Sunday, January 24, 2010

Employment First: Full Throttle Ahead!

To my readers,

I launched this blog back in January of 2005 with a goal to contribute to a national dialogue promoting integrated employment in support of adults with disabilities. I called this blog “A New Vision” and tried to encourage people to see the employment possibilities of men and women with disabilities through a new lens. With the rapid advance of better public policies, well researched support practices, as well as my own professional experiences, I knew so much more could be done to narrow an unemployment gap that I consider to be a national disgrace.
During this time, I offered commentaries, essays, information, and importantly, real stories about people who successfully broke through the “glass ceiling” by obtaining competitive jobs customized to their individual strengths and skills. I talked frequently here about the role of public expectations and importance of work incentives to advance the employability of youth and adults with disabilities. I shared stories making the “business case” for hiring people with disabilities and how businesses who employ individuals with disabilities gain loyal and valuable employees.
I wrote about the personal stories of individuals who have shattered public myths and misconceptions about the employability of men and women with a wide array of disabilities. I tried to educate my readers about efforts being made, particularly in my own State of Minnesota, to change public expectations, promote new policies, encourage organizational change, retool our profession with new skill sets and employment approaches through training and technical assistance, and replace ineffective practices with service strategies documented to produce better employment outcome results.
After 60 consecutive months and 125 posts, I have decided that it is now time to close this blog. Why?
Well, for starters this idea that integrated employment is a “new vision” is no longer true. Proponents of supported employment, and more recently customized employment, have been promoting a new way of thinking about and delivering employment services for more than two decades. Today, we have entered a new era where it seems that everyone is talking about how to expand employment opportunities in the workforce for youth and adults with disabilities. Although the vision is no longer new, what is certainly new is a growing national interest in making something happen on a wider scale. This is welcome news!
In my 35 years of promoting supported and customized employment services, I have never witnessed such a high level of interest in advancing these options particularly in support of individuals with significant disabilities. Emerging interest in employment first and strengths-based practices is now being embraced by a cross section of stakeholders including federal, state, and local governments, secondary and post-secondary education, vocational rehabilitation, welfare and social security, consumer and disability advocacy, business, professional trade associations, and disability provider communities. And what is truly new is the high level of interest in collaborating and working together across the public and private sectors to widen opportunities.
In sum, it's no longer about the vision. Rather it’s about forging ahead with new policies and practices to make integrated employment and increased economic self-dependency a reality for all.
And so I’ve decided the blog not only needs a new brand but a brand new look. For this reason, I’ve been working on the launch of a new Blog. And I’ve entitled this one Employment First: Full Throttle Ahead!
My new blog will also feature articles, commentaries, and stories about the employment first movement and I’ll continue to report on progress my own State of Minnesota is making to double the employment rate of Minnesotans with disabilities by the year 2015. To offer an historical perspective as well as information about the Minnesota's employment first movement, I’ve taken steps to transfer a series of key articles from this blog to the new one. And I intend to continue writing articles and stories with a goal to accelerate the pace of change through rigorous discussion and coordinated action.
During the past five years. I’ve had more than 18,400 readers visit my blog from every state in the United States and 30 countries from around the world. I’ve received hundreds of emails, letters, and phone calls providing me with opportunities to exchange ideas with people I never would have met otherwise. A New Vision has been a labor of love but I’m certainly richer in my understanding about the issues impacting disability and employment because of these connections with people who hold diverse perspectives. I would take this opportunity to offer my sincere thanks to the many readers who have visited the blog over the years and have shared their views with me.
Finally, if you’re interested in visiting my new blog and bookmarking the site, you can visit at the link provided below.
Best Wishes and Full Throttle Ahead!
Don Lavin

Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Holiday Gift

I hadn’t been at the Rise holiday party for 10 minutes when Pauline Niznik, one of our employment consultants, waved to get my attention. She motioned me in the direction of a table where she was sitting with a group of individuals she is supporting in integrated employment.
Recently I had been in touch with Pauline due to a phone call I had received a couple of months ago. The call came in from a parent of someone Rise had assisted in finding a competitive job a number of years ago. According to the caller, her daughter was having problems with a newly hired supervisor at her company and there was grave concern about losing a good paying job. The caller was inquiring about the possibility of re-engaging services with Rise to help stabilize her daughter’s employment situation.
You know, I don’t handle a lot of these calls directly but I guess this was my lucky day. And so I proceeded to ask the caller some questions. Since this was a third-party call, I wanted assurances her daughter and employer knew about this call and shared an interest in receiving on-site technical assistance to resolve the problem. I then asked the caller for additional job and contact information so our staff could provide a rapid response in addressing the situation. During our conversation, I learned this individual had been working as a housekeeper at a major hotel in the Twin Cities. And here’s the kicker…she’s been working in the same housekeeping job at the same hotel for 27 years!
I guess the caller was initially hesitant about contacting Rise because she apologized for bothering me with this issue. “Apologize?” I asked her in amazement. “You’ve just informed me that someone Rise once supported with job placement services is still on the job after 27 years! And you’re telling me she’s making great money and is high on the seniority list of her company. This is the best news I’ve heard all week,” I said.
Of course, I wasn’t sure what the specific employment concerns were at the time. And I wasn’t sure if this individual was in desperate need of a job change after so many years of doing the same work. So we dispatched Pauline, one of our most experienced employment consultants, to examine the issues at hand. Pauline was authorized to work to with this individual and her employer to stabilize the present job situation. And, if necessary, she was prepared to recommend alternative arrangements to support any desired changes (i.e. explore the interest or need for job placement services).
As this story unfolds, Pauline has been working closely with the housekeeper and her employer for a couple of months now. She is helping to smooth out communications, dealing with presenting job performance issues, and coaching the new supervisor on training and support strategies. In short, Pauline is offering supported employment services to monitor the situation and delivering targeted assistance to correct identified areas of concern. And so it appears the working relationship between the housekeeper and hotel management has improved to a level of satisfaction for all parties involved.
So back to the Rise holiday party….I knew Pauline had invited this individual to the holiday party and here she is now motioning over to me so she could formally introduce us. As I reached her table, Pauline went through the social formalities. I shared my pleasure in finally getting to meet her and  congratulated the housekeeper for her long tenure on the job. I especially congratulated her for having the courage to reach out for support when she needed it most after so many years. The housekeeper expressed her gratitude and mentioned Pauline’s guidance and support has been very helpful in working through a tough patch on the job. Further she expressed optimism our services would make a difference in maintaining a job that pays her excellent wages and benefits after so many years with the same hotel chain.
I remember praising the housekeeper for her 27 years of employment and remarked how this was a clear testimony to her work ethic and dedication to her job. As she acknowledged my compliment, Pauline suddenly jumped back into our conversation.
“Hey Don, there are THREE women sitting at this table who have worked in the same job for more than 20 years.”
“Wow, really?,” I shot back in amazement.
Pauline then proceded to  introduce me to two other women sitting at the table who are working in the health care industry. One individual has worked for 29 years as a laundry aide at a local nursing home! And the other has worked as a nursing assistant and dietary aide at a health care facility for the past 23 years. Wow!
It was truly a delight meeting all of these working women and  it was the highlight of my evening. I’ve worked at Rise for 34 years now and it’s still a joy for me to hear firsthand about the job successes of people we have had the privilege to support.
On this particular evening, I learned how measured investments Rise made 23, 27, and 29 years ago were still paying dividends in the lives of people today. And if you think about it, these three women together have logged 79 years in competitive employment! After 29 years, one of them is now retiring from the labor force. And the other two women are still pursuing individual employment goals.
It’s been a couple of weeks now and I ‘m still thinking about these three working women. I was struck by the durability of their employment matches and how Rise's investment in customized and supported employment services many years ago had enriched each of their lives. Success stories like these drive home the importance of making integrated employment an accessible, attainable opportunity for all.
You know, I wasn’t really expecting to receive a gift at the Rise holiday party but Pauline Niznik gave me three. Thanks Pauline!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let It Be

Many of my regular readers know I made a professional conversion from a model of “rehabilitation” thinking and strategic practices to one of strengths-based practices many years ago. The reason is simple—strengths-based practices deliver more efficient and effective employment and community integration outcome results.
It makes no difference whether you live with disability or not, our greatest opportunities for excellence is realized by identifying and exploiting our individual strengths. I’ve learned over the years there is a fundamental truth in what author and speaker Marcus Buckingham says best: “As people get older, they really don’t change very much. Rather they become more and more of who they already are.”
Instead of trying to create fundamental changes in people through a process of “rehabilitation,” I believe we as a society will be many miles ahead by making a decision to accept people as they are and supporting them to identify, develop, use, and build upon their individual strengths, skills, and talents. In the business of disability and employment services, strengths-based practices are best engaged using strategies called discovery and customized employment.
Recently, I came across a video that emphasizes the core values of using strengths-based practices. Interestingly, this video entitled From service animal to SURFice animal deals with the subject of strengths practices through a heartwarming story about a “would be” service animal and her unique collaboration with an individual with a disability. Judy Fridono, the video's producer, said this about her epiphany in training a "service animal" named Ricochet--

“When I let go of who I wanted her to be,
And just let her “be,"
she completely flourished.
And I reveled in knowing
she’s perfect just the way she is.”

