GLORIA STEINBRING: FROM ASSEMBLY LINE TO ACTIVISM
When I moved from Hibbing to Minneapolis in 1968, I thought I was on my way to a new career. My social worker in Hibbing told me that I should get job training, and Minneapolis had schools for this. I was living with my parents in Hibbing at the time, and helped them with raising my younger brother, Duane. I liked working with children, and dreamed of one day working in a day care. I followed my social worker's advice, and moved to Minneapolis. I lived in a group home with over 100 people.
I was nervous at first. I didn't know what to expect. It was really tough living away from home for the first time. I was living at Outreach Center, what you might call a mini-institution. I didn't really like living there.
Instead of getting real job training, I went to a sheltered workshop. They "evaluated" me and said that I couldn't get a competitive job because the dexterity in my fingers was not quick enough. They told me "you'll have to stay in the workshop for the rest of your life."
I hoped I would be able to develop my skills as a child care worker. Instead, my job was to put hooks in straps, hour after hour, all day long. I also sealed thermostat covers in a plastic package. We would work on a line, where one person would put in one part, another person would do something else, and the part would move down the line. I didn't like this work because this wasn't where my expertise was. This work made me feel like I was good for nothing.
Around this time I met my future husband, Dean Steinbring. Dean also lived at Outreach and worked at Opportunity Workshop. He felt the same way I did about work. Some people liked their jobs, but Dean and I didn't.
When we started getting involved with each other, the people at the workshop separated us. We had to work in different rooms. We got married in 1974 and moved into our own apartment.
In 1975, some people from the local ARC came to our workshop to talk about voter registration. We learned about self-advocacy, and met other people who were speaking up for themselves. People at the workshop kept telling us "you'll be here the rest of your lives." They kept pounding this into us. But when I started going to self-advocacy meetings, I learned that I had rights, and that I could stand up for myself. I was tired of being treated like a kid by the workshop.
After 11 years at the workshop, I took some time off and I asked my social worker for an independent evaluation. I learned that I was capable of working in competitive jobs and that I could have worked with children. My social worker thought the workshop should have given me these kinds of jobs a long time ago.
I went back to the workshop in the fall, and told them I'd only work if they paid me minimum wage, which was $2.35 per hour. They told me they could only pay me eighty-eight cents per hour. They said they were a rehabilitation facility, and that they were training me to do what I would do in a factory job. I told them I didn't want a factory job. In eleven years, they didn't teach me anything. I told them to go to hell, and quit the workshop. I started devoting my time to Advocating Change Together (ACT), a self-advocacy group I helped found.
Since that time, I think supported employment has made things better, but there are still people being trained for jobs they don't want. Who is this helping? We need to work on changing attitudes and telling people about our abilities. We need to make our own decisions.
Gloria Steinbring is a founding member of Advocating Change Together (ACT), a self-advocacy organization in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gloria lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.