What does it mean to have a life of purpose or meaning? As we age, our life’s direction and primary objectives change. When you are a child, you don’t think about whether or not your life has some great purpose. Your wants and desires are basic. You want the love of your parents, the enjoyment of your favorite toys and activities and interaction with family and friends. As you get a little older, you want to do well in school; grades may be important, the class play can have great significance to you, being on the hockey/basketball/wrestling team can make you feel empowered and all or any of the above may make you feel positively––or negatively––about yourself. After high school, most people choose an area of study that will lead to a profession that they hope will be satisfying intellectually, emotionally and/or financially.
The famed psychiatrist Victor Frankl, in his classic work “Man’s Search for Meaning,” asserted that people can overcome almost any obstacle if they feel that their life has purpose. For many people, purpose is connected to a vocation, to meaningful, satisfying work. When we meet someone for the first time, we often ask, “What do you do?” Part of our identity is what we do for a living. Our profession, “I am an attorney, accountant, teacher, medical professional, social worker, journalist, (fill in the blank),” is often one of the things that defines us in our adult life.
My youngest child, Yosef Dov, who has autism, will turn 25 on his upcoming birthday at the end of this month. When he was growing up, his daily routine was similar to that of most neurotypical children, as he did many of the same things that they do. He went to school, though his particular schools were designed to meet his unique needs. SINAI did a great job making sure he felt included, and his friends at both Kushner (elementary school) and TABC (high school) made him feel like he was very much a part of their school, including him and his classmates in various activities. He went to class, he did homework, he went on school trips and he acted in school plays (geared, of course, to youngsters with needs like his). He even had the opportunity to spend a year in Israel, as so many teens from our community do.
Upon his return from Israel, however, his life very quickly stopped looking anything like that of his friends who were going off to college. While his neurotypical peers were struggling with dorm life, class schedules, exams and social pressures, he would not be confronting any of those challenges. Instead, he began to struggle with his natural, age-appropriate desire for independence while still being very dependent on his parents for many things, which his peers no longer were. He needed to develop relationships specifically with other individuals with developmental disabilities, as neurotypical young adults were by now in a very different place than he was in terms of their daily lives. He also needed something to do during the day, every day. The Day Hab program at New Jersey Yachad offered him a place to go to during the day and the Mendel Balk Yachad Center created an afternoon program so he had a place to socialize with his friends.
Yosef and his friends from Yachad are now no longer children and should thus not be treated as such. They are young adults with a variety of developmental disabilities, but also with many abilities, and they are interested, despite their disabilities, in many of the things which interest other adults, albeit on their level. As Yosef’s parent, I am struggling to help him find an adult identity. One thing that has become clear to me is that, like his more typical adult peers, his life needs to have a purpose. He needs a place to go every day––not just ti fill up the hours, but to do something constructive, to have a productive job.
There are, of course, many barriers to employment for those with developmental disabilities, as the particular disability can get in the way of successful employment. Yosef is quite capable of doing many jobs, including office work, data entry and various forms of manual labor. He is, however, a person with a serious auditory processing disorder––he often doesn’t understand what people are saying to him. Because his communication is limited, many people make the erroneous assumption that he is not capable of working at a job that requires thinking and planning. He also needs some time off from any task so he can calm his body down, by talking to himself, moving his body or even jumping up and down. This can obviously be very off-putting in a typical work environment. His adult Yachad peers likewise each have their own unique abilities and disabilities which make employment complicated for them.
Finances are another issue. When a person with a disability turns 21, he or she is entitled to Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) of approximately $558.00 per month. A recipient of SSI can earn $60 per month without that income affecting his SSI, but any amount earned over $60 decreases the SSI payment by 50 cents for every dollar earned. In short, the individual can get paid, but not too much. Many highly functional adults with developmental disabilities have a very difficult time with the concept of money. My son wants to get paid for a job done; he is excited about earning money. The last check he received was for $14.36 and he was ecstatic. He wants to get paid. He wants to see a paycheck; the dollar amount is less important than the experience of being paid.
In light of the above, I believe that the best type of employment for many people with disabilities is a job in a self-contained business run and managed by and for people with disabilities. Yachad is the right organization to help set up and manage this type of business. Indeed, Yachad already has a business called “Yachad Gifts” that uses this model.
If you or your organization need packets put together for a conference, or you need a large mailing sent out, or you need documents shredded, the Yachad office can handle these needs.
Yachad “Smoothies and More” is a new venture that Yachad participants would like to start soon. The Yachad Day Hab adults would learn how to advertise their business, order supplies, take orders and prepare and deliver food. The plan is to start small, providing drinks for people in the OU building on Cedar Lane, with the hope of expansion later on down the line. In the near future, participants can learn how to make soup and other quick lunch meals. The skill-building possibilities here are huge and the potential for personal growth and providing a feeling of true accomplishment is immeasurable.
I would like to see this become a reality, but I need the community’s help to make this happen. We need supplies to get started; a high-quality shredder, food cart, blenders, peelers etc. Please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] or to Leora Verbit, New Jersey Yachad’s vocational coordinator, at [email protected] for a full list of items that are needed. Please think about donating an item or items in order to help a person with disabilities have a life of purpose and meaning.
People with disabilities do not have a collective voice of their own, so on behalf of Yosef and his friends, I thank you in advance for your support.
Beth Taubes is the owner of Wellness Motivations LLC. She motivates clients of all backgrounds, ages and health conditions to engage in improved self-care through nutritional counseling, fitness training, yoga practice and stress reduction techniques. Gift certificates available. Beth can be reached at
[email protected] or www.wellnessmotivationsbt.com