Let it be. This prophetic wisdom of a Beatle's classic applies to many lessons in life. And it holds an uncommon truth in the field of disability and employment services. People don't need to be "rehabilitated." They need to be supported in customized ways that enable them to use their individual strengths in the workforce and community.
In its simplicity, the video drives home the benefits we realize by focusing on putting talents to work. And apparently, the concept is universal. The video can be viewed by clicking on the link below. Enjoy!

From service animal to SURFice animal

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What I've Learned About Organizational Change

According to recent labor statistics produced by the Department of Labor for October, 2009, only 21.7% of Americans with disabilities are participating in the workforce in contrast to 70% of all other Americans. This wide gap is troubling and unacceptable to most fair-minded Americans. There is little question we need to work smarter and in new ways to promote principles of universal design. By this I mean investing in policies and practices that benefit all and widen access to fuller participation in the workforce.

I am Co-Director of a new project called the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI). MEPI, in concert with its many public and private organizational partners, is working to increase the employment participation rate of Minnesota with disabilities by promoting and recommending more effective policies. Also, MEPI is working closely with the Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) to infuse emerging and researched practices to drive better employment outcomes throughout the State of Minnesota. Together, MEPI and MNTAT are working to promote a bold goal—we are proposing to double the number of Minnesotans with disabilities who are participating in the workforce by the year 2015!

This goal is exciting and our challenge is formidable. As illustrated by labor statistics cited above, current policies and practices are ineffective in producing competitive employment for a majority of working age adults with disabilities. Getting better results, therefore, will mean trying out some new ideas. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo and must work smarter and harder to introduce better practices, increase choices, and widen opportunities available to people. This is especially important in our support of Minnesotans with the most significant disabilities.

In practice, this means moving incrementally away from “disability silos” and working harder to connect people with disabilities to our workforce. Our goal is to encourage secondary and post-secondary education, workforce, employment, and disability service systems in Minnesota to move measurably in new directions to increase integrated employment outcomes over the next five years.

For most public and private organizations supporting individuals with significant disabilities, this means engaging person-centered approaches designed to identify individual talents and strengths. Also, it means identifying ideal conditions of employment for each job seeker and negotiating jobs with employers based on opportunities presented by these strengths. It means being a vigilant steward of financial resources and investing them in ways to obtain the best results possible. And finally, it means investing efforts and resources in public education and key partnerships most critical to attaining real change (i.e., working with business leaders, families, educators, policymakers, and others).

A couple of months ago, someone asked me about what I consider to be the most important factors to successful organizational change. There are many ingredients that contribute to successful change, but a few overlapping issues are absolutely essential. And they all must be present to drive any sustainable, measurable systems change over time.

So here’s what I’ve learned. First, I’ve learned success is intentional. It happens because we plan for it and work incrementally and with discipline to attain it.

Second, I’ve learned that living with a disability is not a tragedy but rather a naturally occurring human condition. And people with disabilities can certainly live full, satisfying lives that includes work when we change our expectations, use strengths-based employment strategies, identify the ideal conditions for customized employment, and deliver the job supports people need to reach their goals.

The third thing I’ve learned is leadership matters. Without a strong articulated vision and engagement by the highest levels of an organization, the necessary improvements are difficult at best and often impossible to achieve. Weak leadership will not get the job done no matter how excited an organization’s staff or key constituents are about change. For this reason, we need to invest considerably more time and resources in developing our next generation of leaders.

Although leadership is fundamental to making successful changes it does little good to have a strong leader and 99 followers in an organization employing 100 people. The most successful organizations have many leaders who are willing to work together and unselfishly to achieve goals much larger than themselves. In other words, leadership is both encouraged and abundant in organizations that have a strong culture for learning and pursuit of excellence.

The fourth most important I’ve learned is this-- real and enduring success is about developing and nurturing a strong corporate culture of change. This means empowering people with a purpose, goals, policies, knowledge, information, tools, and resources needed to get things done effectively and efficiently. As Michael Lacey, CEO of the Twin Cities Company Digineer, once said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

What Lacey is saying is strategy sometimes has the shelf life of bread. Strategy is continually reshaped by changes in customer demands, new and emerging ideas, development of new technologies, economic conditions, markeplace competition, and so forth. A healthy corporate culture needs to be vigilant to excellence and not embrace the latest idea dominating the marketplace. Furthermore, strategy is sometimes dimmed by a resistive or apathetic corporate culture where “buy in” is weak. Strategy demands a fertile corporate culture where it is nourished and executed with skill and passion.

An ideal corporate culture is one where everyone belongs and shares in a common bond and vision, has high clarity in its goals, is committed to excellence, is not bound by tradition but sanctioned to be creative, is self-directed in choosing its strategies, has adequate fiscal resources and expertise to achieve its goals, agrees to a division of labor to achieve measurable, well-defined outcomes, and shares collectively in the ultimate rewards of success.

