Friday, June 09, 2006

Many Roads, One Destination

"In their heart of hearts, most Americans know that the best social program is a job..." Bill Clinton, 1992.

Former President Bill Clinton made this prophetic statement on his Presidential Campaign Trail in 1992. Now 14 years later, it seems like almost everybody is beginning to get it. In recent weeks, I've been meeting with government policymakers, educators, workforce center managers, State agency directors, community employment providers, business leaders, family members, and people with disabilities about employment and workforce development services. You know, it sure seems like everyone is talking these days about the fundamental value of having a good job and its direct impact on social, career, and economic well-being.
Trust me, this has not always been the case. For many decades, living with a significant disability in the United States meant you got a free pass. Going to Work? In most instances, a job in the workforce was considered beyond the reach and abilities of many youth and adults with significant disabilities. In other cases, job placement into the community labor force was considered to be either too costly or burdensome to implement. In still other instances, this very idea of participating in the workforce and engaging in self-support has been presented to people with disabilities as merely a choice not a personal responsibility or expectation.
I have been around this business of disability and employment policy for more than 30 years. And frankly, I’ve never seen this level of interest in the employment of people with disabilities. It seems the winds of change are being energized by emerging research, new service strategies, technology, advocacy, and social policy. And importantly, the demand for competitive employment and self-dependency is being driven by changes in government economics. We simply don’t have the money to fund long-term disability programs and support people in more traditional ways. To illustrate my point, let me share a few observations and activities I’ve been involved with in recent weeks.
My employer, Rise, Incorporated, recently joined a national research project that will study the impact of providing integrated mental health treatment and evidence-based employment practices (EBPs) for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recipients. This project is entitled the Mental Health Treatment Study (MHTS) and it will officially begin on July 1, 2006. MHTS is funded by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and will host more than 20 demonstration sites serving approximately 1,500 SSDI recipients from multiple geographic regions of the United States. This important research will be co-managed by a consortium of partners including Westat in Rockville, Maryland, Dartmouth College, Indiana University, and the University of Texas. My agency will manage the research activities planned for Minnesota.
It’s no secret that sharp criticism has been directed at SSA in recent years. Many view SSA as a major contributor to the high unemployment of adults with disabilities. Disability and employment advocates point to SSA’s poor and ineffective policies as a primary reason for the long-term dependency of people with disabilities who should be working in the labor force. For this reason, it’s truly outstanding to see SSA taking such positive steps to correct a long-term national problem. This federal agency recognizes the value of employment to mental illness recovery and it intends to study new and effective strategies to return long-term disability beneficiaries to work. Hooray!
At the same time, it’s very exciting to see the mental health system recognizing the importance of supported employment to mental illness recovery. There was a time when the prevailing logic was to encourage mental health consumers to wait and recover from mental illness treatment prior to participating in an active job search. The end result was a whopping unemployment rate of 90% for adults with serious mental illnesses (SMI) according to the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health!
Contrary to conventional thinking and traditional practices, many adults with SMI are working successfully today. Many are demonstrating that employment is not only a possibility but fundamental to their recovery. Supported employment is a well-researched evidence-based practice documented to be effective in supporting mental illness recovery when integrated with progressive mental health treatment. In the year 2006, working is no longer a distant or unattainable goal for youth and adults with SMI in Minnesota. And this momentum to increase work opportunities is evident across our State, counties, and community mental health systems.
Also, this past month I met with a team of secondary educators and transition advocates about strategic planning and sustaining our school-to-career transition project to support youth with significant disabilities. I can sure remember a time when "transition" meant quite simply that high schools would make referrals to vocational rehabilitation when a youth was ready to graduate. We’ve come a long way baby! Today, progressive public education policies such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and new school-to-career transition strategies are completely changing the landscape.
In short, high schools no longer defer responsibility in supporting youth to obtain employment and career education outcomes. Instead they are providing a range of job placement, training, and work experience programs themselves. Also, they are collaborating and integrating their expertise along with workforce centers, county human service agencies, business associations, and community employment providers to increase job opportunities for youth and young adults with disabilities. Today, high schools are working closely with colleges, universities, vocational schools, labor unions, and other community entities to build career education and job skills to better serve their students' career development needs.
Rise is the managing partner of a large interagency Transition and Customized Employment (TCE) project for youth with a wide array of disabilities. By combining our collective efforts, TCE's consortium is assisting close to 80 percent of all graduates obtain jobs in the community workforce in Anoka County. Hey, not too shabby!
