by David Morstad
I am concerned about the loss of the word “Vocation” in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities. We haven’t lost the use of the word. Far from it. In fact, we use it everywhere: Vocational training, vocational services, and vocational skills. These days, vocational centers, i.e., sheltered workshops, have been in the news (e.g., a settlement recently reached in Oregon). They are coming under a great bit of scrutiny, mostly because of their practice of paying sub-minimum wage, sometimes pennies per hour.
While the concerns over wages and segregated employment settings are legitimate ones, a larger question beckons our thinking. Is vocation understood as the activity that keeps that person busy all day; or, is there a deeper and more important understanding at stake? We haven’t lost the use of the term “vocation”, but we may have lost some connection with its true meaning.
Vocation. A calling. Something one is personally compelled to do. That seems a far cry from the way in which the term has been defined in disability circles for the past few decades. It’s more likely we have chosen to understand it in terms of hand-eye coordination, counting, assembling, packaging, and recycling skills. We’ve been missing something, and that’s where people of faith come in. We have long understood the nature of personal gifts and the sacredness of their use in the world. If there is anyone who should be familiar with the concept of a calling, it’s us.
In 2014, the Collaborative on Faith and Disability began an initiative called Putting Faith to Work. The purpose is to raise awareness of the impact of faith communities, with their wealth of social networks, as a meaningful and practical force for vocation in the lives of people with disabilities. The document states:
“Work is both a gift and a responsibility. There are scriptural, theological, and historical understandings in all the major faith traditions that affirm (a) the importance of everyone using their gifts in service to God and community, and (b) the community’s call to make that possible for all.”
It is an affirming statement, but I wonder if it goes far enough. This is about abilities, to be sure, but, more importantly, it is about finding and honoring the place to which we have been called. This may be particularly true when it comes to people with the most severe and pervasive disabilities. If we boldly proclaim the importance of vocation – calling – for all people, are we comfortable with a position that, in some cases, a disability is so severe and so pervasive that the rules of vocation no longer apply? I don’t believe we can be. In the spirit of inclusion and belonging, all means all.
Examine every healing story in the New Testament, and you are likely to find two key people, the healer and the healed, both called to that place for the same reason, to display the works of God. Sometimes, the calling is to be served. At other times, Jesus himself is called to be served. John the Baptist said, “Baptize me”. Jesus replied, “No, you baptize me”. God has called each of us to be where we are and to be about the work for which we are suited. Anyone who has spent quality time among people with disabilities knows this for a fact: Often you are the teacher, and more often, you are the learner. Sometimes, the calling is to be served.