Needless to say, corporate cultures are highly dynamic in nature and sensitive to internal and external influences, changes, and factors over time. For this reason, a healthy corporate culture requires attentive leadership and an ongoing process for renewal and self-improvement to sustain high performance over time.

To summarize, success is intentional and requires a good workplan. A majority of people with disabilities can work and be integrated into the competitive labor force when jobs are crafted around their signature strengths and responsive supports are actively engaged. Leadership matters and is critical to establishing a vision and plan for real organizational change. Finally, a forward thinking, engaged corporate culture is a critical ingredient to making successful, sustainable changes in both service directions and outcomes. When these core factors are in place, real organizational change tends to take care of itself.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


It’s one of the most intriguing words in the English language. It forces a person to drill down deeper. It makes us work and think a little harder to discover, or perhaps to uncover, an underlying rationale for the human condition and its connecting circumstances.

While attending the annual National APSE Conference in Milwaukee this past July, I had an interesting conversation with Dr. David Mank from Indiana University. Our conversation has stuck with me many weeks later. Dr. Mank said this: “Why won't people honor their commitment to the vision?”

What Dr. Mank was sharing is our lack of integrity in transforming the vision of a free, productive, and contributing life to all Americans including citizens with significant disabilities. He shared with me his frustration about the need for debate. Why do we lack the commitment to make necessary changes in policies and practices that are well documented to improve employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities?

I didn’t have a good answer for Dr. Mank. And in all honesty, I don’t understand it either.

A little more than a month ago, I had the opportunity to listen to another colleague of mine speak on the topic of “true inclusion.” Jim Meehan is Executive Director of KFI, Inc., an organization that supports individuals with significant disabilities in obtaining integrated employment in a rural region of Maine. Under Jim's leadership, KFI has undergone extensive reorganization of its programs and practices in favor of integrated employment. For this reason, he was recruited by the State of Wisconsin to serve as a peer mentor for its Rebalancing Initiative, a statewide project designed to shift the organizational emphasis of 10 community rehabilitation programs (CRPs) to integrated employment practices and outcomes.

At this gathering with Wisconsin CRPs, Jim was asked to share his experiences and facilitate a group discussion about true community integration. Jim began his presentation introducing a quote by Al Robichaud, Executive Director for the State of New Hampshire’s Developmental Disabilities Council. As I understand it, Robichaud once advanced this fundamental question—

“Why do we try to re-create what already exists in the community?”

And Robichaud built upon this rhetorical question with yet another provocative inquiry--

If it does not exist in the community, and it’s a good idea (a real need), then why not join with others to create it for the entire community?

Imagine that! Planning a community and workforce without the need for disability silos, just supports.

Jim Meehan went on to describe how KFI has created opportunities for true inclusion for its participants in the workforce and local communities. It was wonderful and convincing presentation. He shared personal stories about creating meaningful, integrated social and economic roles for individuals with disabilities. And he shared with us how an entire community benefits when it is done well.

According to recent statistics provided by the federal Department of Labor for August, 2009, 22.2% of Americans with disabilities were working in the labor force. Yes, that’s correct! Only a little more than 2 out of the 10 Americans with disabilities are working and contributing to their self-support. So this brings me back to the “why’s”—

  • Why is there such a lack of urgency in dealing with this national problem?
  • Why aren’t we demanding and implementing public policies to encourage and reward the goal of integrated employment for all?
  • Why can’t we see “disability” for what it truly is?—a naturally occurring and manageable human condition for most individuals, not a tragedy.
  • Why do we invest most of our public resources in programs and services that deliver outcomes we want the least?
  • Why do we say we value individualized, person-centered outcomes and then limit choices by offering people what we have available?
  • Why aren’t we infusing strengths-based practices that deliver the best possibilities for obtaining integrated employment and competitive wage outcomes?
  • Why aren’t we retraining and changing the roles of educators and adult service professionals to use and build upon these practices regularly?
  • Why is it that businesses and industries are not leading our cause and making the business case for hiring workers who are available and want to contribute their skills and talents?
  • Why aren’t more people with disabilities and family members demanding integrated employment opportunities from the education and adult service systems supporting them?
  • Why isn’t there greater accountability in expanding and widening integrated employment results in support of youth and adults with disabilities across educational, workforce, and adult service systems?
  • Why isn’t there a public "call to action" to use principles of universal design—in other words to use environments and practices that welcome and benefit everyone?

As I drill down deeper and think about these fundamental questions, I am inevitably returned to Dr. Mank’s comment—“Why won't people honor their commitment to the vision?”

