Sunday, March 20, 2005

Separate Does Not Mean Equal

Many of us thought this issue was settled by the Supreme Court of the United States in its historical Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. However, the struggle for civil rights and fuller community integration remains a front burner issue for the largest minority population in the United States four decades later.
Of course, modest social progress and economic gains have been made by people with significant disabilities. Yet they lag behind other Americans in most quality of life indices and experience segregation in virtually all facets of their lives. In 2005, most adults with significant disabilities continue to live, learn, work, and recreate in facilities and programs that are designed especially for them. This is particularly true for adults diagnosed with developmental disabilities, serious and persistent mental illnesses, and traumatic brain injuries. The core objective of integrated education, employment, and community living, therefore, remains an elusive dream for most Americans who live with these disability conditions.
Numerous national studies advise us that more adults with disabilities are finding their way into the competitive labor force. This is the good news. However, these same national studies also reveal a disproportionate number of adults with significant disabilities are being served in segregated adult service programs set apart from the mainstream of community life.
To illustrate my point, a national survey conducted with community rehabilitation providers (CRPs) by the University of Massachusetts’ Institute on Community Inclusion (ICI) reveals that only 32% of participants with significant disabilities are engaged in integrated employment activities. According to this study, only 26% or one-in-four adults with developmental disabilities are engaged in integrated employment in community businesses settings. In addition, ICI’s national study also tells us that approximately one-third of all working-age adults served by CRPs are not working at all.
The prevailing wisdom is that better services and outcomes are driven by funding. So, if schools, CRPs, and other service providers were only able to get more public money, they could fix this community integration problem, right? Well, not exactly.
Money is always an important factor and element in the equation. Public education programs and adult CRPs definitely need an adequate base of funding to obtain community integration outcomes and support people with disabilities in achieving their goals. However, public education programs and adult CRPs also need to alter the ways they provide services. Directing more public money into conventional education and adult service delivery programs will only yield more of the same results.
Instead, we need to increase funding flexibility and raise our expectations concerning how public resources are spent. We need to challenge public education programs and private, not-for-profit CRPs to reach higher standards of performance excellence. In short, we need to discover and implement new ways to increase fuller access to the community as well as goals of self-dependency.
In 2005, there are many good reasons for hope. A convergence of new laws and landmark court decisions is slowly making a difference. Also, the rapid advance of disability research, assistive technologies, and promising service practices are opening new pathways to integration and higher levels of social, academic, and vocational competence.
Public laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Act (TTWWIA), and Workforce Investment Act (WIA) are driving a new wave of federal policies and promoting the rights of people with disabilities. In addition, landmark court decisions such as the Olmstead Court decree has reinforced the rights of people with disabilities to live in their community in place of institutional settings based on provisions of the ADA. Similarly, exciting breakthrough technologies are increasing the resource capacities of people with disabilities to carry out skills of daily living and job tasks that were once considered an improbability.
Finally, the introduction of person-centered planning and customized employment practices by public education and adult service providers is widening opportunities and access to the competitive labor market. Today, it is no longer accurate to say that someone with a significant disability cannot work in integrated employment if they choose to. New tools for customizing job functions and ongoing support is making integrated employment a viable option for just about anyone who wants to work in the community.
As secondary high schools and CRPs work to build their organizational capacities, resources, and skills, more people with disabilities are taking affirmative steps to work in their community's labor market. Central to this goal is a need to forge effective partnerships with interested businesses and industries. This means a complete revamping of strategies so employers receive the training and technical assistance they need to hire, train, supervise, and support their employees with disabilities.
Making structural and systemic changes in a community's public education and adult service network is often easier said then done. However, if the truth be told--it's not rocket science. It is rather an artful braiding of shared vision, resources, and expertise from within the public and private sectors.
A separate but equal vision for America was an unacceptable response to race relations in the 1950s. And today, it is an unacceptable vision to supporting the full inclusion of youth and adults with significant disabilities. Without a doubt, America is strongest when everyone counts and has a meaningful role. For this reason, it important that we build communities where integration and involvement is within the reach of all Americans. For people with disabilities, this means that our communities must embrace a vision of inclusion and work hard to customize the supports people need to participate to their fullest potential.
Simply stated, this means that communities in America must agree to customize education and adult services and measure outcome success one person at a time.

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