Sunday, July 17, 2005

What a Miracle!


One afternoon this past winter, I was rolling through my voice mail messages when I came by a familiar voice: "Don, this is Becky, could you please give me call when you get this message? I have something that I need to discuss with you. Thanks."
Uh oh! The caller was my colleague and good friend Becky Bazzarre from Lifetrack Resources in St. Paul. Becky and I have been co-managers of the Minnesota Employment Center (MEC) for People who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, or Deafblind for more than 11 years. And more recently, we had become collaborative partners in an interagency AmeriCorps program called Work In Progress. I knew instinctively that something was up by that familiar tone in her voice. I decided I had better call her back right away.
"Hi Becky, this is Don. What’s up?"
A native from Arkansas, Becky communicates in an endearing southern accent that is distinctive in our State of Minnesota: "Hi Don! OK, are you sitting down right now?"
My curiosity is brimming now: "Yep, I am Bec. Go ahead and give it to me."
She continues: "OK, well you have you heard of the Montel Williams Show, right?"
I answered slowly: "Um, yes. Well actually, I’ve never watched the show, but sure, I have heard of Montel Williams."
Becky launches into her monologue: "Well Don, here’s the deal. Lifetrack Resources received a call from the Montel Williams Show yesterday and it was forwarded on to me. I guess Montel is airing a show on January 14th about "miracles" and he is featuring someone who lives right here in Minnesota. But here is the strange part of this story. I guess some guy was involved in an industrial accident 12 years ago that caused profound deafness. And then after experiencing a massive headache one day this past year, the guy faints. And guess what? According to Montel Williams’ people, when he awakens he has his hearing restored miraculously. I guess the incident defies any reasonable medical explanation according to his doctors. So now after 12 years of living "deaf," this guy has his hearing fully restored! Isn’t that amazing?!"
In all honestly, I hardly knew how to respond. "Wow! Well yeah Bec, that is a real interesting story. So tell me, why is Montel Williams calling YOU to tell you all about it?"
At this point, Becky stutters slightly: "Um, well. OK, did you say that you were sitting down?"
Geez, I’m not sure if I want to know where this conversation is headed. I reply to her: "I’m sitting Becky."
Finally, Becky cuts to the chase: "OK. Well, Montel’s people found Lifetrack Resources by doing research on the Internet. They were looking for an agency like us in Minnesota that provides employment services for people with disabilities. So they called us to ask if we would be willing to help out. Montel is asking us to provide job placement services for this gentleman because he hasn’t worked in 12 years since his accident. Isn’t that cool?!"
I am thinking, uh oh. "Becky, just who is US? Do you mean Lifetrack "us?" Or MEC "us?" MEC "us" means that my agency would be involved too.
Then Becky goes technical on me: "Well Don, this is really weird. This guy isn’t eligible for MEC, is he? Think about it. He is no longer deaf!
"Oh yeah, I guess you are right," I replied. Somewhat relieved, I asked: "So Lifetrack is taking on the job of finding employment for him then, right?"
At this point, our southern belle cranks up the charm full throttle: "Well Don, here is the deal. Since this man is no longer deaf, he is not likely to be eligible for vocational rehabilitation or job placement programs for people with disabilities. However, as I understand the situation, he has many of the same functional barriers he had while living with a disability for a dozen years. He is still unemployed because of these obstacles. I think Montel Williams did the right thing. He did his research and helped this guy to make a connection with us. So how could I tell him we're not interested in serving a fellow Minnesotan who is eager to find a job! I told him that Lifetrack has a Job Resource Center that is open to the public and that he is welcome to come in. I told them we would help him out with his resume and contacting employers."
And then in a much softer tone, Becky shares the following: "And oh yeah, I told Montel Williams that we have this AmeriCorps program that could probably help him find a good job."
What?! Whoa! You see, Rise is fiscal agent for our joint AmeriCorps program and Becky had factored us into her mathematical equation. OK, Rise enjoys taking on a challenge. However, I had sudden visual flashes of people throwing chairs at me on national TV because our AmeriCorps program didn’t find a good job for this nice man who had just experienced the miraculous return of his hearing. I don’t know about this!