As I look around at what we know and what is possible today, it leads me to this conclusion--it’s not only about learning and incorporating new tricks, it’s also about unlearning and being willing to leave some old ideas behind us. When I think about all of these “why” questions in the context of bringing strengths-based employment into the lives of people, it leads me to the biggest "why" question of all—

Why not?!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Whack on the Side of the Head

To my readers, please take a careful look at the chart I’ve attached at the beginning of this article. I will wait for you at the next paragraph, OK? If you would like to enlarge the chart for ease of reading, click on it twice.

OK, are you back with me now? Great! This chart was developed by a colleague of mine named Alyssa Klein. Alyssa is a progressive employee of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS), and she works for a statewide project called Pathways to Employment (PTE). PTE is Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (MIG) funded by the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) and a state interagency initiative of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and DEED. My colleague, Alyssa Klein, is a specialist who works in the focus area of school-to-career transition and she’s leading the way on incorporating universal design service delivery principles and practices in support of youth with disabilities and in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system(MnSCU).

Let me begin by sharing that Alyssa and I have been working on a couple of committees together. These committees are examining more effective ways to increase the competitive employment of Minnesotans with disabilities by promoting statewide systems policy changes and fostering the use of universal design principles. For our purposes here, universal design means opening up access to secondary and post-secondary education, workforce, and communities in ways that benefit everyone. For example, this could include contextual, work-based learning and engaging the natural supports of businesses to increase the job skills and employment of individuals with disabilities. Or it could mean incorporating inclusive learning strategies in secondary and post-secondary education to promote the career education of unique learners. The overarching goal of universal design is building the capacities of our communities in ways that benefit and welcome the participation of all.

Well recently, I was at a meeting with Alyssa when she distributed and shared this “Preparing for a Career” document I’ve asked you to look at. This one page chart is a concise, straightforward description of supports being offered by local educators and adult service providers to increase the competitive employment of youth and young adults with disabilities. These career supports are on the radar in a geographic area where my organization operates its employment services for job seekers and businesses.

Well, my “whack on the side of the head” came without warning. And it clarified my thinking a great deal. You know, we tend to make things complicated and convoluted in the community rehabilitation field. As I looked at the Preparing for Careers chart, I was struck by the simplicity of its presentation. First of all, Alyssa used ordinary, everyday language. If you noticed, there’s no mention about disabilities or any notion about needing “rehabilitation.” No references are made to “disability silos” or promoting vocational evaluation, work adjustment training, extended (sheltered) employment, or non-work day habilitation services customarily marketed to transition-age youth with disabilities and their families.

Instead Alyssa intentionally used everyday language and graphics with clearly defined steps that can be applied to the transition and career planning needs of any youth. If you examined the document carefully, you may have noticed it does not map out a “model of program services” but rather offers a blueprint for thinking about career possibilities. The chart walks youth through a few simple, logical steps so they can thoughtfully consider and weigh their future career options. Finally, the communication piece nudges youth to consider a full range of possibilities for moving forward with their careers and taking actionable steps with guided support from family members, educators, workforce representatives, and other community support systems.

You know, I thought Alyssa’s chart was a refreshing way to connect youth with career exploration and planning opportunities and to do so in a far less invasive manner than traditional approaches. The truth is this—when given a choice, most youth with disabilities and their families prefer accessing community and business-based supports over enrollment in rehabilitation programs. Many are just plain tired of being assessed, evaluated, work adjusted, and behavior-managed in programs designed for people with disabilities. As transition-age youth begin to take those initial steps into adulthood, they are searching for ideal employment conditions and the job supports they need to develop and use their talents in the workforce. Therefore, in my view, this is a healthier way to be thinking and communicating about the supports many youth will need to map out their career planning goals and advance their post-secondary education and/or employability plans.

In the past year, Alyssa Klein convened a Community Action Team (CAT) in Anoka County to increase focus on improving school-to-career transition services in our community. She is challenging a diverse group of educators and adult service professionals to consider investing resources in new ways and implementing innovations to reshape the delivery of career discovery and workforce development strategies for youth and young adults with disabilities. Our CAT is responding with creative ideas and building multiple pathways into the workforce in support of transition-age youth.

For example, the team has supported the running of Camps to Careers to expose youth to high growth employment opportunities in the workforce. And new discussions are underway to rebuild career discovery and exploration experiences for youth living in these communities through additional career camps and access to trial work experiences, on-the-job evaluations, informational interviews, business and college tours, business mentoring, job shadowing experiences, and other strategies.

Anoka County’s CAT is working to build additional career development opportunities through supported education concepts and customized training strategies in partnership with local colleges. Also, the CAT is working to build bridges with local business leaders by engaging contextualized, work-based learning, on-the-job training programs featuring stackable skills credentialing, and job skills apprenticeships and internships with employers taking the job training lead.

