Q & A with ‘A Whole Lott More’ Director Victor Buhler and former Lott Industries president Joan Browne

By Louis Thomas

In the recent poor economic situation and the globalization of many industries traditionally done inside of the United States, many of the smaller companies that supported the large manufacturers are facing serious problems. Throughout the Rust Belt, an area straddling the Midwestern and Northeastern United States, many of these businesses are finding themselves, and their workforce, without the contracts that they depended upon to survive. One such company, and the focus of this documentary, was Lott Industries.

Starting in the 1950s as a means to educate children with a developmental disability and to help young adults learn job skills, it grew to include several facilities that employ 1200 workers with developmental disabilities. Finding the auto industry contracts stopping, the company has twelve months to reinvent itself. A Whole Lott More tells the story of those struggles to fix a previously working model into something new through the eyes of President Joan Browne and employees Kevin, Wanda and T.J.

The film offers a unique perspective on the changing economic situation and the difficulties those with developmental disabilities have finding employment. For them it is far more than just a paycheck, but a lifeline to the simple dignity and self worth so many others take for granted. Far too often, the stigma of developmental disabilities by employers acts as a very real barrier to the self sufficiency they are seeking. It is at the heart of the film this struggle lies, and the candor and dignity with which it is spoken about.

After a recent screening, I had a chance to sit down with director Victor Buhler and former Lott Industries President Joan Browne.

Q: Why were you interested in making this particular film and how did you learn about Lott Industries?

VB: I was in a car accident and on crutches for what ended up being close to two years and during the process of being incapacitated, it gave me a sure real window of how people with physical disabilities have to live. And so, from an extension of that I kind of researched life with, well, just basic employment conditions living with disabilities. And then I saw an article about Lott Industries and read about this particular place in Toledo, Ohio that employed specifically people with intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities from the community in the area. I was very curious about going there and even though I was four thousand miles away, I got on a plane and decided to check it out.

Q: Why do you think this was an important story to tell?

VB: Well, I liked the fact that the employees of Lott really wanted to work. They were so focused on working and that’s what they wanted to do. It was a way to tell a story about the economy for me from a position I hadn’t quite thought of at that point. The economy effected people in many ways; they were very vulnerable within the economy, whose jobs were really at stake. These jobs meant even more than a paycheck. In that way, the stakes were very high. So that was already appealing to me as a story.

JB: If you really looked, our mission was to provide work opportunities and training. But the mission was really bigger, just making people aware that they were capable of doing the work and wanted to do the work. We knew from the get-go this was not to promote Lott, it wasn’t going to get us jobs. I think other people were hoping that would happen, but I knew that wasn’t what it was. But I thought even that we ended up in the Wall Street Journal was amazing, and we were on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. So, to be able to tell that story was important.

Q: How did working with those with a developmental disability differ from those without?

VB: There is a lot less drama with those with developmental disabilities than those without developmental disabilities. Not that there is no drama, don’t get me wrong. I found, I don’t think there is much of a difference. I’ve made other films, I made a film about playing soccer in Africa. I wouldn’t say necessarily the experience of meeting a soccer player in Africa is very different, it’s just different people, really.  So I, don’t think there is a specific impact, I would certainly see different aspects of their life. When I learn about how lonely TJ is and how much a strain it can be. That affected me and like wow, that is really a problem and I wish there was a solution to it. That kind of thing. Watching how hard it was for Kevin, who is a very capable person, to get a job in the community. That shocked me. So there were moments where I discovered what their stories were, the things I learnt. But, in terms of actually taking on board damaged people who come to excuse it, that was never, it never really crossed my mind.

JB: I think that’s the beauty of Victor, is that he saw them as people. And I think that comes clear, and it’s very clear in the movie. I think TJ now thinks of Victor as his best friend. But yea, I’m going to speak for you, but Victor learned sign language, and click to communicate, and you know, he rode the bus with TJ and he went to ballgames with TJ. I mean he really immersed himself in their lives. I think he just sees them all as friends.

VB: I do. Unfortunately, I wish I didn’t have that role in TJ’s life. I’m not there and he deserves to have friends close at hand. And yes, you get very close and become bonded with them. It’s a strange equation. And even here, we are sitting here, we’ve been through a lot together, even Joan. I never imagined putting Joan in the film when I first arrived.

JB: That was not supposed to be part of the deal.

VB: But then I realized, that the story of how Lott needed to adapt had to include Joan because the people in the work corps, even though they were involved, ultimately they weren’t the agents, the true agents of getting things done.

Q: What impact would you like to see the film have?

JB: First of all, the very basic impact is to try to expand people’s consciousness of this role, so there are more work opportunities for people with developmental disabilities on the very basic level. On a secondary level, I hope that the theme of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship extends in a much more dramatic and wide fashion so that people will consider the idea of business opportunities and social services. I think they need to happen together. And I don’t think, unfortunately, I think the social services sector is often ignorant of the business world and I find the business world is often ignorant of the social services sector. So I think those two, in order for this kind of world we live in, those two really need to walk step in step for progress.

Q: There is something to be said for having people with recognized disabilities work in the community versus having them, in one particular workplace which arguably could be seen as segregating them. And keeping them outside the community, thus maintaining that kind of invisible aspect. Could I get both of you to comment on it?

VB: Well, it’s a big, big topic and obviously something we were conscious of all way through and it’s a big topic in the disability community as well. That idea of a segregated workplace. And clearly there are many instances of segregated workshops that are not only segregated, which is a problem, but also don’t pay their workers enough money. So, there are a lot of legitimate criticisms to be had, and I think that’s important. I think the ideal is definitely what Kevin goes through. Kevin ends up with a job in the community. But, I will say this, when I spoke to TJ, and to Wanda, they were very happy working at the place they were working, when they were making money. And I think money plays a big part, so, I think there are a lot of issues that I hope the film will stir up some debate about it. It’s almost unanswerable in the short period of time, but I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind.

JB: We did everything. We had, I don’t even like to call it a production facility, and we expected people to work and we paid minimum wage. We tried to pay minimum wage as often as we could. Sometimes we paid piece rate which was based on a higher average wage in the whole community. So we did one or the other, but all the job coaching and those services you saw also came from Lott, from my organization. So, we had programs working with individuals coming from High School that transitioned High School into the work force, we did community placement that we also had the work for. You know, you have to remember some of these individuals have been there 25-30 years. So they really, they did not want to go into the community nor did their family members. They were worried about them going into the community. So I guess my personal opinion, is, that you need the whole range of services. What’s right for one is not right for another. And so what we were trying to do was find the absolute, most meaningful work. We also did micro-enterprise where we helped people start their own businesses and we started a beautiful art studio and had some wonderful artists. What we were trying to do was get away from the typical but they were talking about the typical working with widgets. You know, we did things like, the document and image scanning, we made bio-preferred cleaning products. We were really trying to not do what was considered the traditional workshop work. I agree with Victor, there are some workshops that are not the best. We certainly tried to provide meaningful work… and anyhow, you are right, it’s too long to get into.

Powerful and moving, it affects everyone who has seen it. The work Lott Industries was once doing, the programs it provided, were, and are, essential to the community in Toledo, though could be applied anywhere. A marriage of social services and business may very well be the idea that begins to properly integrate communities and remove barriers. As of this writing, the film does not have distribution.