Two Tales of People with Disabilities Seeking Independence

Most of us can only imagine the struggles, along with the unique joys, of raising a child with Down syndrome or another disability. One of the hardest aspects must be the decisions regarding your child’s ability to work and live outside your home.

The Washington Post had two stories recently which highlighted two aspects of these decisions. The first was a heartwarming story about a bakery in Chantilly, Va., that is employing many people with varying disabilities, giving them valuable work skills as well as some independence. 

Wildflour [is] a cafe, bakery and catering business in Chantilly where two-thirds of the employees have intellectual disabilities. Started in 1994 by a special-education teacher in the Fairfax County Public Schools, the nonprofit organization has expanded to employ more than 50 people. . . . Wildflour trains them as prep cooks, packagers and greeters, and sends them home with more than just a paycheck.

The idea, said the general manager, Alberto Figueiredo Sangiorgio, is to give them marketable skills — and to build self-esteem.

“This is a job,” said Sangiorgio . . . They don’t come here to be babysat. Our expectation is they’re going to learn something and they’re going to do better than they’re doing now.”

On the other side of the coin was a story about a 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome who is seeking to live with friends and not in a group home, as her parents wish.

Margaret Jean Hatch, a diminutive blonde known as “Jenny,” learned to read at the age of 6, has volunteered on political campaigns (always for Republicans) and once, after finding a job she wanted, showed up repeatedly until she got it. She also has Down syndrome, an IQ of 52 and tends to shower affection on strangers as well as friends. . . .

The case, which began in August and is set to continue this month, has captured the attention of both major advocacy groups and residents in the Hampton Roads area, who have turned the phrase “Justice for Jenny” into a mantra. For many, the legal fight is about not just who Jenny Hatch is but also whom she represents. . . .

The details of the story reveal just how difficult these decisions often are, as society tries to find a balance between protecting the vulnerable while reinforcing their personal autonomy.

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