Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Wake up and smell the coffee!

I stood there at the kiosk and ordered my cup of cappuccino. The young lady taking my order had no idea who I was. "You are Madison, I said to her." She looked at me amazed and said, "Yes I am, do I know you?" I answered, "Well no, but I do know about you. I have talked to a lot of people around the country about you and what you are doing here at River City Express. I have seen pictures of you training at Brick House Deli getting ready to run the show here."
She gave me an inquisitive nod still wondering who in heck I was. "I'm Don Lavin," I said. "I work at Rise, Incorporated with Joan Distler."
Joan Distler is the program manager of a federally-funded Transition and Customized Employment Program for youth and young adults with disabilities. "Madison, I helped to write the grant proposal that funded River City Express."
"Oh!" said Madison. She proceeded with filling my cappuccino order. I asked Madison when Joan would be in and she indicated that she would be stopping by about 10:00 am. It was only 9:30 am and I had a little time to kill so I thought I would use it productively by getting to know this young entrepreneur.
Madison is one of six students with significant disabilities who are learning business management skills. All six students have been training to become co-owners of an employee-owned and operated food service business. River City Express (RCE) is located in the Anoka County government building in Anoka, Minnesota and will provide gourmet coffee drinks, muffins, scones, cookies, freshly made deli sandwiches, hot soups, and snacks for 960 County government employees as well as guests who visit the building each business day.
RCE is an initiative developed collaboratively by the Anoka County Workforce Center, six Anoka County school districts, and Rise, Incorporated, a private, not-for-profit, customized employment provider. Our interagency project is field-testing the strategy of customizing employment, vocational training, and post-secondary education opportunities for youth and young adults who are typically underrepresented in the community labor market and career education system.
Customized employment means individualizing the relationship between employees and employers in ways that meet the needs of both. It is based on an individual determination of the strengths, needs, and interests of the person with a disability, and is also designed to meet specific economic needs of an employer.
Madison prepared and served my cappuccino. I paid the bill and we had a chance to chat since there were no other customers waiting in line. I asked Madison about the concept of working for RCE and she shared her enthusiasm with becoming a business owner and participating in an entrepreneurial experience.
After a few minutes of chit chat, I turned our discussion in another direction. One of the reasons I came to visit RCE on this day was to personally observe a young man named "Chad" who had just begun employment the week prior. Chad is a 21-year old male who lives with a serious, degenerative muscular disease. This young man uses a wheelchair and has very limited use of his arms and hands. His head is braced to his wheelchair by a headband and he requires a personal care attendant at all times to assist with his personal care needs such as eating, dressing, and toileting. I was told that Chad has extensive health care needs and our staff knew that identifying meaningful employment tasks for him was going to be a challenge. I wondered how he was doing and was concerned about how the other student owners would feel about having Chad as a business partner.
"Madison, tell me about Chad. I understand he just started working with you folks." Madison's eyes grew wide with excitement. "Oh, I am so excited about Chad working with us. Did you know that this is his very first job ever! I knew Chad in high school, and he graduated before I did. But I think its just great that he will be working here with us."
In all candor, this was not the response I was expecting. I continued, 'Well, I understand that he has some physical limitations and figured that it was going to be a challenge for us to find job tasks that he could do given his abilities." Madison scoffed at my comments and offered an education to her elder. Again Madison's eyes grew as big as coffee cup saucers.
"Oh no. Don't you know that he has this really cool wheelchair that he can operate electronically to get around? And he has this big basket on the back of his chair that he uses to deliver things like sandwiches. He can carry a lot more sandwiches and food on his wheelchair than any of us here can carry. This is going to help us sell more sandwiches to people working on second and third floors." She continued on, "And Chad can deliver muffins and sandwiches from the Brick House Deli to our cart everyday. And he also takes our money across the street to the bank at the end of each work day. Its just great having him here, she exclaimed with unbridled excitement.
A few minutes later, Chad arrived on the school bus. It was clear that Chad was loving his new job. He spoke with enthusiasm about his tasks, and yes, it was Chad who didn't mind going out into the 25 below wind chill on that day to retrieve the food products RCE needed for its cart. His personal care attendant joked with us about how Chad had "already spent" his very first paycheck that he had not received as yet. And Chad talked with me about voice activated software that he owns and how this tool might be used possibly in the future to increase the job tasks he performs at RCE such as taking customer orders and generating checks via technology.
A number of national studies reveal that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities ranges from 65-75%. However, this doesn't mean that people with significant disabilities can't work in community jobs. It just means that we need to serve people with disabilities more creatively, one at time, and help them to identify and use their innate talents.
Sure, there are days when this idea of customizing employment seems far away and beyond the reach of some people. And there are times when challenging the status quo seems too tall an order. How can we help employers, educators, family members, (re)habilitation professionals, and other community members better understand what customized employment is all about? And how can we encourage this new vision so more people are willing partners in this process?
Well, there it was on display for me as clear as daylight. And conceptually, it was so fundamentally simple that a 19-year old student with a serious learning disability and emotional behavioral disorder understood exactly what it meant. Madison "schooled me" about customized employment and how this idea was going to make a huge difference in life of a business associate named Chad.
I shared this story with my colleague Joan later in the day. There are many reasons why our project is field-testing new strategies such as the launch of a microenterprise in support of people for whom competitive employment seems improbable. Madison and Chad are two very good reasons why we have chosen to take a road less traveled.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting! Thank you!


8:56 AM  

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