"Hey Becky, I’ve really enjoyed our partnership with Lifetrack these past 11 years. Good luck to you and Montel Williams," I quipped back at her in jest.
"Hey Don, we are not talking about the Jerry Springer Show here," Becky advised. "We are talking about Montel Williams. His show is more like Oprah’s. Montel works hard to help people redirect their lives. And I think this Minnesotan deserves our best shot, don’t you? By the way, did I tell you his name? It's James Maxwell."
If the truth be told, I am complete sucker for a challenge like this. And my colleague knows this. Now completely powerless, I am a full partner in Becky’s excellent adventure. Here we go.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. James Maxwell was invited to come to Lifetrack Resources headquarters which is located in St. Paul, Minnesota. And Becky made all of the arrangements for Maxwell to enroll in our AmeriCorps program.
For those who may be unfamiliar with AmeriCorps, it is a national service initiative that recruits adults of all ages to become actively involved in their local communities. Sometimes referred to as the "domestic Peace Corps," AmeriCorps encourages people from all backgrounds and abilities to contribute their time and talents to help solve community problems related to education, public safety, the environment, human service needs, and homeland security. AmeriCorps members commonly serve at non-profit or faith-based organizations throughout the country. They receive a modest stipend for their commitment to national service and can earn post-secondary education awards when they fulfill their annual service contracts. Our particular AmeriCorps program, Work In Progress, involves four independent non-profit organizations. It offers customized job assistance to unemployed and underemployment people with disabilities and other barriers to help them obtain employment compatible with their interests and skills.
James Maxwell was assigned to work with Claire Daniel, one of our outstanding AmeriCorps members assigned at Lifetrack Resources. Claire set up an introductory meeting with Maxwell to help us become better acquainted with his situation. We learned more about his job interests and goals and Claire helped identify his specific employment assistance needs. We learned that Maxwell had not worked in the 12 years following his industrial accident. He found it challenging to find an employer who was willing to hire a profoundly deaf individual. After repeated failures, a discouraged Maxwell had quit looking for work many years ago. Now that his hearing was miraculously restored, he was eager to return to work but uncertain about how to reactivate a career path on his own. Further, he would now have to explain a 12-year gap in his employment history. What employer would believe his incredible life story?
Claire offered to take on the challenge. However, she learned in our initial meeting with him that Maxwell lived in Braham, Minnesota with his wife and children. Braham is a small rural community with a population of 1,276 and is located about 70 miles away from Lifetrack Resources in St. Paul. For this reason, Maxwell’s regular commute to St. Paul to access job placement assistance was a stretch. Some questions were raised about the possibilities of accessing job placement services a little closer to Maxwell’s home in Braham.
Reenter Becky Bazzarre. When "The Baz" wants something to happen, she knows all of the right buttons to push and there is no stopping her.
"Hello, Don. Well, guess what?" You know Claire is doing career planning with James Maxwell? Well, she learned that he lives way up there in the City of Braham in Isanti County. Isn’t that interesting? Doesn’t Rise have an office up there in Isanti County? And don’t you also have AmeriCorps members who are serving this community? Do you think it would help us out if we got them involved in James Maxwell's job placement?"
Of course, it made good sense. After a quick call to our regional office, we were able to widen the circle of support by bringing in Rise staff and an AmeriCorps member who is serving the Isanti County region. Jill Johnston, a talented job placement specialist at Rise, and Darryl Dack, a second-year AmeriCorps member, each agreed to become actively involved in our growing job hunt for James Maxwell.
Now Daniel, Johnston, and Dack were working as a team to orchestrate a job placement plan in support of Maxwell. At the core of this plan was James Maxwell’s dream to become an over-the-road truck driver. The bad news is that Maxwell did not have a Class A driver’s license that was needed to qualify for such a position. The good news is that Darryl Dack did! With guidance from Jill Johnston, Dack tutored Maxwell and helped to prepare him for the required examination he would take through the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MDOT). Dack coached Maxwell about terminology and concepts he was unfamiliar with. Through Dack’s mentoring and encouragement, Maxwell completed his driver education studies. In due time, Maxwell was ready to take MDOT’s Class A driver exam. And he passed!
