next)

Keeping the Blind in Sheltered Workshops in the Afterlife

by Justin Salisbury

Justin SalisburyFrom the Editor: Justin Salisbury is a frequent contributor to the pages of this magazine. He works in Hawaii and is an instructor, an active advocate, and a man who is committed to thinking a lot about what it means to be blind both for those who have not had training and opportunity and for those who may benefit significantly from it. As this article is being edited, we are approaching the Halloween season, so perhaps, after spending some time contemplating the spirits, this will be a great way to conclude your Halloween festivities while at the same time thinking about how you will continue to enhance opportunities for blind people. Here is what Justin says:

When I was a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I remember all the tension and nervousness as we prepared for Mardi Gras. I just got the feeling from my classmates. I did not know what exactly we should be nervous about, but many of them were, so I was, too. That nervousness can be healthy in the right doses. It can help a person to focus on what they’re doing and to feel empowered when they realize that they were able to manage that stress. We stayed on our game that week, and it was exhilarating. Side note: I wish we could take our students there from Hawaii every year.

While at Mardi Gras, students and staff choose the kinds of activities that they want to do. One of the activities that I chose was a ghost tour of New Orleans. We learned stories of old hospitals with amputee veterans, quadroon ballrooms, slave children who fell to their death while fleeing a beating, priest burials, a young orphan who grew up in a brothel with a sailor boyfriend, and so many other stories. The tour guide told us stories of love, loss, grief, fear, and untapped potential. So far as I can tell, it is still an inexact science to determine if the spirit of a person will remain in this world as a ghost. I do not say that to disrespect anyone’s spiritual beliefs, but I think it is safe to say that spirits exist and that something involving a strong emotion is commonly what tethers them to the location that their spirit occupies.

When I had my first experience with a residential center for the blind, it was in a really nice suburb of a large city in the northeastern part of the United States. It was founded by a Catholic priest, and I remember seeing a portrait of him hanging on a wall somewhere in the center, maybe the dormitory or the main building. I was told early on that his ghost was known to appear around the center campus. Sometimes, a sink would turn on while nobody was near it, or a light might be on after everyone was sure that they had turned it off. I was told that his ghost was there to continue looking after the center and, most importantly, the blind people in the center. This priest really cared about blind people, and he wanted to make sure that we were taken care of.

When I began my current job at the state-run vocational rehabilitation agency in Hawaii, which is called “Ho`opono,” as a nickname, I learned that there were also spirits in that building. The original administrator from many decades ago, Ms. Morrison, was known to still walk the halls of Ho`opono with her high-heeled shoes. I heard that there were many ghosts, or spirits, around the building, and I was advised that I might encounter them, especially if I was ever alone in the building. These spirits were never known to be malicious, and I resolved myself to be spiritually diligent with my spiritual practices. In Native American contexts, this means using sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco, and staying focused on my purpose for being there, at least for my nations. I have realized that Hawaiian spirits function differently, but I think they respect me.

The agency serving the blind in Hawaii has not always understood blindness the way that it does today. In recent years, even times that current staff can remember, we were a subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. We still have the unused stack of broom handles to show the people who come for tours, and then we point to the signs on the wall where the workers were directed to stack boxes of forks, knives, and spoons. Our agency used to be the only supplier for all the mops and brooms used by the state of Hawaii. In other words, if a mop was used on any island in Hawaii by a state worker, blind people made that mop in the subminimum wage sheltered workshop in the basement of the agency serving the blind. One of our vans is called “the Beast” because it is the biggest in our fleet. We sometimes use the Beast to drop students on drop routes or to carry the luggage when we go camping. The Beast used to be the delivery van that delivered furniture and other products made by the blind in our workshop. We still have showers in the locker rooms downstairs, but the large lockers have been moved upstairs to a hallway, where they replaced the smaller lockers that the sighted people used to use. Those larger lockers are now used by students in our residential adjustment to blindness program. The work benches from the workshop are now the work benches for our industrial arts class in our training program. We have repurposed the resources of our training center to fundamentally change what the agency does.

Many of us encounter spirits around the building, and it is believed that many of those spirits are those of workers from the subminimum-wage sheltered workshop. The old workshop has more spirits than any other place I know in Hawaii, and it is certainly highlighted as a hub for spiritual activity by the blind people I know. We often experience those spirits when we are alone. I distinctly remember being in the bathroom in the old locker room and hearing the sound of someone using a metal file. I walked out toward the industrial arts classroom to look for the sound, thinking I could compliment a student’s nifty idea on a project. It turned out that there was nobody there in the flesh. Some worker’s spirit, however, was still working in the workshop. Maybe that person was crafting a piece of furniture. I don’t know what exactly he/she was doing, but his/her spirit was still there, working in the workshop.