Finally, Anoka County’s CAT is working to expand youth access to customized employment assistance. Traditional job placement practices tend to focus energies on matching job seekers to vacancies in the workforce based on individual job qualifications such as education, training experiences, and past work history. For this reason, traditional job placement methods tend to be successful with only 30-35% of youth and adults with disabilities. National employment data documents these practices are not particularly effective in obtaining jobs for individuals with the most significant disabilities.

Customized employment, however, offers greater promise because it focuses on developing, negotiating, and if necessary, creating jobs to fit the interests, skills, and strengths of job seekers. Customized employment is a completely voluntary, non-comparative job development process where tasks are negotiated and crafted in ways to fit the skills of an individual worker. In other words, customized employment changes the playing field by emphasizing new policies and using practices and strategies that focus on individual strengths.

To illustrate, customized employment practices might include the carving of job tasks to fit the interests and skills of a job seeker. It could include job creation promoting value added services and economies to a company’s services or manufacturing operations. Also, it could include the launch of self-employment initiatives or microenterprises allowing for increased flexibility and customization of tasks or supports needed by the worker. In addition, it could include: (1) individual resource ownership (purchasing equipment or new resources that open job opportunities and add economic value to a company’s bottom line); or (2) incorporating a business within a business economic development strategy.

I am certain about this--the future is looking brighter for youth living in Anoka County. And I'm excited to be a member of the local CAT that is working hard to make fundamental changes in our school-to-career strategies. This local partnership is giving true meaning to Minnesota’s adopted value proposition “We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.”

Thanks Alyssa for all you do!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wow! Thanks.

When I started A New Vision more than three years ago, I had a simple goal. I wanted to encourage, educate, and support various constituents. I wanted for people to consider the full range of possibilities as well as importance of connecting people with significant disabilities to integrated employment so they can use their talents and contribute to their self-reliance. Recently reported statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate only 24% of adults with disabilities are active in the workforce. So the challenges are indeed formidible. Yet the goal is unquestionably attainable.

Maintaining this blog has required a commitment of time but it has been rewarding. I've had communication from people all across the world who agree with me about a fundamental premise: “We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.” And I am pleased to say I hear directly from many people with disabilities as well as family members who want to share their stories with me about their personal journeys and struggles to secure competitive employment.

I tend to hear a lot from family members of loved ones who are navigating around the barriers of low expectations and prejudice along with their loved ones. And it's quite common to hear from parents who are frustrated by out of date public policies and unreponsive service systems that either ignore or compromise on the promise of full workforce integration and participation. I try to listen and be helpful to the extent that I can.

This past week, I was honored and humbled to hear that A New Vision was selected as one of the Best 100 Blogs for Homeschooling Moms. My blog was selected under the area of “Tips and Advice for Homeschooling Kids with Special Needs.” Very cool.

I appreciate this honor and my thanks to the folks behind Online Education.Net for the selection. You’ve encouraged me to continue my writing and and encouraging families who struggle daily with workforce barriers of their loved ones.
Once again, my sincere thanks.

Monday, August 24, 2009

MNTAT: Tackling Minnesota's T&TA Needs

Back in November of 2007, the Minnesota Employment First Coalition convened the first of its annual summits with more than 120 invited stakeholders inside our state. The first summit was a new beginning and important revitalization of a lost focus among Minnesota’s employment first champions. In my view, this energy slowly evaporated after the sunset of the Minnesota Supported Employment Project (MNSEP), a five-year, state systems change grant that concluded its run in the late 1980s. Approximately 20 years later, attendees of the employment first summit vowed to recommit their time and energy to pursue the original dream—to open and widen opportunities in the workforce for anyone who would like to work including adults with significant disabilities.

The summit in 2007 resulted in the writing of a consensus report also known as the Minnesota Employment First Manifesto. Our Coalition referred to this document as its Employment First "Manifesto” because the consensus report was a public declaration of our shared principles and intent to act on them. The Employment First Manifesto articulated a blueprint for the future and detailed eight specific recommendations to move Minnesota in the direction of an employment first vision.

Since 2007, the Minnesota Employment First Coalition has been working actively with state and county agencies, business leaders, educators, self-advocates, employment service providers, and other community groups to pursue tangible systems changes based on these recommendations flowing from the original summit. A progress report concerning Minnesota’s employment first performance was issued following the second employment summit held in December of 2008. The second Minnesota Employment First Summit Consensus Report, also known as “The Scorecard,” measures specific progress made within our state with respect to core recommendations voiced by attendees during Summit I. Minnesota's Scorecard can be downloaded for review at this link.

