Sunday, June 05, 2005

Transforming Impossibility into Reality

Minnesotans are a hardy people who believe in the idea that anything is possible. When I am out speaking to groups on the values of customized and supported employment, I inevitably have a naysayer or critic in my audience who believes that my "employment for all" philosophy is not only a bit lofty, but well beyond the reach of many people who live with significant disabilities.
For this reason, I like to advance my thesis by sharing Exhibit A. Yes, I go right to my good stuff! I offer the audience two compelling photos of Minnesota’s best-known and most visible resident today. I remind my detractors about the improbable career journey of Jesse "The Body" Ventura. A celebrated professional wrestler, Ventura "shocked the world" by defeating two high profile politicians for the gubernatorial race in Minnesota on November 3, 1998. As an Independent Party candidate, Ventura overcame impossible odds by beating his more politically astute and connected rivals from the Democratic and Republican parties. Most unexpectedly, Jesse Ventura became Minnesota’s Governor and the Chief Executive Officer of our State government. Unbelievable!
The striking and improbable side-by-side photos of Jesse "The Body" (fully garbed in his sun glasses and yellow boa!) and Jesse "The Governor" always draw laughter from my audience. But slowly this laughter subsides to shaking heads and a knowing smile. People know exactly what I am trying to say. Actually, my point was said best by Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca who once mused:
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
You know, more people with significant disabilities can use a little of this kind of "luck." Unless we are truly willing to prepare for and create opportunities in our community's workforce, meaningful goals of fuller integration and participation is just wishful thinking. Why? It is well established that existing models of secondary education, post-secondary education, and adult community rehabilitation are not resulting in adequate levels of job placement within the workforce for people with disabilities.
So how do we get there? First, we need to focus on preparation. I believe our best hope to prepare people with significant disabilities means making a conscious decision to serve people one-at-a-time. It means encouraging and supporting more people with disabilities to choose work. It also means adopting and using person-centered career planning strategies that establish employment in the community workforce as a clear, unmistakable goal.
According to the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota, person-centered planning is "creating outcomes desired by youth or adults with disabilities through a process that uncovers their beliefs, values, strengths, dreams, and develops action plans to move toward the lives they desire." (University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, 1998)
Person-centered career planning means taking a possibility approach to supporting people one individual at a time. It means focusing on the marketable job interests, talents, and skills of all youth and adults with significant disabilities. It means articulating individual choices and preferences, preparing customized employment objectives, connecting people with essential resources and technologies, and mapping specific action plans to achieve them. A person-centered career plan, therefore, is built on the dreams and talents of each individual and is a consensus "blueprint" for action.
A well-defined and structured career planning process should result in a career discovery profile that includes, but is not limited to, the following information:
  • career interests and priorities
  • short-term and long-term career objectives
  • desired outcomes (i.e., securing post-secondary education and training, competitive employment, wages and benefits, opportunities for career advancement, etc.)
  • marketable KSAs (knowledge, skills, and aptitudes)
  • post-secondary education or job training needed to obtain career choices (i.e., college education, job coaching)
  • ecological factors that best match the individual’s job and community support needs
    action plans to find and secure jobs of the individual’s choice (i.e., employment search and job placement plans)
  • accommodations needed to enhance future learning or job performance (i.e., assistive technology, job restructuring)
  • customized support plans for job retention (i.e., access to supported employment)
  • job progression ideas to obtain future outcomes (i.e. better jobs, higher wages, more hours worked, future job training)
  • medical, mental health, behavioral, and other disability support services that are crucial to obtaining and maintaining defined employment outcomes
  • identification of community supports that are needed such as housing, supported living services, transportation, etc.
  • natural supports that are needed to obtain expressed outcomes (i.e., co-workers, supervisors, family, friends, etc.)
  • identified roles of each participant, family members, and advisors who will assist in --implementing defined action plans
  • engagement of resources and funding that is necessary to obtain employment goals.
The second important focus area of the equation is opportunity. Job opportunities rarely seem to present themselves in the workforce for people who live with significant disabilities. So how will we create them? What exactly will we do differently to prospect for and increase job placement in our local economies?
As I shared in a recent post entitled Customized Employment: A Supply and Demand-Side Workforce Strategy, demand-side job development is not effective alone in creating job outcomes for people with the most complex and challenging disabilities Simply said, if we want to increase opportunities in the workforce, we are going to need to change our methods and consider new pathways. Customized employment, for example, is one new way of thinking about and presenting the potential work contributions of youth and adults with the most challenging disabilities and job barriers. These emerging strategies offer creative ways to market the identified strengths, talents, and abilities of people who are least likely to succeed in a competitive job application process.
Numerous project demonstrations around the country are proving that people with significant disabilities can work in our nation’s marketplace when they choose to work, have a defined goal and job search plan, find an interested employer, and have access to customized or supported employment services they need to achieve success.
The introduction of customized employment offers hope but such practices are not widely understood nor infused into existing education and service delivery systems supporting youth and adults with disabilities. To illustrate, how many people with disabilities and their family members are well-informed about the possibilities associated with customized employment practices? How many of our nation's One-Stop workforce centers, secondary and post-secondary schools, and adult disability service providers are skilled in the use of these practices? How many job placement specialists are well-trained in the art of presenting the work contributions of people with the most complex disabilities to prospective employers in non-traditional ways? And finally, how many employers are well-informed about opportunities to hire job candidates through customized employment practices?
The obvious answer to each question is not nearly enough! Yes, we have a lot of work to do to create this possibility where preparation meets with opportunity so more individuals can go to work. However, it is going to take more than just offering information and education. It will also take bona fide organizational change. No doubt about it, a real transformation from current service practices to customized employment is going to include very hard work. This not only assumes new policies but a transformation of skills sets and job activities of many professionals who are presently engaged in the day-to-day work. This call to change will demand new thinking, staff development training, a reallocation of resources, more flexible service policies, engagement of agency boards and senior management, and progressive leadership from all levels of the organization.
It's a big job indeed but our philosopher friend, Seneca, offers another nugget of comfort and wisdom for our consideration: "It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult." More than two thousand years later, his observation about human nature and behavior is right on target.


Blogger Brian Stinnett said...

I have just recently found your blog and I am trying to catch up on all your posts. I have enjoyed them greatly. I have been a supported employment counselor for the past 7 years in Louisville, KY and enjoy hearing comments from other folks in the field. You have several years on me and I hope one day that I can somehow make a difference, as I'm sure you have. I am currently the coordinator for the Greater Louisville Business Leadership Network and I am very active in talking with employers.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for stopping by and visiting my blog. Yes, I have been involved in the area of supported employment for many years and as you can tell I am still very passionate about making opportunities available in the workforce for people with disabilities through customization and work supports. The blog is dedicated completely to these issues.

Brian, if you have been at it for seven years and coordinating with the BLN in your area than you ARE making difference! I salute you for your work with business leaders in Louisville. In my judgment, this is where it must happen. We need to be educating more employers about SE issues and their need to take ownership of the unemployment and underemployment problems of people with disabilities through affirmative action and creativity. They can't tackle these problems alone but they must be persuaded to look at employment and "qualified workers" in new ways. You may be interested in a couple of posts on the blog called "What if every employer did something?" and "Customized Employment: Making the Business Case." These two commentaries speak directly to our need for employers to become full partners in the important work we do.

Once again, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to write. If you are ever in the Twin Cities area, or if you plan to attend the national APSE conference (in Boston this year), it would be fun to meet you personally.



10:23 AM  

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