Monday, August 15, 2005

Customized Employment: Are the Risks Worth the Rewards?

Stubbornly-held fears often neutralize the job placement of youth and adults with significant disabilities within our community’s workforce. I shared a number of these observations in a recent post entitled The Axis of Inertia ( At times it seems almost everybody is worried about something. And this can be frustrating to advocates who are working hard to promote progressive systems change.
Some of these fears are vocalized by concerned parents and guardians of people with disabilities. Others are expressed by hesitant educators, county case managers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, or community human services professionals. Still others are expressed by worried business leaders and inexperienced supervisors in the workplace. Some of these anxieties are expressed directly by people with disabilities themselves. And yes, too many fears come from insiders who are involved in the day-to-day management and delivery of community rehabilitation services.
I like to speak and write on the topic of fear because in my judgment it is one of the single dominant barriers to the growth and full participation of people with disabilities. This is especially true of people with significant disabilities who are considered vulnerable adults. Fear is a paralyzing factor because it drives strategic plans and guides program services offered by community rehabilitation organizations. Despite good intentions, the weight of underlying fears quietly influence agency management decision-making, how funding is used, and the focus of program activities. This includes the decision-making and daily actions of direct service professionals who are charged with carrying out support services for program participants.
Sometimes underlying fears fly just below the radar screen undetected. And other times, they are cloaked in the form of subtle questions that sound something like this: "Why is it so important to place youth and adults with significant disabilities into integrated jobs in the community workforce?" Why should we take on the risks associated with placing someone who is a vulnerable adult? Will adults with significant disabilities be accepted and supervised properly in the workplace? Will vulnerable adults be exploited and exposed to unnecessary dangers? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to just play it safe and support these individuals in more structured disability service programs with properly trained staff?"
The range of concerns are expressed in many different ways. However, the sum of all fears is this: "Are the assumed risks worth the potential rewards?" I believe they are.
As I shared in a publication entitled Reach for the Stars, "we live in a world where bad things sometimes happen to good people." We cannot escape this fact. The dirty secret is this--no one can guarantee the complete safety and security of a vulnerable adult who lives with significant disabilities. Even people who are served in highly structured, day treatment or habilitation centers with low staff-to-participant ratios are exposed to some level of risk. Frankly, I am unaware of any field-based research that documents a sheltered workshop or segregated disability service program to be a safer environment where people are less likely to be involved in harmful accidents or exploited by others.
In all honesty, there is no agency executive director or manager who can look you directly in the eye and tell you their program is entirely risk-free. Interpersonal conflicts including fights, harassment, teasing, and exploitation exist everywhere there are people. Further, inadvertent accidents or injuries are an unpleasant by-product of human error no matter how hard we try to avoid them. All anyone can reasonably do is to plan carefully for the safety and support needs of every vulnerable adult. There are numerous youth and adult protection policies that guide us to do just that.
To the very best of our ability, we must carefully select educational, living, work, leisure, and community service environments that are nurturing, safe, and well-matched to identified support needs of specific individuals. And afterwards, it is our duty to be vigilant and monitor each placement situation carefully to insure the ongoing safety and effective supervision of individuals with significant disabilities. This is true regardless of the type of placement arrangement or daily activities of a vulnerable adult. As professionals, we need to be trained so we are effective in managing and controlling as many of these risk factors possible.
In truth, most disability service organizations struggle with the job of striking a proper balance in managing their risks and promoting progressive consumer choices. Unfortunately, we live in a litigious world where malpractice and wrongdoing can result in expensive lawsuits and bad publicity for affected agencies. In other words, risk-management demands are quite real.
Needless to say, today’s community rehabilitation providers operate their programs in a highly regulated service environment that does not tend to reward organizational risk-taking. For this reason, workforce integration activities that are perceived to increase the risk of injury or harm to an individual, or to the public, are often frowned upon by agency boards and administrators. In fact, community job placement goals are often viewed as counterintuitive to effective risk-management because they push the very parameters of adult protection policies.