In January of this year, the State of Minnesota took an important step to correct a critical systems weakness cited by attendees at the original summit. There was a unanimous concern about Minnesota's need to develop a training and technical assistance (T&TA) entity to support the leadership, management, and direct service staff of secondary and post-secondary education programs as well as disability, business, and employment provider communities. It was strongly recommended this publically funded T&TA resource be grounded in employment first principles and promote evidence-based, researched practices that will lead to successful employment outcomes in Minnesota's workforce.

The State of Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (MIG) called Pathways to Employment (PTE) issued a request for proposals (RFP) to create such a center and support the varied T&TA needs of organizations, businesses, and practitioners in our state. Following a competitive grant review process, PTE awarded a state contract to Griffin-Hammis Associates, LLC, a nationally recognized consultancy firm with a strong reputation in the areas of customized employment, job creation and job site training, employer development, Social Security benefit analysis and work incentives, self-employment, management leadership, mentoring, and social entrepreneurship. Griffin-Hammis Associates had worked closely with Minnesota APSE’s leadership to craft a proposal responsive to the state’s T&TA service needs as articulated in the Employment First Manifesto.

In April of 2009, the Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) was officially launched and Griffin-Hammis hired my colleague Bob Niemiec as its Director. Bob is an excellent choice to lead MNTAT. He has more than 25 years of professional experience in the field of disability and employment and has served a senior manager, direct service professional, consultant, trainer, mentor, and adviser. Bob is a former President of National APSE as well as Minnesota APSE and a founding member of the Minnesota Employment First Coalition. In sum, Bob is an employment activist uniquely qualified to direct MNTAT and provide the kind of leadership we need to advance emerging service practices in Minnesota.

By its design, MNTAT is a cross-disability initiative with a wide geographic reach that includes urban, suburban, and rural locations of Minnesota. The Center will use a variety of formats and media to respond to T&TA requests throughout the state. This includes the use of web-based training (webinars and webcasts); local and regional training events in collaboration with Minnesota APSE, and co-hosting an annual statewide disability employment conference with MEPI, the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative, a newly funded project managed by Minnesota APSE.
MNTAT will work closely and collaboratively with MEPI to insure an alignment of planned T&TA activities with policy listening sessions to be conducted with constituencies throughout Minnesota. The leadership and staff of MNTAT and MEPI are meeting regularly to share expertise, integrate project objectives, build cooperation, and foster synergy between the two newly funded projects.

In addition, MNTAT’s workplan will feature the development and support of five local Community Action Teams (CATs). The CATs will feature interagency, collaborative approaches to addressing the employment and workforce development needs of job seekers with disabilities within local or regional communities. The CATs will be supported by MNTAT with T&TA and will work to achieve measurable customized employment outcomes and systems change objectives in their respective communities. Finally, the CATS will serve as employment demonstration sites where employment first principles and customized employment practices are showcased, documented, shared, and replicated to expand opportunities throughout Minnesota.

MNTAT recently created a new website that will serve as its public portal to T&TA information, a calendar of scheduled events and activities, employment success stories, and a virtual library of resources accessible to the Center’s varied customers. To learn more about MNTAT and its project objectives, you can visit the Center's website here...MNTAT

This past year, an Employment Leadership Innovations Institute comprised of state and community leaders crafted a value proposition for Minnesota. The value proposition says this—‘We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.” The creation of MNTAT is another critical step in transforming Minnesota’s workforce development system so all of its citizens will have opportunities to contribute their talents and skills. The launch of MNTAT will reinforce the idea that all Minnesotans can be economic assets when they play to their strengths. To this end, MNTAT will support educators, business leaders, self-advocates, family members, employment providers, county case managers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and others with the critical T&TA they need to encourage and produce high quality employment outcomes in the workforce…one person at a time.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Establishing a National Employment First Agenda

Recently, National APSE released a white paper promoting and supporting the Employment First movement in the United States. Entitled Establishing a National Employment First Agenda, the white paper identifies key principles and issues behind launching and sustaining a successful collaborative initiative at the state or local level. I was given the opportunity to contribute to the writing of this white paper along with my colleagues, Bob Niemiec, Director of the Minnesota Employment Training & Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) and Dr. Laura Owens, Executive Director of National APSE. The early response to the release of the paper has been excellent. If you are interested in reading or downloading it, you can obtain a copy as this link: Establishing a National Employment First Agenda.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative

What is your next bold move?

This was one of the core questions posed to APSE members at a community organizing session held at the National APSE Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 7-2-09. The purpose of this session was to motivate APSE members into action in their communities and encourage the formation of partnerships and launch of policies, practices, and energies critical to improving integrated employment for Americans with disabilities.

I am a board member of Minnesota APSE and our organization is poised to take on its next bold move. The State of Minnesota recently announced approval of a grant application from APSE to manage the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI or referred to hereinafter as The Initiative).

