Sunday, October 30, 2005

Still "trying another way" after all these years.


In 1973, I finished graduate school in Mankato, Minnesota after earning a Master's Degree in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling. I recognized early during my graduate studies that my highest area of interest was the employment of adults with significant disabilities. For this reason, the most suitable career pathway for me was going to work professionally within the private, not-for-profit sector. Just one month after graduating, I accepted my first job with Occupational Training Center (OTC, now known as Minnesota Diversified Industries) in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a new vocational rehabilitation counselor, I learned quickly that not all service approaches were equal in their capacities to produce employment opportunities and life improvements for the people I was working with.
At OTC, I was blessed to have direct experiences with both effective and ineffective program service models. The contrasting outcomes produced by these programs were quite remarkable and left an indelible impact on my future career focus. On one hand, I was assigned counseling duties in support of people enrolled in two highly creative community-based training and employment programs. One of these programs offered practical, hands-on job skills training in the health care industry (i.e., nursing assistants, dietary aides, etc.) by using a competency-based learning approach. The other program featured community-based training experiences that prepared individuals for competitive employment inside a company’s manufacturing plant. Both programs incorporated business-based practices that were highly unusual and uncharacteristic of sheltered workshops during this time period.
Not surprisingly, both programs were highly effective in producing competitive job placements for my counseling participants. As a young professional, I became very frustrated and could not understand why people in high places could not plainly see what was so painfully obvious to me. Our programs featuring work integration and active participation of community businesses generated excellent job placement results. To the contrary, our programs using supervised work assignments in sheltered workshop settings produced poor outcome results. In other words, people served in our sheltered workshop languished in the same jobs with fewer opportunities for job placement or hope for higher wages.
After serving as a rehabilitation counselor for three years, I realized I had to take more personal responsibility to expand access to these types of programs to increase workforce inclusion opportunities. For this reason, I accepted John Barrett’s offer to become Program Manager at Rise, Incorporated in 1976. I have worked in a senior management capacity at Rise ever since and we have worked hard to address the unemployment and underemployment barriers of adults with varied and complex disabilities.
As I look back on the evolution of our programs, I now realize we had few beacons of light to guide our program development at Rise. We soaked up advice wherever we could find it. My personal management philosophy was influenced considerably by four pioneers who offered leadership on the overlapping topics of disability, values, and employment.
Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, a professor in the School of Education at Syracuse University in New York, captured my imagination and the thinking of many systems change advocates in the early 1970s. I was mesmerized by the oratory skills of Wolfensberger and his dynamic presentations on the principles of normalization and social role valorization theory. In my view, he was among the most influential leaders of his day laying a solid foundation for national reforms. Wolfensberger's vision galvanized a legion of advocates and progressive providers to work towards the development of meaningful and valued social roles for people with significant disabilities within our culture and society.
I can also remember going to see Dr. Lou Brown speak for the first time shortly after I began my job as program manager for Rise. Dr. Brown, a professor of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was a strong and vocal critic of institutions and sheltered workshop operations. In 1976, I was feeling pretty darn good about having introduced new community-based training and job placement programs at Rise. After all, these programs were among the first such programs in the State of Minnesota and the United States. Yet I remember leaving his presentation quietly embarrassed because I knew deep down I hadn't gone nearly far enough to direct the levels of organizational and service delivery changes Dr. Brown was advocating. It was Dr. Brown who encouraged me to reach further and take on greater risks to improve outcomes in the community workforce for all Rise participants.
As the 1970s marched on, I can remember reading the early works of Dr. Paul Wehman, Professor and Director of the Rehabilitation Research & Training Center on Work Support at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Wehman wrote about and spoke eloquently on the topic of supported employment. It was Wehman's research demonstrations that brought legitimacy to the very idea that people with significant disabilities could indeed work in integrated jobs in the competitive workforce with the right support.
At the time Dr. Wehman was making such claims, we were offering our own crude version of supported employment for program participants at Rise. We weren't using the right lexicon or sophisticated service descriptions to describe what we were doing to a national audience. However, Wehman and his associates helped to bring supported employment to a national stage with well-defined protocols and descriptions about the delivery of customized job placement and ongoing support services for employers as well as their employees with significant disabilities.
During the 1970s, our emerging vision about workforce integration was also influenced by the work of the late Dr. Marc Gold from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Dr. Gold, a former special educator, had introduced a systematic instructional method for adults with significant intellectual disabilities he called Try Another Way. Gold was a brilliant teacher who demonstrated that individuals with intellectual disabilities were not only capable of working, but performing tasks far more complex than most people believed to be possible.
Gold worked tirelessly to change public attitudes about the learning capacities of people with intellectual disabilities. And his charisma captured the attention of progressive leaders and advocates working in the fields of special education, community rehabilitation, and employment.
Gold's instructional strategy not only communicated a fundamental message that everyone can learn, but he challenged professionals to uncover the methods that will lead to better performance outcomes by each individual learner. In his view, the burden for teaching success did not rest with the abilities of the learner, but rather with the creativity of teachers who are responsible for delivering the instruction. This very idea was counterintuitive to contemporary practices of the times.
Wolfensberger, Brown, Wehman, and Gold. Wow, not a bad quartet to help nourish the career development goals of a fledgling program manager. For the record, I hold the highest regard for many of my contemporaries who carry forward the legacy of these leaders by promoting practices of workforce inclusion and career success in support of adults with significant disabilities. With that being said, our country owes a large debt of gratitude to these four icons for their vision and opening doors to personal freedoms, career opportunities, and the full inclusion of all Americans with disabilities.
Recently, a young colleague of mine challenged my views about the relevance of promoting customized and supported employment opportunities for all people with significant disabilities. This young professional offers program support to people with limited intellectual and verbal communication abilities inside a centered-based facility.
"Don, how do we know if people with significant disabilities really want to work in a community job? And even if I were to accept your premise, how can we know exactly what kind of job they would like to do if they can’t tell us?" Two great questions.
I answered my colleague by reframing his questions for broader discussion: "Fred, how do you know the individuals you are supporting are making informed choices and expressing a preference to participate in segregated service settings? How do you know these individuals really prefer non-work activities as well as spending a major portion of their time in the company of other people with disabilities each day? What are you (and your colleagues) doing to examine their opportunities to participate in an integrated community job?"
"Fred, what are you doing to examine the full range of possibilities to "customize" employment so a job specifically fits who people really are? What are you doing to identify how assistive technologies may be of some help to support people in performing tasks or adapting to future job situations? What is your level of commitment in supporting people to become full participating members of their communities, including their right to work? What are you doing to address specific gaps in your knowledge or training to insure that you are delivering state-of-the-art services for people with complex disabilities and life issues?"
"Fred, are we really supporting people to reach their fullest potential as human beings? Are we helping businesses to fully engage the potential work contributions of all people we are privileged to serve?"
Fred looked at me with a quiet stare but I could see the wheels turning inside his head. It was a look that communicated he had not truly considered the full range of possibilities. I said to him gently: "Look Fred, I don’t have satisfactory answers to these questions you are asking because the best answers to them lie in knowing and working creatively with each person you are supporting. You will discover these answers if you have the discipline to serve people one at a time.
And if you should miss the target, Fred, you can always try another way until you find the best answer for each individual. Fred nodded and smiled back at me.
More than 30 years later, the message is still as good as Gold.

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