Thursday, December 08, 2005

Success and Failure are not Opposites

At center stage, the African American woman received a standing ovation by 300 professionals attending a welfare-to-work recognition event in Hennepin County last week. In her late twenties, the woman is now successfully employed as a nurse in the Twin Cities’ health care industry. She eloquently shared her personal journey to competitive employment and self-sufficiency as a single welfare Mom. It was a remarkable and touching story of courage, overcoming personal obstacles, discovery of her signature skill sets, taking advantage of educational and career opportunities, and then ultimately, choosing to be accountable in raising her child. The woman’s punch line to an attentive audience was this: "Failure was not an option!"
This former welfare recipient hammered home a point made by President Calvin Coolidge many decades ago: "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."
In an article entitled The Axis of Inertia, I shared how a "fear of failure" is one of the principal enemies impeding the job placement success of adults with significant disabilities in the American workforce. As disability service managers and direct service professionals, we tend to worry about too many things. We worry about the skills and abilities of our program participants to go to work. We are anxious about our own abilities to find and match suitable jobs for them. We are troubled about the possibilities for inappropriate displays of behavior. We worry about issues of exploitation and job safety.
Also, we hold fears that employers don’t have the expertise or won’t dedicate the time to provide adequate supervision. We worry about co-worker acceptance and the abilities of job seekers to meet business productivity standards. We lament the lack of access to public transportation in our communities. We are nervous about what parents or guardians will think if we propose such a wacky idea.
We are slowed by the possibility that center-based participants will lose their friends. We are stymied by concerns that we don’t have the necessary budget resources to go forward. And we hang onto this stubborn belief that people with significant disabilities just can’t make it in this world without us.
Whether these fears are grounded in realities, partial truths, or misperceptions, they are pervasive and discourage organizational risk taking. They raise the unthinkable premise: "What if the people we try to place fail?" And if we are completely honest with ourselves, they touch on a more sensitive subject: "What if I fail?"

When risks are perceived to be high, it’s far easier to play it safe than buck the status quo. And it’s far more convenient too. It takes labor intensive time and creative work to develop a customized job in the workforce for someone with complex disabilities. In other words, our ongoing investment in center-based service options reduces perceived risks and abates many persistent fears. When organizations choose to invest high energies and fiscal resources in center-based service models, it tends to discourage innovation and progressive action to increase access to workforce opportunities for people with the highest needs. To say it more simply, we harvest what we plant.
The introduction of supported and customized employment has radically changed the rules of engagement. It is no longer necessary to exclude people from opportunities to participate in the community’s workforce because they don’t qualify for advertised job vacancies. The fundamental focus of customized employment is identifying talent and marketing this ability one person at a time. It means contacting and educating employers, working creatively, and negotiating opportunities with business leaders to make employment a viable match to one's abilities to contribute.
This idea of customizing jobs requires a blend of patience and skills of persuasion by employment consultants. It also requires a technical knowledge about job skills discovery and career planning practices to support each person in assessing their opportunities to contribute. It means having a technical grasp of job analysis methods so we can break tasks down into smaller, teachable parts. It requires applied knowledge in negotiating job accommodations such as the use of assistive technologies or job restructuring techniques (e.g., job carving).
Customizing requires technical understanding of other strategies such as the launch of self-employment or microenterprises to employ the unique skills of people with significant disabilities. It means having a fundamental knowledge about disability characteristics, public policy issues, and how to use fiscal and community resources to promote integrated employment outcomes.
It means recognizing the need to develop partnerships to address all service and support needs that cannot be met effectively by the employer alone. And above all, it requires advanced levels of creative problem-solving skills to prevent problems or resolve conflicts that were not foreseen during employment planning.
One of the chief lessons I have learned over the past 30 years is that success and failure are not opposites. They are really two sides of the same coin. Oftentimes, success is an ongoing process driven by active learning. They key to success, therefore, is learning from our failed attempts and incorporating self-improvement practices along the way.
Inventor Thomas Edison once fielded a question from a news reporter who asked how it felt to fail 2000 times before successfully inventing the light bulb. Edison replied: "I never failed once. It just happened to be a 2000-step process."
Unfortunately, many agency managers and direct service practitioners are easily intimidated by life complexities associated with challenging disability conditions. And the very idea of initiating community job placement is viewed by many as a daunting task hardly worth their effort. They are dead wrong. It is worth taking well-reasoned risks because integrated employment enriches and empowers the lives of virtually everyone.
This is not to say the job is an easy one. Only three out of ten Americans with disabilities are working in the labor force according to most national studies. This fact alone defines the scope of our challenge. We need to begin by developing a sharper sense of purpose, mobilizing resources, retooling policies, rethinking service approaches, and equipping our staff with the skills and confidence to get the job done.
This is impossible you say? Well, thousands of people with significant disabilities are already placed in the workforce throughout the United States via assistance from supported employment programs. And customized employment demonstrations throughout the country are building upon this success with exciting new service strategies. In other words, risks of failure are best managed by employing trained, skilled employment consultants who are well equipped to make good things happen.
Success is indeed within reach but we must be willing to embrace change and do our work with greater persistence and unyielding determination. A former welfare recipient who pursued her dream to became a professional nurse gave us a prescription to remedy our fears: "Failure is not an option!"

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