Sunday, March 13, 2005

Thinking Gray, Thinking Free



Imagine the audacity! Caitlin, a 21-year old who lives with Down Syndrome, had just announced her career preference to a Work Experience Coordinator and other team members during a meeting to discuss her Individualized Education Program (IEP). Caitlin told the educator and others supporting her career planning that she had chosen a path to become an actress.
Wow! What is a high school Work Experience Coordinator to do? There aren’t too many advertised job vacancies out there for actresses with Down Syndrome! What do we do about the naivete and unrealistic job goals of youth with disabilities?
I believe this Work Experience Coordinator did the right thing. She practiced artful listening and was willing to help Caitlin examine the full range of possibilities available to her. This educator was practicing what Steven B. Sample, author of A Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, calls thinking gray and thinking free. Simply said, the high school Work Experience Coordinator was practicing the art of customizing employment.
Dr. Sample, President at the University of Southern California (USC), and professor of an elite program on leadership, identifies thinking gray and thinking free among the core qualities of a successful leader. According to Sample, most of us tend to be binary thinkers. That is, we tend to see situations and problems to be solved as good or bad, true or false, and right or wrong.
Of course, this world we live in tends to be dynamic and complex. And oftentimes, a simple black or white answer is inadequate to addressing a stubborn problem we have been asked to solve. The contrarian leader understands this. She is able to rise above the ambiguity because she is willing to think gray and free from all prevailing norms and conventional wisdom.
Professionals who work with secondary education students are faced with complex support decisions each and every day. Secondary educators play an important role in connecting youth with significant disabilities to jobs, training programs, post-secondary education, and adult services they need to achieve success. They wield a powerful influence with youth and young adults who are in transition from school to adult careers. And they are important consultants to family members by guiding important decisions about a range of choices and options available to their loved ones.
Most national studies tell us that about 70 percent of adults with significant disabilities are not working in their community’s labor market. And a recent study conducted by the University of Massachussetts' Institute on Community Inclusion (ICI) reveals that approximately 30 percent of Caitlin’s peers with developmental disabilities, do not work at all.
What I find interesting about these reported outcomes is that virtually all secondary education students with significant disabilities are entitled to an individualized education program as defined in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). So, what is the conventional wisdom here? Can we assume that most youth with significant disabilities don't want to work in an integrated job in their community? Are we to conclude that most are unable to work effectively in the competitive labor market? Or, is it simply about the lack of money or access to appropriate employment services?
I believe the high unemployment of adults with significant disabilities is a by-product of binary thinking. Without much second thought or creative assessment, we are quick to judge the abilities of youth with significant disabilities. Too often, critical decisions about their career potential are narrowed with little regard as to their true interests or assessed capacities to contribute in an integrated employment setting. For these reasons, a majority of youth with significant disabilities in the United States are referred to adult activity centers, day treatment programs, or sheltered workshops.
So what ever happened to our friend Caitlin?
Well, Caitlin’s Work Experience Coordinator did take her job goal seriously by helping her to explore all options available. And why not? Caitlin has a engaging personality and passion for life that is the cornerstone of success for any performing actress. To be sure, her dream was a challenging one to plan for, but it was not an impossibility.
After researching all possibilities, this Work Experience Coordinator scheduled an audition with a performance company in the Twin Cities called Interact. Caitlin passed the audition and was offered a job as an actress with this innovative theater group. The company is located in Minnesota but the group performs throughout the United States as well as internationally. The Interact team writes and performs approximately two shows professionally for the public each year. The group's performances often have a disability awareness theme and their professional team of actors include people with and without disabilities. Its actors are paid for all performances based on the theater group's sales receipts. My own organization, Rise, Incorporated, hired Interact to perform at one of our annual meetings several years ago. They are outstanding!
It has been more than one year since Caitlin graduated from high school. And she has performed professionally in two of Interact’s theater productions. She thoroughly enjoys her work as a performing artist and her role with Interact is clearly an excellent career choice.
Without a doubt, there are many youth with and without disabilities who will choose unrealistic job goals. Yet, I am haunted by a recurring thought of what might have become of Caitlin had she attended a different school? I also wonder how many other educators would have taken Caitlin seriously and acted on her expressed career choice? I am inclined to believe that she would have been encouraged to moderate her job goal and choose an area that was more realistic.
Our national unemployment data is a reminder of this basic fact--Americans with significant disabilities will encounter substantial challenges finding jobs in the competitive labor market if they are served in conventional ways. With that said, Caitlin’s story is also exiting reminder that career success is possible for anyone with a significant disability who has a dream.
Customized employment is designed to help us bridge the great divide for people like Caitlin for whom competitive employment appears improbable. It is proving to be a highly effective strategy for educators and adult service professionals who are capable of thinking gray and free.

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