Owen frequently goes out on trash-pick-up walks during his afternoons with sitter Kathie. To be accurate, Owen goes out picking up trash all the time, wherever he is. But Kathie is the only sitter who’s been willing to foster and guide his tendency to grab for any stray plastic cup or fluttering paper scrap, and make it something useful. She arms him with a plastic bag, and they clean up the trails. At the end, he gets to choose a piece for himself – the perfect reward!
Walking with Owen through our local Home Depot, me avoiding kiosks of potted orchids etc. and him wandering away constantly, answering the siren call of tantalizing fragments of broken palette or plastic strapping, I feel certain “trash pick up” is a job he could love. He has a sharp eye for things he cares about. I see him wearing protective gloves, the orange apron, and picking up every single forgotten bit from forgotten corners of the store and parking lot. I see him being part of a working team.
I remember expressing to one of Owen’s teachers at St. Coletta School in D.C. my anxieties on the subject of adult employment – what to do after school. How could anyone ever get Owen to do a job? She said the school had surprising success, that as with anyone else, you look for a job that matches the person’s isms and fetishes. Teaching the guy with a fantastic memorization skills who loves routine to sort mail at the post office. Or hiring the slightly mentally slow, but very patient and dependable guy to be a live-in caregiver to supervise the dressing of one who is so highly distracted he can’t get dressed. These two are real-life examples. It just takes time, she assured me. Owen was easy-going but pretty education-resistant, but I haven’t given up.
Succeed, and our special populations will experience a life of connectedness to the larger world. When and if we don’t succeed there is that other life, safely stowed in front of a television, out of sight under the fluorescent lights of a daycare program. While it’s a wonderful thing to be warm and dry and fed — something that even 100 years ago (50?)someone like my Owen would not have experienced courtesy of his government — it is also marvelous to be occupied, to be part of a team with a common goal.
But there are problems with my vision of Owen as Maintenance Man.
Like the fact that he is likely to take a chance on that little brown thing being chocolate, that he isn’t too picky about a grubby piece of popcorn or second hand apple. The education process would take time and cleverness, finding a reward more potent than the lure of the garbage itself. I am sure that it can be done. And Owen’s dad and I are more interested in an active life for him than a risk-free one. But given the safety conscious times we live in, so full of Americans ready to file suit and claim their fortunes, can I convince a program, an aide, or a prospective employer to take a chance?