It’s early December in Great Falls, Montana. A light snow covers much of the landscape at Malmstrom Air Force Base, with more snow in the forecast. The temperature hovers just above zero degrees. And Lee, a Skils’kin custodial crew supervisor working through SourceAmerica and the AbilityOne program, is driving the Skils’kin van to pick up her custodial team. She parks by one of the buildings, the team piles in, and she drives off, taking the crew on their daily rounds cleaning buildings throughout the base.
Lee is a supervisor who provides first-rate mentorship. From years of experience, Lee has learned that an effective way to empower individuals with disabilities to become self-sufficient is to avoid enabling the individual (in the negative sense of the word), meaning actions that, while intending to help the individual, prevent opportunities for growth. As Lee explains, members of the community and the workplace often enable individuals with disabilities by underselling their ability:
“People are quick to say [to individuals with disabilities], ‘oh, you can’t do that. I’ll do that for you.’”
By enabling individuals with disabilities in this way, such as by doing work for them, people take away their opportunities for growth, ultimately hindering their future self-sufficiency. Lee, on the other hand, is a leader who does everything in her power to foster self-sufficiency in the individuals she works with. She doesn’t cut her team any slack, and she doesn’t enable. And the results speak for themselves.
Watching Lee’s crew work is a sight to behold. The team sweeps into the buildings at Malmstrom Air Force Base with blazing efficiency, cleaning building restrooms in a manner of minutes. The team is quick and efficient, and their chemistry is apparent. At each stop the team works in perfect coordination: Conner cleans the mirrors and sinks, Phil starts scrubbing the stalls and walls, Brenda cleans the porcelain, and Doug sweeps and mops the floors. Lee works alongside her team, but she also holds each member accountable for his or her actions, ensuring that the team performs quality work.
Much of the team’s success is owing to great leadership. From Lee’s experience, good training creates a cohesive team and a healthy environment – without proper training, including training that avoids enabling, her team would not be able to experience the success it has.
Lee’s learned her exemplary leadership skills from her experiences as a parent – a parent of an individual with a disability, Phil, who just so happens to be a member of her Malmstrom custodial team. Thus, Lee knows why it is important to avoid enabling because she herself is raising her son to be self-sufficient:
“One day, I won’t be here,” Lee explained, “and I want him to be okay.”
This sentiment is one that many parents of children with disabilities share. Many parents of children with disabilities are deeply concerned about their children’s ability to function without parental support. However, by minimizing enabling and creating opportunities for growth, parents like Lee are fostering self-sufficiency.
Lee shows Phil love and support by helping him to become self-sufficient. When Phil asks what is for dinner, Lee’s response is “I don’t know: what is for dinner?”
Phil cooks, washes dishes, cleans, and performs other household tasks, gaining self-sufficiency in the process. Lee also pushes her son to have an active social life, but she does monitor his friends to ensure that he is surrounded by good influences.
Lee is a great example of a parent who courageously moves both her child’s and her own life forward. She has learned to fight against that instinct in us all to enable, and she engages and holds Phil accountable for his actions.
“I thought when I had a child with a disability, I would just move on with my life – my child with a disability became my life,” Lee explained.
Through her experiences as a parent of a child with a disability, Lee has been able to extend an avoidance of enabling to all she works with through the opportunities created by SourceAmerica and the AbilityOne program at Malmstrom. She continually pushes her son and her crew to perform the quality of work she knows they can do, and her leadership works in tandem with the aims of these two programs. Lee supports her crew, just as she supports her son, by fostering self-sufficiency that will lead to greater opportunity and choice in the future.
Our society is often quick to try to define what individuals with disabilities cannot do; SourceAmerica, AbilityOne, and individuals like Lee, however, are changing this conversation by creating opportunities for individuals with disabilities to showcase what they are truly capable of. It is time to stop enabling individuals with disabilities and underselling their capacities. One way to accomplish this effort is through programs such as AbilityOne and SourceAmerica that create opportunities for employment and growth. By empowering individuals throughout the country to gain the independence and skills needed to thrive moving forward, these programs are creating opportunities for individuals with disabilities to choose, create, and realize their desired future.