Sunday, January 29, 2006

Who Moved Voc Rehab's Cheese? Part I

A little more than a week ago, four senior managers at Rise, Incorporated had the opportunity to spend some time with Ms. Kimberly Peck, the new Director of Rehabilitation Services for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The purpose of our visit was to get better acquainted and share views as to how our State could work to improve its vocational rehabilitation (VR) services for Minnesotans with disabilities.

I had only met Kim Peck once before our meeting but had been told by a number of colleagues that she is very smart and a great listener. I found both of these to be true. Although new to VR, Peck has already made astute observations about the national and state VR program. And she pressed us for our own views and suggestions about ways VR could work to expand services and improve job outcomes for a greater number of Minnesotans.

My colleagues and I were delighted to oblige. Together, our small group had more than 100 years of experience in working with VR as managers from the private, not-for-profit sector. I was certainly not shy in sharing my own views and ideas for her consideration. I told Ms. Peck that I was a big supporter of VR but very disappointed in the lack of national vision and leadership at all levels in recent decades. Although Minnesota is a great place to work, we had also become complacent in making necessary changes. I told our new VR Director that I could best summarize my disappointment in two words: Opportunity Lost. Let me explain my viewpoint further by citing a powerful story.
A little over a decade ago, author Spencer Johnson wrote a parable about people and their reactions to unwelcome change in his best selling book Who Moved My Cheese? Johnson tells a story about two mice named Sniff and Scurry and two “little people” named Hem and Haw. The foursome found themselves trapped in a maze but delighted in eating “cheese” they discovered in their favorite spot called Station C. In Johnson’s parable, cheese is used as a metaphor for anything in our lives that is worth chasing and brings us happiness, comfort, or success. For example, it could be financial security, a good job, or perhaps, a satisfying personal relationship.

As Johnson’s tale unfolds, our fearsome foursome return to Station C each day to eat the tasty cheese. The cheese not only tastes good but also nourishes them. The two mice, Sniff and Scurry, pay far closer attention to their surroundings and begin to notice the dwindling supply and quality of the cheese at Station C. These high energy rodents don’t over analyze their circumstances but accept that change is a necessary and natural part of living inside the maze. Sniff “follows his nose” and then sets a new direction to find new cheese. Soon, his good buddy Scurry follows closely behind him. The mice choose wisely without hanging on to a past that no longer exists. And they are rewarded by taking on risks and exploring new possibilities.

On the other hand, our little friends Hem and Haw are much slower to accept change. Despite obvious changes in the supply and quality of their cheese, Hem and Haw return to Station C daily hoping for their luck to change. However, the outcome is always the same. In fact, the cheese in Station C will never be the same again. In time, Hem and Haw become confused, shocked, and angered to discover that their cheese was now completely gone. Both believed their circumstances to be very unfair. After all, Station C had become a very comfortable place, just like home.

Hem was “hemmed” in by his old ideas and ways. And Haw was so darned frightened to leave the comforts of Station C and move forward into uncharted territory. As the story goes, Hem and Haw gradually became weaker and weaker as they returned to Station C waiting for the return of their cheese. After a period of time, they begrudgingly set out to search for new cheese when they finally realize that returning to Station C is a complete waste of their time. Hem and Haw did not accept the facts because of their limited vision. And they lost out on opportunities to replenish their cheese.

Spencer Johnson wrote this parable to offer insight and guidance to people who struggle in managing their altered life situations such as a career change, or perhaps, a death or divorce in the family. The author’s underlying message is this: Change is inevitable. Accept it and be ready to move forward to look for new cheese.

When I entered this line of work more than 33 years ago, VR was THE place where people with disabilities could go to get assistance in finding a job. Sure it was a still a maze, but VR was successful and enjoyed eating its cheese at Station C. Thirty years ago, VR was the alpha and omega in the delivery of employment services for youth and adults with disabilities. They were widely regarded as the vocational experts. And you might say, VR was the tail wagging the dog. However, something happened inside our workforce and employment service maze during these past 30 years.

And when you think about it, these changes were both inevitable and desirable in many ways. The unemployment rate of people with disabilities was then (and remains today) incredibly high. For this reason, it was quite logical the public's demand for employment assistance would be sweeping and significant over time. This job was far too big for any one public service system to manage alone including VR.

With VR busy eating its cheese at Station C, dramatic changes were taking place all around them. Disability advocacy efforts, Supreme Court decisions, public law changes, and emerging innovations in the delivery of employment services in support of people with disabilities were unfolding at a rapid pace. The convergence of these activities helped pave the way to an incredible level of growth in both the number and types of job support services available to people with disabilities.

For example, secondary education programs in the United States were encouraged to provide job placement and employment services for youth with disabilities in transition from school-to-careers. State and County developmental disabilities and mental health agencies recognized the critical need for employment services and began to institute new funding strategies to increase job outcomes for their respective constituents. These activities fueled a high level of growth in the number of community agencies interested in the delivery of job placement and supported employment services.

