Why unemployment is higher than we think

Diane paints a ceramic piece at Brookwood.

Diane paints a ceramic piece at Brookwood.

“We give folks meaningful work and something to look forward to.”  Travis Duncan, Development Officer, Brookwood Community


When I heard Travis say those words on a tour of the Brookwood community last week, I couldn’t help but think of my Uncle Melrose and how he would have welcomed meaningful work.  Instead, he spent decades in an institution and had countless days of boredom and inactivity.

Thankfully, the world has changed dramatically in the past 50 years, and places like Brookwood near Houston are showing us what people with disabilities can do if given the chance.

A purpose in life

Brookwood offers meaningful jobs and a sense of belonging to adults with disabilities. It is home to 105 individuals, some of whom live in houses on the grounds and others who live in dorm-like settings on campus. In addition, 83 others live elsewhere but come to Brookwood to work every day.

The workers produce pottery, plants, greeting cards and food items for sale in the Brookwood store. Proceeds from these sales pay for almost half the cost of running the community.  The rest of the funding comes from tuition and donations.

As I toured the workshops, I was struck by how happy everyone seemed.  Diane, who was painting a ceramic piece, told me it was her first day in the shop. But you wouldn’t know it by the professional job she was doing.

Putting people to work

“A lot of our men and women have only been told what they can’t do,” Travis said. “Here at Brookwood, we find out what people can do and put them to work using their skills.”

Believe it or not, the same thing used to be the case at the farm colony where Uncle Melrose lived for almost 40 years. When he first moved there in 1956, the Austin State School Farm Colony was a working farm and dairy.

Even though my uncle had a profound intellectual disability, he was able to do some kind of work. A former staff member speculated that Uncle Melrose may have done something in the cannery, where the crops were canned and packaged for consumption at other institutions.

Whatever he did, he had fond memories of those days when he had a job to do. I asked him one time if he had ever worked with chickens on the farm, and he responded with greater than usual enthusiasm that he had.

Abuses led to idle time for all

Unfortunately for Uncle Melrose and thousands of other residents like him, the free labor they provided was considered somewhat exploitive – especially for the more able-bodied among them. Higher functioning individuals were assigned to bathe, feed and dress the less capable residents. Some worked in the laundry and in the kitchen.

It wasn’t affordable for the state to pay these workers, and so they worked for free until the courts ruled in 1974 that they were entitled to protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

This was a tragedy for Uncle Melrose, who then lived the next 20 years with too much idle time and no sense of purpose in life.  I wish he could have gone to a Brookwood, where they would have put him to work emptying trash cans – one of his favorite activities.