There was a time when employers delighted in taking a back seat and letting the "rehabilitation experts" take the lead when it came to planning job placement and workforce development opportunities for adults with disabilities. As Bob Dylan would say--and the times, they are a changin'. Today, businesses are beginning to accept a more active role in the employability of youth and adults with disabilities. For example, the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN) and its local chapters operating all around the country are stepping up to take a lead role in promoting change. The BLN is a progressive movement of business leaders who are working collectively to improve job and career opportunities.
To illustrate, BLNs are involved in marketing and education strategies with employers to increase awareness about the labor capacities and skills they could be tapping to enhance and diversify their workforce. These business associations are also actively engaged in direct career education, mentoring, training, and support of youth and adults with disabilities to increase awareness of emerging opportunities in their community labor force.
Locally, the Minnesota BLN is preparing to host the USBLN’s Annual Conference this fall. It’s refreshing to see employers taking a leadership role in engaging job and career opportunities in support of unemployed and underemployed youth and adults with disabilities. And what a wonderful opportunity to showcase what Minnesota businesses are doing in our State to become part of the solution.
Last week, I was invited to attend a meeting with my colleague, Becky Fink, who is strong advocate in addressing homelessness in the community where I live. I was invited to share my views about the important role of employment in eradicating chronic homelessness for individuals with disabilities. Homelessness and housing advocates are beginning to recognize a need to inbed job placement and supported employment strategies within the existing menu of support services. This is essential so individuals and families have a real chance of making some headway in putting their lives back together and contributing to their own self-support.
We are talking here about an interagency service model that integrates supported employment to advance work and income opportunities for homeless individuals, many of whom live with significant disabilities such as mental illness, chemical dependency, or co-occuring disorders. This is a no-brainer. How on this good earth can homeless individuals gain any traction in the workforce without access to responsive employment assistance?
Recently, Rise added a new supported employment program to complement its delivery of services to recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) in the Twin Cities. This program is entitled Work In Progress and offers job placement and supported employment services to welfare recipients who have disabilities as well as cultural and language barriers. For many years, County welfare support systems were content to refer adults with diagnosed disabilities to Social Security to engage long-term disability benefits. This was much easier than trying to assist people with disabilities in finding quality jobs in an underfunded welfare system.
However, new ideas about integrating TANF, vocational rehabilitation, and supported employment are now emerging. Work in Progress is funded by Minnesota Rehabilitation Services (RS) and integrates supported employment for welfare recipients who want to work and can succeed through person-centered planning, customized job placement assistance, and ongoing job support. This lousy idea of moving people with disabilities out of welfare programs because they "can’t" work has been replaced by a new approach to pursue self-support goals through a blending of interagency resources and systems expertise. This is good news for people with disabilities who choose to receive their services inside the welfare system.
Not so long ago, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) expended very little administrative energy examining how to improve the employment status of Minnesotans with disabilities and other life challenges. Other State agencies and local workforce programs were charged with such responsibilities. However, this is no longer the case. Minnesota DHS has invested a great deal of time and energy to secure federal grants to study the employability obstacles of adults with a variety of disabilities and job barriers. Major initiatives such as the Pathways to Employment and Demonstration to Maintain Independence and Employment (MDIE) projects are good examples of DHS initiatives designed to study Medicaid and related systems change efforts to increase and maintain employment. I applaud the efforts of DHS to become more actively involved in shaping new policies that will lead to increased participation in the workforce by all Minnesotans especially highly underrepresented populations.
As a senior manager at Rise, I’ve been active educating Minnesota State legislators, County Commissioners, and other policymakers about the importance of stabilizing existing employment programs to support people with the highest job assistance needs. It seems to me that more policymakers and legislators are grasping the importance of job support programs that reduce long-term dependency on Social Security, welfare, and disability service programs. There is little question that our local demand for employment assistance exceeds available resources at this time. However, I am impressed that policymakers recognize the need for public investments to better address long-term, structural unemployment problems in our State and local communities. Unless we choose to invest wisely in creative employment approaches with private sector participation, we will only encourage by default more reliance on expensive human services, medical assistance, and welfare cash outlays. I don't know about you but I know where I want to see my tax dollars invested.
Just a few small victories? I really don’t think so. There is so much complexity in galvanizing public policies and building a framework where education and human service systems can work together to achieve an employment for all objective. There are times when we tend to lose sight of measurable progress we are making on all fronts. And it’s only when we take a step back and examine the broader landscape that we can see this progress and connect all of the dots. In my view, there are many roads being paved right now and most of them will lead to one destination–securing a good job.
There are times when I’m not very certain we have an engineer steering our lead car. However, I can say with some certainty from my travels of late that the train has left the station. And to the newcomers with freshly printed passports, I say "welcome aboard!"


Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:21 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Well I am sorry to have bored you. In any case, I do appreciate your spending more than 13 minutes reading the article and then taking your valuable time to post a comment. Most disinterested people would just click to the next blog.

Unrealistic? If everyone held my opinion then there would be no need for public education about customized and supported employment to improve outcomes for adults with significant disabilities. I do not underestimate the challenge but I do refuse to accept the status quo as you appear to. Your one sentence rebuttle did little to dampen my enthusiasm or optimism about the future.

By the way, you read the wrong article. I wrote "Truth Happens" for people just like you (see my May 12th post right below).

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stating that the post was “boring” and “unrealistic” is fine but have the courage to back up your statements! I believe that honest feedback positive & negative can be very valuable but leaving one sentence statements without rational is not going to get your point across. I think it is very important to listen to all opinions and in particular I believe that someone like Mr. Lavin needs to hear honest feedback. Individuals “at the top of the food chain” often don’t get real feedback as subordinates, peers, and business partners rarely are going to give an upper manager or business owner a dissenting view of their opinion or idea. As a result the individuals who are in charge of making the most important decisions are often out of touch with the reality of a given field at the staff/consumer level. Therefore I would encourage “Anonymous” to respectfully expound of what he/she finds unrealistic as well as encouraging Mr. Lavin to seek out opinions from the rank and file and not just from the penthouse.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Thank you for amplifying on my point. I do indeed welcome dissenting opinions and alternative views. Just saying that something is unrealistic and providing no additional information or intelligent debate does little to open a productive dialogue on the subject.

Just a couple of points. Since I wrote about several co-occurring events in my post, I have no idea if the writer disagreed with a particular point or "everything" I shared in the post. If this writer disagrees with my position that people with significant disabilities can work in the workforce, then I guess we do indeed hold opposing viewpoints. If this person had a problem with a specific issue, it is certainly worthy of some debate or further discussion.

A second point you make is a reference to people on the high end of the “food chain” needing to hear honest feedback from the rank and file. Honestly, I have no idea if this writer is an individual with a disability, a family member, a direct service staff person, an employer, or the executive director of an agency. There are certainly dissenting viewpoints on this subject of full employment of people with disabilities by many people and this person did not provide enough information to identify who he or she is or represents.

Be certain of this--I do value honest feedback and viewpoints from all stakeholders. However, I hold no illusions that my own position on the “food chain” is representative of all or most executives or senior managers of organizations that serve or support people with significant disabilities. In fact, I believe my view is likely to be considered extreme by many. My goal with this blog is to educate and encourage all people to consider the possibilities.

Thanks for taking the time to respond and please come again.

9:36 PM  

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