So why should community rehabilitation programs make the effort? The answer is that a participant’s rewards in taking sensible and calculated risks are well worth the effort. In my experience, insulating people with significant disabilities inhibits their growth. Exposing people to carefully measured risks can open doors to their growth and future opportunities as individuals. And after all, isn’t that what living is all about?
The highest-performing employment providers manage their risks by doing the job right. High performers work hard to minimize potential risks and safety management issues by addressing them directly through customized service plans for vulnerable adults. Of course, this means hiring and training a cadre of skilled professionals who are capable of carrying out a customized job placement plan creatively and effectively.
For example, a competent job placement specialist will only make selective placements in the workforce that offer the safest and most positive outcomes possible. A properly trained practitioner would never place a vulnerable adult into a work setting or community surroundings they perceived to be a mismatch or potentially dangerous. In addition, a competent employment consultant always works hard to identify the essential training and technical assistance each employer needs so a hired worker is supervised with proper skills and attention. When it comes to the safety of a vulnerable adult, there are really no shortcuts. You do the job right.
In addition, a high performing employment consultant is well-trained to examine any needs for customization of physical work settings, job descriptions and duties, training and supervision methods, use of assistive technologies, or other accommodations that will ultimately lead to a successful job placement outcome. A competent practitioner is well-prepared to monitor each job placement to insure the ongoing safety and success of each individual.
And high performers possess a virtual tool box of trouble-shooting skills to help identify emerging issues before they become job threatening. Finally, the high performing employment consultant recommends alternative job placement arrangements when it becomes clear that a specific employment setting, range of job duties, work culture, or available supervision is a poor match to the job support needs of the employed worker.
To say it simply, vulnerable adults who are placed into integrated jobs in the workforce by high-performing job placement specialists and employment consultants are not unsupervised. They are appropriately supervised. Only differently.
So are assumed risks worth the desired rewards? Today, thousands of vulnerable adults throughout the United States, and indeed the world, are enjoying increased freedoms, improved community integration, better wages, contributing their talents, and widening their circle of friends because they were willing to take on sensible risks. As a senior manager at Rise, Incorporated, I have been privileged to witness many incredible stories about people who experienced personal and career success through their participation in the workforce. In fact, I have written about a few of them here on this blog. Also, I have had the good fortune to meet many progressive business leaders who truly believe in this idea of workforce inclusion. This is both inspiring to me and instructive about our possibilities for the future.
It was President Roosevelt who said "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." Of course, he was quite right. However, I might add this–our best antidote to fear is success itself. Every time someone with a significant disability joins the workforce we take one more step in building a community that is more accepting of individual differences. Gradually we are widening opportunities so virtually anyone can contribute and occupy a meaningful place in our workforce. And when we do this, the very idea becomes less fearful for everyone.
Let’s be clear here. I am not talking about a new political agenda. Actually, I am talking about traditional values and making the American Dream more accessible and available to all Americans. Encouraging an "employment for all" philosophy doesn’t mean that people who don’t want to work will be forced or coerced to. Rather, it means that everyone, including youth and adults with significant disabilities, will be expected and encouraged to work and contribute their talents and skills. To level the playing field, we need to press forward with new workforce integration strategies that fully embrace the goals of social inclusion and increased economic participation of all citizens.
When people share their fears with me concerning this topic, I gently remind them of a message so eloquently expressed in the lyrics of a song written by Michael Lille and Tom Kimmel. The song entitled Ships goes like this...
"We rest here while we can, but we hear the ocean calling in our dreams,
and we know by the morning, the wind will fill our sails to test the seams.
The calm is on the water and part of us would linger by the shore.
For ships are safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! You have a knack for writing. We DO actually read these things, so keep up the great work! The Coolest Guy on the Planet

5:46 PM  

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