Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Apprentice


The Apprentice had been been on the job for only a couple of weeks. And this was her very first solo assignment. As the work hours wore on, she was becoming ever more nervous. All of the warning signs were there. Helen was just not catching on and was in danger of being let go by her new employer. In fact, the harder Helen tried, the more mistakes she made.
Although Shirley had demonstrated much patience, she was beginning to show signs of frustration too. After two full days of probationary work experience, Shirley, the employment supervisor, could only shrug her shoulders. She expressed sincere doubts about Helen’s prospects for learning the job and staying on with the team. After all, Shirley needed a reliable employee and business is business.
Helen is a 30 year-old woman who lives with an intellectual disability. She had just begun a brand new job as a dishwasher and food service helper. Shirley is the department manager of a large commissary meeting the food service needs of a local hospital headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota. The apprentice is a recently hired employment consultant who works for a progressive employment provider in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The young apprentice is honing her skills as a customized employment practitioner for adults with significant disabilities.
After two consecutive days of on-site training and job support, it was clear Helen was not performing her job assignments up to the standards required by her employer. She seemed very forgetful and key parts of the job were simply not getting done correctly. Helen was not responding positively to the training she had just received. Shirley had done her best to introduce Helen to her job tasks. In addition, the apprentice had spent 16 hours observing, coaching, prompting, and doing her very best to reinforce Helen’s job performance. After two full work days, the prognosis for success was looking pretty grim.
The apprentice was frustrated because the hospital and employment position seemed a perfect fit for Helen in all other respects. For example, Helen was genuinely excited about the new job and expressed a strong interest in working for this well-known hospital in the area. The job was accessible by bus to her home. The position offered excellent pay and benefits for an entry-level job of this kind. Further, Shirley was such a nurturing supervisor who was very attentive and supportive of Helen’s needs. She seemed genuinely disappointed that Helen was not catching on to the varied job tasks. In sum, it seemed like everyone involved was giving it their all to make the job arrangement work.
At this juncture, our apprentice decided that it might be helpful to contact The Donald for some sage advice. Um no, not that Donald. I am talking about The Other Donald. Yep, that would be me.
The Apprentice: "I am really bummed! Helen wants this job so bad, but she just can’t seem to get the job routine down pat. We have been trying to teach her the required tasks for two days now. It’s almost like she has difficulties with her memory. She keeps forgetting how to do different parts of the job and the tasks are going undone. Honestly, I don’t know what else to do. I am afraid the hospital is losing its patience and will let her go. Do you have any suggestions for me?"
The Donald: "Well, let’s back up here. Is there any history of Helen having difficulties with memory or recall?"
The Apprentice: "No. Well, at least not that I am aware of. There is no reference of any memory issues in her file. She does have an intellectual disability, but there is nothing referenced in her file about forgetfulness or having memory lapses of any kind."
The Donald: "So describe the problem. What is happening."
The Apprentice: "Despite our repeated training trials, Helen continues to get confused and leaves some of her assigned tasks undone. She tends to get confused quite easily and needs continuous direction. For example, when unloading the dishwasher, she forgets where all of the various pots, pans, dishes, and silver wear items are to be stored. Her supervisor, Shirley, can’t be there for her every minute of the shift. Helen needs to be able to do these tasks on her own without continuous prompting."
The Donald: "I have a couple of questions. Have you tried using visual cues such as photos to help her identify where the items are to be stored? Also, are there other co-workers in the work area who can be of support to her?"
The Apprentice: "Negative in each case. Actually, there is no need for photos or visual cues because all of the storage items are in clear view of the workers. There is nothing is hidden in cupboards or shut behind closed doors. All stored kitchen items are in full view of the workers who empty the dishwasher. And no, there are no other co-workers in the work area who are available to give the ongoing support she seems to need."
The Donald: "So, tell me why do you think Helen is not responding to the training that you and Shirley are providing to her?"
The Apprentice: "I honestly don’t know the answer. Maybe she does have difficulty with memory recall. On the other hand, perhaps she has challenges with multi-tasking. A commissary dishroom is a very hectic place to be particularly during the lunch hour. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with the level of activity that is going on around her.
The Donald: "I see."
The Apprentice: "You know, I talked with several of my colleagues about the situation and they are telling me that maybe this job is a bad match for Helen. They are advising that we perhaps consider a different job, one that is not so complex or confusing to her. What do you think?"
The Donald: "Well, I can’t answer this one. I don’t know Helen. Your colleagues may be right. But then again, they may not be giving you the best advice here. We wouldn’t have so many people with significant disabilities unemployed if our colleagues knew all of the answers. Right?