With this obstacle now cleared from his path, Jill Johnston began making connections with employers in the Twin Cities and Central Minnesota. Since Maxwell had not worked in more than 12 years, and he had only recently been issued a Class A driver’s license, Johnston intelligently chose to customize the job placement process on his behalf. Her recommendation was to pace Maxwell’s employment into sensible, incremental steps. Specifically, this meant introducing basic job accommodations with prospective employers to slowly build upon Maxwell’s driving skills, confidence, and road experiences. With artful skill, Johnston found the right employer. And she negotiated the right employment and training conditions so Maxwell could experience immediate success in the career of his choice.
Recently, Maxwell accepted a driving position where he is making short delivery trips right here inside the State of Minnesota. He is working full-time and earning close to $20.00 per hour. Jill Johnston reports that Maxwell will be receiving a wage increase after he completes his planned apprenticeship period and the employer is committed to slowly introducing out-of-state trips as his job experience progresses.
Wow! What an incredible story! And what a remarkable sequence of events! James Maxwell experienced several life altering events that had jettisoned his career from the Montel Williams Show in New York to the Twin Cities marketplace. And all of these life changes occurred within the span of just a few short months.
On January 14, 2005, Montel Williams aired the show featuring Maxwell with a title line "What a Miracle!" Yeah, I know what you are thinking. Was this truly a miracle? Did we all play some small part in a greater divine plan?
From what I understand, there is no medical explanation for the sudden return of Mr. Maxwell’s hearing after 12 years of complete deafness. In fact, it was reported on Montel’s show that the nerve endings in Maxwell’s ear had atrophied after many years of profound hearing loss. I guess all of these medically-based questions are completely out of my league. And I think I will leave judgment about miracles where they belong-- in the realm of personal spiritual beliefs.
Nonetheless, I feel qualified to answer questions surrounding James Maxwell’s securing a job after 12 years of unemployment. Was this a miracle? Absolutely not. We have no miracle workers at Lifetrack Resources or Rise, Incorporated. We are just ordinary people doing common sense work. Heck, James Maxwell didn’t even have a bona fide disability when we placed him into his job. Yet he languished needlessly without occupation for 12 years because he was unable to hear. Why is this so?
It took high quality work and collaboration among many talented people including Becky Bazzarre, Claire Daniel, Darryl Dack, Jill Johnston, and yes Montel Williams too, to support James Maxwell in finding a good job. And, of course, we must give credit to Maxwell’s employer for taking affirmative action in hiring him and agreeing to customize his employment plan. Be certain about this–today we have the capacities to customize communications so people with profound hearing loss can communicate effectively with hearing people both in their communities and inside the workplace. Further, we are building a growing base of knowledge about how to customize employment functions, assistive technologies, and external job supports so people with significant disabilities can work, use their talents, and contribute to their self-support.
Still the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is absurdly high. For this reason, it often seems like a miracle when somebody with a significant disability actually goes to work. The truth is that the job success of people with disabilities is not driven by miracles. It is driven by people using common sense. It is all about introducing customized and supported employment strategies that are already available to us. It is about creating better access to the marketplace so everyone has a meaningful place and role in our economy. When our society expects and rewards principles of universal access and design, many more people with disabilities will be welcomed to participate in our workforce and economy.
There are many people, including colleagues in my own field of work, who do not share my enthusiasm that integrated employment in the workforce is an attainable goal for a majority of people with disabilities. Often, I am asked to share my views about what it's going to take to break this relentless cycle of inequality, unemployment, segregation, and poverty. Of course, creating a new vision is just a beginning. Breaking down the stereotypes and habits of our past is quite another matter.
Real and substantive change is so darned hard to achieve. And many disability service systems are so stubbornly invested both emotionally and financially in tradition. It seems to me the core question is this–How do we lead unmotivated, reluctant, and fully committed naysayers to joining our good cause and supporting systems change efforts? Now this my friend will truly take a miracle.

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