By Dan Pysno, Program Manager

We all have a routine. It makes life more predictable and less scary. It helps us feel organized. Generally, routine plays an important role for individuals at Hammer. It is also an integral part of the day to day work of our staff teams. Routine serves a purpose and we rely on it to instill a sense of comfort and stability. However, routine can also make us blind. It can make us less attentive and more complacent. As comforting as it feels, there is danger in routine.

A week ago I was browsing some favorite websites – I guess it’s my routine – I came across a story in the New York Times. It was about several dozen men with intellectual disabilities who worked for decades in a turkey processing plant in Iowa. The Times also produced a short documentary about their story called The Men of Atalissa. A resident of Atalissa who was interviewed in the documentary shared her thoughts that help set the tone for this blog:

Atalissa 2“Routine can be a dangerous thing for all of us — because we stop looking outside of our to-do list for the day. So things that are happening around us — sometimes we miss them because we just weren’t looking.”

These men had a routine that involved eviscerating turkeys for ten hours each day. The men lived in an old schoolhouse that was converted into a communal residence. To some extent, the men were members of their small community. They frequented the local convenience store and occasionally attended church. The citizens of Atalissa came to know them and even shared a dance with one or two at the saloon on Saturday nights. But, they did not know the men entirely. In 2009, a social worker responded to a concern from the sister of one of the men after learning he had just $80 in savings after decades of “turkey-plant toil.” Over the next few days this social worker would reveal what routine had kept hidden.

Atalissa 1

The men with disabilities had been working for over 30 years for no more than $65 in monthly pay. In addition to being exploited for their labor, the men were abused at their job-site, working so hard that many developed severe arthritis from the long, grueling hours at the turkey plant. Their home was infested with mice and cockroaches, and they slept on beds stained with mold. Those tasked with “caring” for these men had no formal training and were heavy-handed in their approach. The medical needs of the men had been neglected. One man, who was believed to have been deaf for years, learned he actually could hear. His only problem was wax build-up in his ears. The men had no connections whatsoever to Iowa’s social service system. They were deprived of choice and control over their lives.

The story of these men is an extreme example, but it is a powerful reminder that routine can be dangerous. Routine contributed to these men being abused, ignored and exploited for three decades. The owners of the turkey plant established a routine of using the men for cheap labor. The citizens of Atalissa had a routine of seeing the men at church and at the convenience store, a routine that prevented them from seeing what was really going on behind those schoolhouse doors. The men, blameless of course, were coerced into this horrible routine that became normal. If responsible members of the community or the so-called caregivers had challenged the routine they wound up perpetuating, perhaps these men would not have suffered for so long.

Dan and JanetAs a Program Manager at Hammer I know routine is helpful. However, after reading this story, I find myself challenging routine, both professionally and personally. This story has motivated me to pause and assess whether the way we do things at our apartment program is driven by routine and if that routine provides the best support to those we serve.

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Perhaps the troubling story of the men of Atalissa will inspire you to be more aware of your own routine and what you see each day. You may find that someone needs your help, your advocacy or simply your friendship.