In addition, federal Medical Assistance Waivers such as the Mental Retardation & Related Conditions Waiver (MR/RC Waiver), Traumatic Brain Injury Waiver (TBI Waiver), and Community Assistance for Disabled Individuals Waiver (CADI Waiver) were crafted to encourage integrated community services. This included the provision of supported employment for adults with developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and others with significant disabilities. Also, state extended employment (EE) programs were initiated and modified to fund supported employment for unemployed and underemployed adults with an array of disabilities.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) also launched cumbersome, but widespread programs called Ticket-to-Work (TTW), Plans to Achieve Self-Support (PASS), and Impairment Related Work Expenses (IWREs) to encourage SSA disability beneficiaries to choose work over long-term economic dependency. One-Stop Workforce Centers and Temporary Aid to Needy Family (TANF) programs began to realize the need for customized and supported employment approaches. And these programs are assisting challenging-to-employ welfare recipients with disabilities and other job related barriers.
The introduction and explosion of person-centered employment services and self-directed supports completely changed our employment service delivery landscape with new opportunities and possibilities. In sum, the number of public stakeholders and private organizations interested in disability employment issues has grown exponentially. To be sure, our federal-state VR program has struggled to keep pace with and engage in such dramatic changes. And in some instances, VR has taken ill-advised positions to manage its growing challenges.
For example, VR introduced Order of Selection policy standards and initiated waiting lists for services. A lousy idea. VR also maintained an archaic case management system built on inflexible policies that are out of step with the emerging needs of today’s job seekers with disabilities. VR struggled to manage its shrinking resources and became confused by its diminishing role in the delivery of employment services for youth and adults with significant disabilities.

The national-state VR program is indeed undergoing a critical identity crisis. All across the country, VR is re-examining its fundamental purpose and raising questions about what it does best. In my opinion, VR’s failure of leadership to forecast inevitable changes and make effective policy decisions has left an indelible impact in states and communities throughout the United States. This includes morale problems with VR counselors and other professionals within its ranks. It also includes a disturbing level of systems fragmentation and confusion in regional and local service communities.
Today, public education agencies and multiple adult service systems are still trying to stitch together this patchwork quilt of job services that has grown rapidly and without the guidance of an overreaching community vision or blueprint.

Yes, somebody moved voc rehab’s cheese. And it's just too bad we didn’t have enough foresight to galvanize a guiding vision over the past 30 years. The truth is that we need leadership very badly today. We need to create a better sense of purpose, expectation, and possibility. And we need effective leadership to create new synergy around our shared goals across disability service systems. We need better integration of expertise and fiscal resources to increase our overall effectiveness.
The truth is that no one system has all of the answers. And no one system has all of the expertise or resources. And today, we could use less territorial competition that repels the collaboration of natural and potential organizational partners. In the year 2006, organizational survival means leaving Station C in the maze. It means examining how we can work together to increase and improve employment outcomes for all youth and adults with disabilities.

In my personal view, this leadership role is the proper authority of federal-state VR program. VR cannot cower nor be timid by its lack of public resources as it has in the past. It is time for a new vision. It is time for VR to be bold and cut deals with all interested stakeholders. It is time to unify organizations and work together to change critical public policies. It is time for VR to lead in blending, integrating, braiding, and leveraging all available expertise and fiscal resources to increase results.
It is time to challenge business leaders and community members to become a part of the solution if VR and its employment service partners are expected to operate with flat line budgets. And it is time for VR to include everyone and leave no person with a disability behind as we work collectively to build an inclusive workforce accessible to all.

This is impossible you say? Well, this rat left Station C a long, long time ago. And I told our new VR Director, Ms. Kimberly Peck, that I could be counted on to work with her in any way she asks to help VR find new cheese.

This post is Part I of a two-part series. Part II of Who Moved Voc Rehab’s Cheese? will detail specific ideas my colleagues and I shared with Minnesota’s new VR Director including ways we can all work together to improve VR and employment services for Minnesotans with disabilities.


Blogger Patti said...

I love your post. Both my husband and I used DVR in Wisconsin. I used it in Green Bay to get through college. I have a job. My husband used it and got the run around. It seems to us that DVR is good at placing low skilled people, but not professionals. My husband, a college grad has only had custodial jobs or he did work in the post office for 5 years.
The counselors he had were more concerned about his ability to interview than help with finding him a job. He iterviews great. But what he needed was someone to advocate and find a job that would fit his disabilites (vision at the time-now metabolic disorder-diabetes). They did not care if he got a job that fulfilled he potential-a $5.00 an hour job would have been fine with them.

Glad I got my tuition paid by DVR (I stutter). But I never would look to them to find me a job.
The truth is that employers discriminate and many counselors don't want to admit it.

Also, in Wisconsin, they pay for DVR counselors is not that good.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Patti, thank you for stopping by and sharing your views.

I agree with you that the VR program needs to focus more of its attention on improving career development services and examining how customized employment strategies can help people with disabilities "break the glass ceiling." In fact, I will be touching on this subject in Part II of "Who Moved Voc Rehab's Cheese?"

Everybody knows that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is high. There is very little attention, however, given to "underemployment" issues and people who work below their education, training, and skill levels. As you are well aware, there are thousands of people with disabilities who have difficulties securing jobs with good pay and benefits that are needed to achieve self-sufficiency.

I am proud to say that my own agency is working to address the underemployment of adults with mental health disabilities. We have just finished a five-year project funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) to conduct a project demonstration in this area. Also, Minnesota
Rehabilitation Services (RS) recently funded and is a partner on a project that is encouraging us to address the underemployment of adult with serious mental illnesses (SMI)who are interested in career ladder jobs with good pay and benefits. We have a long way to go but it is a start.

Best wishes to you and your husband in your quest to find good jobs. I hope you folks are successful in finding progressive employers who are open to the idea of customizing employment opportunities for you. They are out there! Really!

11:40 PM  

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