Sunday, October 02, 2005

What if every employer did something?

The classified ad caught my eye immediately. With each line I read, my jaw dropped lower in total disbelief. Is this some kind of joke? Am I truly reading what I think I am reading?

Is there really a progressive business in the Twin Cities who is actively seeking to hire people with disabilities? And they will be making all internal provisions to customize the job training and support that individuals need to achieve employment success? Are they openly welcoming applicants with varied and significant disabilities to apply and become members of their team? And they are willing to offer competitive pay, career investment in their employees, and good health care benefits? And no way....are they really blowing off any training or technical support from vocational rehabilitation, employment, and human services agencies?!

Wow!! This is just so unbelievable! It seems to good to be true. This has got to be some kind of far out fantasy.

Well actually, it is a fantasy. It is my fantasy. I have never read a classified ad like this. The only businesses I know of who are actively seeking to employ people with significant disabilities, are businesses that are designed and publically-funded to serve people with disabilities. That is, sheltered workshops, extended employment programs, mental health day treatment centers, adult training and habilitation facilities, and other community rehabilitation programs.

You know, there is a lot of talk today about demand-side employment strategies in our nation’s workforce development circles. America is working hard to prepare and connect job seekers with its emerging workforce needs as defined by our business leadership community. This strategy makes a great deal of sense. Who can argue with effective ideas that supply an experienced and talented labor pool to insure a strong economy and world-class workforce?

The problem with this one-dimensional view of workforce development is that many people who have something to contribute are often left behind. There is a staggering public cost when high unemployment results within various segments of our populace. This is true for America’s largest minority population–people with disabilities. Few Americans realize that only 3 in 10 citizens with significant disabilities actually have competitive jobs in the workforce. We are talking here about a 70% unemployment rate in an economy that features a five percent rate for everyone else. This is a national problem that is worth examining more closely.

Isn’t this unemployment rate of people with disabilities just a social problem of no concern to private enterprise? Well, think about it. America not only loses the opportunity to realize the productivity of people with disabilities, but our economy is dragged further by higher taxes. It takes literally billions of dollars to fund the broad range of social security disability, welfare, and community rehabilitation that is needed by unemployed people with significant disabilities. The annual costs associated with operating these programs are growing out of control and becoming a significant fixed portion of our national, state, and local human service budgets.

Yes, it does matter! We are not talking here about a few months of financial support. For many people, we are talking about a lifetime of fixed support. A young adult who leaves high school without a job, and spends a lifetime on disability or welfare benefits, is ringing up one whopper of a publically-funded bill. This usually includes expensive public cash assistance as well as other dollars needed to fund community rehabilitation services. Trust me, the price tag is big. And all taxpayers get to help pay the freight. Are you paying enough taxes yet?

So who’s problem is it? Unemployment is everybody’s problem! We can choose to ignore it but institutional, persistent unemployment is not going to go away by simply looking the other way. As responsible citizens, we all have an important role in addressing it. I don’t know of anyone who has all of the answers. However, there is a national movement afoot to try to correct the presenting problem. We may not have all of the answers, we do know this–traditional job placement approaches are not effective for everybody who lives with a significant disability.

National research and employment demonstration programs now tell us that many people with disabilities can succeed in obtaining a job when person-centered approaches are used. This means they are best served when we see them as individuals and look carefully at the unique talents they have to offer. Customized and supported employment programs are designed to uncover the unique talents of individuals and then support them in marketing these abilities to prospective employers. In other instances, customizing means supporting people to use their talents by launching self-employment and micro-enterprises.

Let’s be clear here. We are not talking about corporate charity or volunteer work. We are talking about real work for real pay inside the workforce. And we are talking about how customization of job duties, training, work conditions, and other supports can lead to job placement and employment success. Customization means supporting people with significant disabilities one at a time. Thousands of Americans have already benefited from the principles of customizing employment, but we have only scratched the surface.

We need to see more business leaders take an active interest in the employment of people with disabilities. The emergence of Business Leadership Networks (BLNs) dedicated to increasing the employment and economic development of people with disabilities throughout the United States is a very positive first step. State and regional BLNs, as well as other business advisory groups, are helping to educate employers about policies and strategies that will help include people with disabilities in America's emerging workforce.

No, I don’t expect to see classified ads in next Sunday’s newspaper calling specifically for the job recruitment of people with significant disabilities. Disability should never be a deciding factor in hiring somebody for a competitive job. However, it should never be a deciding factor in excluding people from participating in employment either (unless it is a bona fide hiring factor). Hiring decisions should always be about one's ability to contribute and be productive.

With that said, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more employers take an active interest in examining how customized employment can contribute to their business objectives and bottom line? The late Francis Fogerty, one of the founders of Rise, Incorporated, once said this: "If every employer took an interest and hired just one individual with a disability, we wouldn’t need Rise." Fogerty's vision was accurate more than 30 years ago and his wisdom is right on target today.

For more information about making the business case for customized employment, click the following link below:


Anonymous Digichex said...

I couldn't agree more. I have a sister who has a business that helps handicapped people help themselves. They place clients ranging from mildly handicapped to severe handicapped in group homes using criteria that the occupants must compliment each other in their life skills. Maybe one is unable to drive but can cook and clean, while still another is unabel to stand for long periods of time or at all but can achieve most household task from a wheel chair with some advance planning.
The idea is to provide as nearly a possible a self suffiecient home utilizing the residents complimentary skills. I have personally seen what this does for the clients self asteem and sense of well being. If this concept could be extended in the work place the benifits to society and to ivdividuals is huge. By the way the payoff to society in the residetial living arrangements are not just feel good, the average cost of care for the handicapped individual over state run housing was 75% less cost. Most people are not looking for a hand out they just want a way out.

Rick Zeien
Founding Member

2:14 AM  

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