The purpose of the Initiative is to develop leadership and dialogue facilitation around disability and employment policy that will result in the increased employment of Minnesotans with disabilities in the competitive labor force and promote Minnesota’s value proposition: “We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.” Employment is fundamental to adulthood, quality of life issues, and earning the means to exercise basic freedoms and choices as citizens. The Initiative will implement an ambitious workplan to build multiple pathways into the workforce for youth and adults with disabilities who want to work.

The Initiative will work with numerous stakeholder partners to align policies, services, and practices to ensure that integrated competitive employment is widely recognized and routinely promoted as the preferred outcome of all Minnesotans with disabilities. Stakeholder partners will include business, government, education, disability advocacy organizations, employment service providers, community support agencies, self-advocates and their families. In addition, the Initiative will work in close collaboration with the recently funded Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) to maximize the impact of employment policy and practice across Minnesota.

APSE, in conjunction with its state chapter Minnesota APSE, provides leadership for this Initiative bringing more than 20 years of experience and knowledge in the area of employment policy through its proven record of advocacy and education on the value of integrated employment and improved employment practices. Among the activities planned by MEPI for the two year funding period are:

  • Develop a joint website in conjunction with MNTAT
  • Develop a policy component for an annual employment conference planned and run with MNTAT
  • Write and disseminate policy briefs and issue papers based on 15 topical policy listening sessions designed to gather input and build consensus from stakeholder groups on policy changes needed to increase and improve employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities (this includes five sessions in conjunction with MNTAT Development Sites)
  • Support four mini-summits hosted by business leaders to champion increased integrated employment opportunities in the workforce
  • Develop and update a scorecard highlighting progress in advancing employment policies and practices in Minnesota
  • Make recommendations toward the development of a uniform definition of employment and uniform data management practices across state agencies
  • Collaborate with the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and other state agencies to provide information on developing employment policies and practices that will lead to increased opportunities and pathways into the workforce by all Minnesotans who want to work
  • Strengthen and build new alliances to enlarge the circle of employment champions
  • Integrate systems change policy initiatives across federal, state and local agencies.

The following people will serve as the leadership team for MEPI:

Carol Rydell will serve as MEPI’s Project Manager. Carol has over 30 years of experience working toward inclusion for individuals with disabilities and has managed innovative projects at Kaposia for over fourteen years. She has developed a student-run business with secondary education students with disabilities, a welfare-to-work service, a customized employment service for Latinos with disabilities and has worked with local government and community organizations to maximize employment opportunities for women, minorities and people with disabilities. She also has experience as a consultant, advocate and teacher and is a trained facilitator and strategic planner.

Contact information: Carol Rydell, Kaposia, Inc., 380 E. Lafayette Freeway South, St. Paul, MN 55107, 651-789-2815,

Jon Alexander will serve as Co-Director of MEPI. Jon is Chief Executive Officer of Kaposia where he has worked since 1998. He is a nationally recognized leader in the development and expansion of customized employment services. He has been on the national board of APSE since 2005 and is currently its treasurer. He is a founding member of the Minnesota Employment First Coalition.

Contact information: Jon Alexander, Kaposia, Inc., 380 E. Lafayette Freeway South, St. Paul, MN 55107, 651-789-2817,

Don Lavin will serve as Co-Director of MEPI. Don is Vice-President of Rise where he has worked since 1976. He supervises the planning, development, operations, and evaluation of supported and customized employment programs for youth and adults with a wide range of disabilities and other barriers. Lavin has a 34 year track record as a grant writer and strategist and is the author of eight books on competitive and supported employment practices. He is a national speaker, mentor, trainer and technical assistance advisor. He is also a founding member of the Minnesota Employment First Coalition.

Contact information: Don Lavin, Rise, Inc., 8406 Sunset Road Northeast, Spring Lake Park, MN 55432, 763-783-2815,

Laura Owens is the Executive Director of APSE, a national membership organization with a mission to lead in the advancement of equitable employment for people with disabilities. APSE provides advocacy and education on the value of integrated employment, improves practices to promote integrated employment and promotes national, local and state policy development to enhance the social and economic inclusion and empowerment of individuals with disabilities. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Director/Founder of Creative Employment Opportunities, Inc., an employment agency for individuals with disabilities.

Contact Information: Laura Owens, APSE, 451 Hungerford Drive, #700, Rockville, MD 20850, 414-581-3032,

MEPI is funded with support from a Competitive Employment Systems-Medicaid Infrastructure Grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to Minnesota’s Department of Human Services (Grant #1QACMS030325). The funds for this grant were authorized through the Ticket to Work-Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-170). Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance 93768.