Sheltered workshops were once considered a viable opportunity for blind people to achieve employment and earn some money to supplement what they received in welfare programs. Eventually, we started to look at futures beyond the sheltered workshops, and so the sheltered workshops became framed as “stepping-stones,” to help them transition into competitive, integrated employment. Perhaps this is because people are afraid to deviate too far from the old status-quo, low-expectation model that leads people into the sheltered workshop, or perhaps it is because they are afraid to render the sheltered workshops irrelevant. For far too many blind people and people with other disabilities, the promise of the sheltered workshop has been a false promise, and we have been living in The Grapes of Wrath. Far too many of us have thought that we were on our way to prosperity but landed in a trap, where we are stuck in poverty, dependent on the charity of others for survival, and never really finding a way out.

The spirits can linger in the sheltered workshops, especially if that is the only connection with the outside world that they really know. Human beings in our settler society want to be industrious and useful. We want to make meaningful contributions to the world and create some value to the society around us. For some blind people in the sheltered workshops, especially those who were never introduced to the philosophy and blind role models like the ones available through the National Federation of the Blind, they may only feel connected through the workshop. They may not belong to community organizations. They may not engage with their sighted neighbors. They may live a highly segregated existence. Throughout history, there have been some little blind ghettos, where blind people were housed by some charitable agency in a group setting, which also got them away from the sighted. For some, their existence was merely being shuttled back and forth between the workshop and the happy home for the blind. Perhaps a family member would come to visit on Christmas and Easter, but that would be their lives. Some of the sighted people working in those establishments could have very sincerely believed in their hearts that they were doing something good for the blind by “giving us a place to go.” The workers died with so much potential that they never showed the world, and so many dreams that they never pursued. Maybe the spirits are still seeking that fulfillment.

Some people who hear our plight will speak from their position of sighted privilege and say, “If you don’t like it, then leave.” For us, it is often not that simple. We often have fewer options after we went into the sheltered workshops than we did before we started there. What makes this possible is partly a deterioration of a person’s confidence and self-esteem, but it is also a deterioration of their work habits. In sheltered workshops, specifically unproductive behaviors are often encouraged, such as sitting around and waiting to be cued because the sighted supervisor does not have work for you in that moment. In sheltered workshops, employees are required to attend but only “work” when there is an order of widgets to be produced. If I got into a habit of loafing around, it would make me less employable for my next opportunity.

The status quo bias can burn a blind person who is trying to transition out of a sheltered workshop. Some employers may not even know about sheltered workshops. Then, when they learn that the applicant has been working in a workshop for people with disabilities, they often start to think things like, “That is a good place for a worker with a disability,” and, subsequently, “I don’t think this job is a good job for a worker with a disability.” There is a tendency to think that, if those workshops are set up to give us jobs, that is where we should be working. It becomes the status quo that blind people will work in workshops for the blind, so it is more difficult for them to imagine us doing anything else.

Some administrators of sheltered workshops genuinely believe that they are doing a good thing for the blind by putting us in sheltered workshops. Others know exactly what they are doing to us. When exposed to respectful requests from members of the National Federation of the Blind, some of them use open minds to examine their practices and even migrate away from them. Others often resist and make every effort to suffocate the voices of the organized blind because we threaten the system that is so profitable to them financially and egotistically, and possibly because change requires mental effort. No matter where these administrators fall, if they can find it in their hearts to change their practices—and hopefully the beliefs that undergird them—I will eagerly become their friend and sing their praises. If not, then I will act however the Federation calls upon me to act as we work to liberate the blind from low expectations.

With the homes and the sheltered workshops, even if it is well intended, blind people literally remain there forever, even in the afterlife. It does not create opportunity; it gouges a hole in the hull of the ship that was heading toward opportunity. I know that there are spiritual interventions where I could hire someone to come into the old workshop and try to chase off the spirits, but I don’t want to do that. I don’t have a way to work with those spirits to improve their understanding of blindness and the opportunities that they could have had in life. I can make a difference, however, with the blind people who are alive today and who will live in the future. There are some little girls growing up in the Hawaii affiliate, and I am glad that they have the National Federation of the Blind. I want to be absolutely sure that those little girls never work in a subminimum wage sheltered workshop, but that still would not be good enough. I want the opportunity to be the one who teaches them about what subminimum wages used to be and what sheltered workshops used to be. Then, when they learn about the spirits at the old workshop, they will understand that they deserve a life full of opportunities and that they need not spend the rest of eternity in the workshop with a metal file.

Media Share

Facebook Share

(back) (contents) (next)