Sunday, February 20, 2005

A Lesson Learned in the Field

A short time ago, one of my agency’s most skilled and tenured staff, Mary Lu Peters, told me a story that I believe is both instructive and worthy of sharing with others.
Mary Lu is an employment specialist who delivers customized job support to individuals with developmental disabilities working in integrated, supported employment positions in the Twin Cities’ job market. On this particular day, Mary Lu was scheduled to deliver job follow-up services in support of Susan, a middle-aged woman with significant developmental disabilities.
Before I share my story, first a little background about Susan. She was born with Down Syndrome and was raised by two deaf parents. After graduating from a special education program, Susan spent several years in a center-based, day training and habilitation (DT&H) program for adults with developmental disabilities. It was fortuitous for Susan that she was supported by a team of professionals and family with a progressive vision. Despite her cognitive disabilities, Susan’s team observed talents that had potential for marketing to local employers.
After years of participation in a center-based DT&H program, and then working within a structured group arrangement in the community, Susan was placed into an integrated job at a large supermarket. Through careful negotiation with her employer, Susan’s job duties were customized to match her abilities. She is employed by the store’s customer service department and performs a wide variety of important duties such as stocking and facing shelves with products, sweeping, dusting, cleaning glass doors in the freezer section, bagging groceries, and other similar tasks. Susan earns $6.65 per hour, works 25-30 hours each week, and is a card carrying member of the Amalgamated Meat Cutter’s Union!
OK, back to my main story here. On this particular day, Mary Lu arrived at the store for a scheduled job follow-up visit. Upon her arrival, she experienced an employment specialist’s greatest nightmare. In Mary Lu’s own words:
"From a distance, I noticed that Susan and her supervisor Patty, were having a very serious discussion outside of public view in the corner of the store. It was obvious to me that Patty was not happy about something by her body language. Instinctively, I rushed over to the two parties to see if I could intervene and be of some help in resolving whatever the problem was. As I approached them, Patty raised her hand high in my direction and said to me:
Stop! You will have to wait. Susan and I are having a conversation here. Susan is our employee and I am her supervisor and WE are going to work this out."
Sheepishly, Mary Lu walked away allowing Patty and Susan to finish their discussion. A few minutes later, Patty walked over to Mary Lu and said: "OK, we have this settled." At this point, Mary Lu was allowed to continue with her scheduled visit.
After Mary Lu shared this story with me, I told her that I cannot think of a higher compliment concerning the quality of her work. In this instance, it was clear that Patty felt very comfortable acting without the "expert" advice or technical support of an outsider. And this should always be our goal.
I am always looking for teachable moments from the field and this was indeed one of them. The lesson learned is this: Sometimes we try much too hard and we do not let the natural, internal processes of a business take over so people can assume their rightful role as supervisors and employers.
Skilled employment specialists recognize that employers ought to be the principal target of their training and technical support services. Of course, this does not mean that we never offer services directly to an employee with a disability who is working in a community job. It simply means that we must work harder to build the internal capacities of businesses and systemically reduce the dependency of employers and their employees with disabilities on our expertise. In my view, program excellence means achieving internal, natural job support for as many people as we can whenever and wherever possible.
If employment integration is truly our goal, then we need more skilled practitioners with a progressive vision. We need professionals who are always thinking and working in terms of the desired end game. To be sure, we need more employment specialists like Mary Lu who have uncommon wisdom and recognize the fidelity in using a business-based approach. Mary Lu Peters is a quiet and unassuming champion of this kind of vision and I am proud to call her my colleague.

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