Elisa BirnbaumWhen a town’s primary industry faces a downturn, the issue of employment, sustenance, no doubt becomes central to its impassioned conversation. When company employees facing potential layoffs have developmental disabilities, the discussion becomes more heated still. Add some internal politics to the mix and you’ve got the highly acclaimed documentary, A Whole Lott More.

In it, filmmaker Victor Buhler offers a multi-layered exploration of the socioeconomic landscape facing the town of Toledo, Ohio and its particular impact on longstanding company, Lott Industries. Along the way, viewers are forced to question with new eyes the value and challenges of social enterprise and sheltered workshops, the concept of employability and society’s duty to the more vulnerable, all in one inspired film.

Lott Industries has been singularly employing workers with developmental disabilities for over 55 years, building car parts its primary source of sustenance. When automaker Ford moved out of town, Lott, like many other companies reliant on the industry for so long, is one of its casualties.

But unlike other enterprises, the 1,200 staff at Lott face multiple barriers and look to Lott for more than just a paycheque. The reality is that most employees are working at one of, if not the only job they’ve ever held. Understandably, they and their families view them as invaluable lifelines; their jobs bring empowerment, self-respect and hope.

When the company is given twelve months to reinvent itself (or else), the documentary follows a few workers struggling to hold onto their livelihood and some executives banging their head against the wall trying to keep it all together. We meet Tim who has cerebral palsy, is deaf and a champion Boccia player. He’s determined to work – and work hard. There’s Wanda Huber, a handler on the shop floor who has Turner’s and Down’s Syndrome. Thanks to Lott Industries, Huber has been able to live in her own apartment for the first time. And then there’s Kevin, a recent high school graduate on the autism spectrum who is looking for work.

We soon learn that Lott is unique in another way: it successfully competes with traditional non-disabled businesses on a mostly equal footing, having achieved the highest quality ratings. It’s an accomplishment worthy of praise, to be sure.

Deeper Issues

But the situation at Lott is far more complex than a 90-minute documentary can do justice, as a post-film interview I had with former Lott president Joan Uhl Browne demonstrates. It soon became clear to me that, economy aside, the operational underpinnings of this sheltered workshop may have laid the groundwork for some of its greater challenges.

While parents of children with disabilities started Lott decades ago and have a separate governing board, the Lucas County Board of Developmental Disabilities (LCBDD) controlled most factors a company would usually address to be profitable such as staffing, union negotiations, work hours and other operational efficiencies, etc.

Searching for Solutions

Hoping to save Lott Industries, the livelihood of its employees, Browne came up with a proposal: separate fully from the LCBDD, hire their own supervisory staff and employ anyone with a barrier to employment.

Under that plan, staff may have included returning vets, minor offenders newly released from jail, individuals not using LCBDD as a provider, displaced workers, etc. “We would have become a Medicaid provider. We would have been able to run multiple shifts. We would have been able to match skill-sets and desires with the work, both for the workers and for the supervision,” she explains. “More grants would have been available. We would have been more nimble, flexible; able to meet the needs of the community and the people we served.”

Social Service or Business?

Browne acknowledges the plan would have had its challenges but believes it signified the best of both worlds. Ultimately, however, it was rejected in a decision that revealed how differently the two sides viewed Lott. Browne saw it chiefly as a business and LCBDD officials looked at it mostly as a social service. Think about it: with those divergent approaches, finding a common ground was close to impossible.

Despite her frustrating experience, Browne remains a strong advocate for the potential of sheltered workshops and social enterprise. But she also serves as a great example of the difficulties in doing it right.

A Whole Lott More does a lot more than proffer a unique look at the downturn of the economy and auto industry. With the help of Browne and others, the audience is given fodder from which to question assumptions and evaluate “solutions” to society’s challenges. As millions of people with disabilities struggle to find a job, we must ask ourselves: Are we looking out for those most vulnerable? What more can be done? What makes sense and what doesn’t? Are sheltered workshops and social enterprises the right approaches? Though based in Toledo, Ohio, the questions the documentary poses and the issues it raises transcend boundaries and impact us all.

Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.

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