The Apprentice: Well, I guess you are right. So what do you suggest that I do?"
The Donald: "Okay, if it were me, I would be trying to get answers to some of these fundamental questions you have raised here. If they are not answered in your referral information or her employment support plan, you will need to do more research. Who knows Helen best? Who can speak with clarity about her disabilities or the possibilities of memory loss? And what about Helen’s preferred learning style? How does she learn best? What has worked successfully in her past? How can you incorporate what works best for Helen into her job preparation and training plan? You need to find some answers here so you can size up the next steps.
The Apprentice: "Helen still lives at home with her parents. I guess I could give her Mom a call to find out what she thinks about the situation. She must have some idea about how Helen responds to new learning situations. Maybe she can offer me some helpful advice? I think I’ll give her a call. Thanks!"
The apprentice did her homework. She called Helen’s Mom, a 60 year-old woman named Elaine. Elaine was delighted to receive the call and offer her insight. According to Elaine, people have always underestimated her daughter’s abilities and potential. This was true when Helen was a child in school. And it has certainly been true since Helen reached adulthood.
The apprentice learned that Helen did not have any unusual problems with her memory. She did, however, have a significant learning disability that required a slower and more structured approach to learning new tasks and challenges. Elaine shared her insights as to how Helen learns best from her life experiences.
"The best way to teach Helen a task is to break it down into much smaller steps," said Elaine. "It is also helpful to minimize distractions so Helen can concentrate and absorb the learned skills more effectively," she continued. Elaine thanked the young apprentice for making the call. She was grateful that someone had actually taken the time to see Helen as an individual with untapped potential.
Armed with new information, our apprentice rushed in to talk with Shirley about a new job training strategy for Helen. With Shirley’s approval, the apprentice restructured the sequencing of Helen’s job tasks to minimize the scope of multi-tasking activities. The apprentice then taught each task slowly and individually until it was mastered by Helen without error. The apprentice chose a "downtime" period that was more ideal for instructing Helen on the tasks. In this way, Helen was able to learn her tasks correctly and without the pressures and numerous distractions that accompany the busiest part of her work schedule.
Several days later...
The Apprentice: "You should have seen the look on her face. When I told her that she was doing a great job, she said to me: I am? She is so excited by her progress!
The Donald: "Oh, you are talking about Helen?"
The Apprentice: "No. No. I mean Shirley! I was teaching Shirley how to support Helen on her changed job routine. I want to make sure that we have proper job support in place so Helen can function effectively when I am not there."
The Donald: Hmm, this apprentice might actually have some potential he thinks silently... "Now wait a minute!"
The Apprentice: She interrupts me... "Hey, guess what? Helen has more than doubled her productivity since I revised her training plan. She is doing her job now with hardly any mistakes. Isn’t that so cool?! And Helen is so proud of herself. I am so excited because I asked Shirley about her chances of getting by the probationary period yesterday, and I got a thumbs up. She’s hired!!
The Donald: "Wow, what a turn around! Great job. Ah, so tell me now, what do you think now about all that great advice you were getting from your colleagues about abandoning the effort?"
The Apprentice: Staying loyal, she says nothing but tilts her head slightly with a knowing smile.
Oh what the heck, I decided to go for broke...
The Donald: "So what have you learned here my good friend?"
The Apprentice: "Well, I guess I learned a lot of things from this experience. First, people with significant disabilities are often sold "short" when it comes to what they are able to do. People just give up on them way too quickly. I learned that being successful means looking at and trying every possible angle before deciding that a job isn't going to work out."
"I guess job success is all about a goodness of fit. You know, if there is a will, there is a way. People with disabilities can be trained. However, jobs and work settings can also be changed. Operational procedures can be customized. And job training methods can be reloaded. In the end, I guess success is really all about getting things done and getting them done right."
"Oh yeah, I also learned that when I am working with a good employer on my side, the work is more than half-done."
The Donald: "Excellent! It sounds like your first solo experience has taught you some invaluable lessons. Please try to remember them because these insights will serve you well in the future."
Oftentimes our community workforce is unkind or inaccessible to people who have complex lives and employability challenges. For these reasons, many people with disabilities, and service providers who support them, do not have the courage to test the waters nor risk the journey. Still others give up far too quickly or just quit when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds or challenges. I am so grateful we are blessed with spirited, can-do professionals like this apprentice who is committed to making dreams comes true for people with disabilities through customized planning and creative problem-solving.
After flying solo for the first time, our young apprentice learned the most valuable lesson of all. It is a lesson shared so eloquently by Robert Frost in his epic poem The Road Not Taken:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

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