Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Legions of Job Coaches?

Have you ever thought about what it’s going to take to level the playing field?
I have.
The national research data tells us that only about 3 out of 10 adults with significant disabilities have jobs in the competitive workforce. Just about everyone laments this high unemployment rate of people with disabilities. However, a ready solution often seems elusive. And a wide unemployment gap continues to exist between adults who live with and without disabilities today.
Despite increased advocacy efforts, this gap remains stubbornly high. Despite federal laws mandating an individualized public education, the gap continues. Despite increased government investments in disability, welfare, health care, and rehabilitation services, the gap has not narrowed significantly. And despite increased research about effective employment practices, this gap remains unacceptably high.
Why is this so?
Ah yes, I know what you are thinking. We need more public money, right? This is a common response from people closely aligned with the management and delivery of education, rehabilitation, and disability-focused services. "If only we had more money, we could take care of this problem!"
Really? Well, I have a few questions for you. Exactly how much money do we need to close this gap? What are the real chances of scoring all of this money we think we need? If we don’t obtain all of the money we think we need, what will we do? If we don’t get enough money, then who will get the opportunity to join the workforce? And who decides who will not?
I have a few more questions. Hypothetically speaking, if we were successful obtaining all of the money we think we need, what would we do with it? Would we build a public infrastructure in every locale that offers a job coach for every single person with a disability? Is this our future? Is this the service system we are working so hard to create? If we had a job coach for every person, only then is it possible to achieve a fully integrated workforce for all people with disabilities? Hmm.
When I think about this long-term strategy, I have mental images of legions of job coaches marching into our workforce like clones from the famous Star Wars movie. Wow! A job coach for everyone! Is this truly our goal? Is it even realistic? And if such a lofty goal was attainable, is it sustainable? Is this the legacy we intend to leave behind us?
I don’t know about you, but I want no part in creating legions of publically-funded job coaches. It is neither realistic nor the best way for us to close the high unemployment gap. It's a bad public service policy. And frankly, it's bad business.
Instead, I prefer an American workforce that builds new skills and support capacities from within. This means supporting businesses to increase their knowledge and comfort levels to train, supervise, and support their own employees with disabilities. It means reeducating employers about what it means to be job qualified. It means learning how to customize functional job roles in support of people with significant disabilities. It means taking measurable strides away from caretaking roles to new roles as business and employment consultants for disability and employment agencies. And it means forming creative business partnerships to maximize opportunities through customized employment and sharing of resources by the public and private sectors.
The truth is that we don’t have the money to do this work in any other way. And if we are waiting on a financial windfall to carry forward our ambitious workforce integration goals for everyone, we are only fooling ourselves.
So shall we accept the status quo? In my judgment, this is not an option.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that we don’t need public money or budget support. And I am not saying that we shouldn’t be lobbying government and private policymakers to secure the resources we need to do this work more effectively. We will not resolve many of our nagging job placement barriers such as inaccessible transportation through wishful thinking. Much of what we need to do will take public funding assistance. With that said, however, our goals will require using existing resources in new ways wherever possible to obtain better results. Significant social and economic change in the lives of people with disabilities is going to require new ideas, policies, and approaches. And we need to use both our fiscal and intellectual capital in completely new ways.
To illustrate my point, consider the following idea. Why don’t we consider a conversion of Social Security disability cash payments into hourly wage subsidies with prospective employers to encourage more workforce hires? The cost to the government would be roughly the same. With appropriate policy protections and time limits, this strategy might motivate more Social Security beneficiaries to give work a try. Also, it might encourage more employers to consider creative opportunities and hire people with little or no work history who need time to build job skills. This idea sounds like a win-win proposition to me with potential long-term benefits.
Finally, I want to be clear that I am not saying that we don’t need job coaches. Indeed, we need highly trained workforce technicians to work closely with employers and their employees with disabilities. What we don’t need or want are legions of them that increase long-term commitments and costs of providing supported employment services. My preference is to create teams of employment consultants who place the emphasis where it belongs--on a strategy of consulting. We need better trained supported employment professionals who not only understand their roles but have creativity, self-confidence, and problem-solving skills to foster independence and natural support in the workplace to the fullest extent possible.
In other words, we need to usher in a new vision that encourages more business communities to become actively involved in the hiring and job support of people with disabilities. Employers can and must increase their knowledge and capacities to make workforce integration a reality for all. So instead of hiring more job coaches, I have no problem with redirecting energy and investments into the private sector to attract new partnerships and compensate employers for extraordinary time they need to learn new skills of supervision and job support. If employers are encouraged to use their own resources to internalize the necessary job support, such investments will be well worth the effort in the long run. Ultimately, these strategies may help to reduce the long-term financial burden and dependency on disability and employment service providers.
In truth, no one has a simple answer to closing this high unemployment gap. However, we do know that conventional service models are not leading to enough outcomes in the workforce for adults with disabilities. For this reason, we need to consider new policies and service practices to increase opportunities and improve future outcome directions.
We still need a lot more money you say? OK, send in the clones.


Blogger Disability Blogger said...

re:"Why don’t we consider a conversion of Social Security disability cash payments into hourly wage subsidies with prospective employers to encourage more workforce hires?"

Interesting idea. The only problem is, the whole system of disability evaluation under SSA is based on residual functional capacity and the inability to work and earn more than a subsistence amount (sga, or substantial gainful activity, which in 2005 I believe was 860 per month). Even working less than sga can trigger a work review for someone who is currently receiving benefits which can potentially result in a negative outcome for the beneficiary.

For this idea to be implemented, the entire conceptual framework of social security disability and ssi evaluation (I blog on this: Social Security Disability Blog) would have to be scrapped.

But, with the population aging and disability application filing going up, who knows. The system is currently undergoing some pretty significant change right now (remains to be seen if this will be good change or another catastrophe such as the last "reform" initiated in this administration which significantly made things worse for individuals waiting on hearing requests).

Great blog, by the way.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments. I agree completely with you that the Social Security Disability System is conceptually flawed. It seems to me that we can’t have it both ways in the year 2006. If we truly believe people have the potential to work, and we have the evidence that people can work with job accommodations and customized support, how can we continue to support a system based on a premise that living with a disability negates the ability to work? It makes no sense to me. I recognize there are always exceptions to the rule when it comes to work capacities, but this country needs to examine better ways to implement policies that expect and reward working.

As it pertains to this idea I suggested, it would take a research demonstration project with the Social Security Adminstration to approve waivers and examine the strategy more closely and objectively. I don’t have a crystal ball but I believe such an option would yield better results than we see from other SSA policies because it considers the motivations of both an employer and prospective beneficiary. And these resources are being spent anyway in the form of a cash award. I believe this is an idea whose time has come and blogged more details about it in a post sometime ago (http://donlavin.blogspot.com/2005/08/new-ideas-to-encourage-reward.html)

By the way, I checked out the site where you blog. It’s a great resource and I bookmarked it. Thanks so much for sharing it!


8:43 AM  
Blogger blogonomous said...

"how can we continue to support a system based on a premise that living with a disability negates the ability to work?"

Well said.

11:21 AM  

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