Saturday, October 21, 2006

Thomas Jefferson: The Author of Customized Employment?

One-by-one, the invited stakeholders shared their views with the group’s facilitator. It was the usual chorus of proclamations:
"We definitely need more money to increase employment results," offered one participant.
"Jobs are really tough to come by in rural Minnesota," said another.
"You know, transportation access is a huge barrier," echoed someone else to the affirming nods of other group members.
"We need for more employers to get on board and take an interest," another person shared.
"It’s going to take better training and pay for our direct service practitioners to make a difference," exclaimed another.
As we moved around the large table, I was eventually the next person in queue. I offered the following: "We need to increase our expectations."
Looking somewhat confused, the event’s participants and facilitator stared in my direction as though dementia had finally set in on the old boy. It was the look that said: "This guy has three decades of management experience in providing customized and supported employment and the best he can offer us is "we need to increase our expectations?"
Earlier this year, I was invited to attend one of several focus groups sponsored by the State of Minnesota to gather information about why more Minnesotans with disabilities were not working in the workforce. The core idea was to bring together interested stakeholders so we could help to identify why the unemployment rate is so high for Minnesotans with significant disabilities living in our State.
Frankly, I didn’t know that this information was such a great mystery. And I often wonder how many stakeholder surveys or focus groups are needed to identify why unemployment is so unacceptably high? Yeah, I may be getting a little cranky after three decades of chasing the goal of job placement into the workforce as the first option for people with disabilities. In any case, I chose to attend this focus group to share my views.
And I tendered my number one reason for the high unemployment of adults with disabilities--"We just refuse to believe it can happen. We need to increase our expectations!"
Expectations? Well, expectation is defined in the dictionary in the following ways:
1. The act or state of expecting: to wait in expectation
2. The act or state of looking forward or anticipating
3. An expectant mental attitude: a high pitch of expectation
4. Something expected; a thing looked forward to.
Expectancy is the essential fuel that runs the engine of social change in our governmental, educational, and human services instititutions. When we lack it or have inadequate levels of it, we have no real chance of reaching our desired destination. And when we settle for lowered expectations, we earn disappointing outcomes.
What is that you say? This is not specific enough to develop a policy for systems change? Fair enough. Let me give you a little more foundation on the critical importance of expectatancy.
How about these? I believe we need more....
  • Parents raising their children with expectations that they will obtain integrated employment in the workforce as a future goal;
  • Educators holding expectations that all children will learn, achieve academic competence, and self-dependency through customized education;
  • School superintendents and principals embracing expectations that secondary education programs will yield and be accountable for post-secondary career and integrated employment outcomes for all students including those with significant disabilities;
  • School-to-career transition teams operating with expectations that integrated employment is the preferred and first option for all youth and young adults leaving secondary education.
  • State agency directors of disability-related programs leading and managing with bold expectations so progressive changes in State policies and reallocation of funding reward integrated employment and competitive wages as the preferred option.
  • Executive Directors and Chief Executive Officers of non-profit community rehabilitation programs leading their organizations with unyielding expectations to redirect services and staff roles to obtain integrated employment and competitive wage outcomes for their agency’s participants.
  • Direct service professionals with high expectations, a clarity of purpose, and using evidence-based practices to develop and create workforce opportunities for all participants of their agencies.
  • Owners and managers of public and private transportation businesses with expectations to make services widely accessible to all citizens who are reliant on this assistance to enhance their employability and independence.
  • Employers and business owners with uncommon expectations to actively recruit and hire the abilities and talents of traditionally underrepresented citizens who reflect the full diversity of communities where they operate their private enterprises.
  • Elected public officials, legislators, and policymakers with expectations to increase and reward integrated employment as the first option of youth and adults with disabilities by implementing more effective policies, reallocating public resources, and removing discentives.
  • Social Security disability administrators with expectations to modernize our view of disability and creating new policies that simplify and encourage goals for working up to an individual’s fullest capacities and abilities.
  • People with disabilities who believe in themselves, demand change and opportunities, and hold high expectations to work alongside all other Americans in the workforce.
Yes, in my experience our greatest obstacle is the need to advance our expectations at every level of government, education, and adult human services. Do you want to know why? It’s because we need to reach a national consensus that all Americans are valued and should contribute their unique talents and abilities regardless of disabilities or other barriers they may live with. If we can agree on this fundamental principle, we can work together to address all of the unique details that create barriers to making it happen for everyone who wants to work.
And if we can reach a consensus about these fundamental expectations, it will logically lead to communities that embrace universal design and participation. In other words, Americans need to recast a society and economy that welcomes everyone who chooses to work and contribute. Once we share this common vision and expectancy that everyone is a vital part of a larger matrix, our country will move closer to extending the American Dream to underrepresented groups.
Last weekend, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend a "Think Tank" on promoting a national policy to make integrated employment the first option for all Americans with disabilities. I attended the event with Bob Niemiec, a colleague of mine from Community Involvement Programs in Minneapolis and Minnesota APSE--The Employment Network. Early one evening, Bob and I stole a little time away from our conference to visit the Jefferson Memorial. On a marble wall behind a large imposing statue of Jefferson were inscribed these words written in a letter to George Washington by Jefferson more than 220 years ago:

"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant writer who crafted our Declaration of Independence and other seminal documents articulating the values and freedoms of a fledgling nation. There is no way Mr. Jefferson could have fully understood the reach of his words more than two centuries later. Of course, he did not write about nor speak directly to the rights of people with disabilities to work or access customized employment services to achieving greater personal freedoms.
However, Jefferson keenly understood about human nature and the importance of changing American institutions and laws to advance the rights and freedoms of its citizens. I have no doubt that Jefferson would approve of the pioneering work that customized and supported employment providers are using to uncover new truths about the employment potential of Americans with disabilities. And he would demand that we apply these truths to unlock the human potential of America’s disenfranchised and disengaged citizens.
After reading the inscription, I turned to Bob Niemiec and said: "Bob, I think Thomas Jefferson had high expectations of us." He smiled and said: "Yes, I think he did." We walked away from the Memorial with a renewed spirit. Bob and I understood that we had chosen a career path that demands a lot from us and there is so much work left to do.

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