Monday, March 19, 2007

Customized Employment is Heating Up in the Desert!

Last week, I had the honor to speak with three dedicated groups of Arizonans about customized employment (CE) practices to increase workforce opportunities for adults with serious mental illnesses (SMI). I was invited to come to the desert by Arizona’s Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and collaborating behavioral health and community rehabilitation programs serving the State of Arizona. It was a whirlwind tour with scheduled presentations on consecutive days in Flagstaff, Tucson, and Phoenix.
I had the opportunity to share information about CE fundamentals with vocational rehabilitation counselors, behavioral health professionals, job placement specialists, post-secondary educators, consumer advocates, and program managers of mental health programs from each of these three regions of the State. And I was inspired by the enthusiastic response of these dedicated professionals searching for new answers to address the stubborn unemployment and underemployment of youth and adults with SMI in their State.
The initial part of my presentation was entitled "Truth Happens." I spent time with each audience examining the stereotypes, half-truths, and myths that tend to immobilize our job placement efforts in support of adults with SMI. We spent time defining customized employment, examining core principles and strategies, and discussing how CE practices are disproving many mental health treatment conventions of our time. I am finding the easiest way for people to understand CE is through illustrated stories about real people who have succeeded though direct application of CE methods. And so, I shared true stories of 12 individuals with significant disabilities who were supported in following their dreams and obtained job outcomes at competitive wages through CE practices.
I shared how CE is all about changing what it means to be qualified in the workforce. Together, we examined how CE was extending opportunities for individuals once considered long shots for succeeding in the competitive workforce. We reviewed how CE is planned by identifying the unique interests, talents, and potential contributions of an unemployed or underemployed job seeker. And we discussed how the next step is to examine the best way to market and employ these possible contributions through individualized CE strategies such as job carving, task restructuring, job creation, self-employment, or micro-enterprise opportunities.
I was asked by Arizona RSA to spend time talking about how to customize career planning, exploration, and discovery services. It is no secret that many adults with SMI have high levels of education, training, or acquired talents they are simply not using. Customized career planning is about serving people one-at-a-time and getting to know each person. Career planning, therefore, is a person-centered approach to identifying knowledge, skills, and abilities that each individual holds. And it’s about examining and prioritizing each job seeker’s preferences, possibilities, and career choices. Not surprisingly, we have come to learn that people are more likely to pursue and succeed in jobs of interest that challenge them and meet specific outcomes of importance to them. So we discussed strategies for identifying these individualized talents and I shared career planning tools we use in my organization to support the process of identifying suitable goals and employment support plans.
At each stop, we discussed the importance of evidence-based employment practices and observing fidelity standards emerging from recent scientific research on employment and mental health. For example, recent research supports inclusion of the following factors in supported employment practices:
  • use of zero exclusion policy
  • rapid engagement of individuals in job search
  • job placement within regular (or customized) workforce positions at competitive wages
  • observance of individual consumer preferences
  • use of an individualized placement and support (IPS) approach
  • continuity of career planning, job placement, and ongoing employment support delivered by the same staff
  • availability of proactive, time-unlimited job support
  • close integration and imbedding of customized or supported employment goals within mental health treatment plans of each individual served.
In addition, we discussed the value of illness management recovery (IMR) and the emerging role of peer recovery specialists inside the employment arena. I shared how my organization, Rise, Incorporated, is collaborating with the Consumer/Survivor Network (CSN) of Minnesota to infuse IMR practices within our employability services with great success. Our goal is to integrate teaching of self-management skills to customize IMR plans for individuals who are taking initial steps to join or rejoin the workforce. In my view, a well-conceived Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) is fundamental to self-dependence including success on the job. WRAP is useful because it articulates steps to be taken to prevent illness relapse as well as coordinating action plans to be launched during times of crisis or extraordinary need.
During each training event, we spent significant time discussing the role of business leaders in making CE happen. Since CE is voluntary, and often a negotiated job outcome, how do we engage employers in this process? In truth, business leaders are only beginning to recognize the potential benefits in customizing jobs around the abilities and capacities of individuals with disabilities. Therefore, we discussed our need to introduce better marketing strategies with employers to educate them about the benefits of CE and hiring job seekers with significant disabilities. I’ve written two separate articles about making the business case for CE entitled "Customized Employment: Making the Business Case" and "Customized Employment: Making the Business Case-Part II."
The underlying principle in each article is this--CE works best when jobs negotiated with employers make sound economic sense and address identified business needs. CE has nothing to do with charitable intentions. So this means we need to get to know employers in our local workforce and listen carefully to their unmet labor and operational business needs. Also, it means developing greater confidence and savvy in marketing the unique abilities of job seekers by crafting creative employment proposals that address identified business needs. All CE proposals made by marketing and employment consultants are intended to lead to written job descriptions that detail specific tasks or duties that a job seeker is capable of performing. In some instances, job accommodations or external work supports may be necessary but the real goal of CE is to build valued job roles at competitive wages in companies where employer-based supports are fully engaged.
In addition to employer negotiations, we also discussed how self-employment and micro-enterprises are emerging as strategies in customizing employment for some individuals with significant disabilities. Although self-employment may not a suitable goal for some, it’s an exciting initiative for individuals to exercise choices, build career opportunities around their unique talents and gifts, and to follow a guided plan in becoming one’s own boss! I shared how my organization recently assisted seven individuals with SMI in launching their own small business development plans through grant funding from the Initiative Foundation in Central Minnesota. Each of these seven individuals are working hard with customized supports to blaze their own trail in the local economies of Central Minnesota. The self-employment endeavors of these seven entrepreneurs are as unique as the individuals who planned them.
In addition, we discussed how the introduction of CE brings a number of important issues into focus for individuals with SMI. Research has demonstrated that working is fundamental to mental health recovery yet many people are still paralyzed in choosing to work due to real or unfounded fears. For example, addressing disability cash benefits and health care coverage is an important obstacle for many individuals to hurdle. Oftentimes, unemployed or underemployed recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are unaware of specific work incentive programs that encourage them to work.
Also, many states, like my own home State of Minnesota, offer publically-funded, supplemental health care coverage for employed individuals with disabilities who want to work. In sum, there is a need to bring greater public awareness about disability work incentives and health care programs to encourage more people to choose work. Therefore, we discussed how customized benefits planning assistance is now available from federally-funded Work Incentive Planning and Assistance or WIPA agencies. The goal of WIPA organizations is to support individuals with disabilities in accurately measuring the direct impact of working on disability benefits and health care coverage. These services are extremely helpful in supporting people to move beyond their indecision by replacing fears with facts.
Yet another important topic of discussion was the matter of disability disclosure. Of course, disclosure is only relevant to CE when disability issues are directly related to performing bona fide tasks or job functions. Although the choice to disclose a disability is a private matter that can only be decided by a job seeker, we discussed specific challenges associated with "negotiating" jobs without disclosure. Since CE is a voluntary decision on the part of a business, it is often helpful to have an open dialogue so employers studying the idea of CE fully understand the rationale for employment proposals particularly when customization of tasks or supports are critical factors to success. With that said, the ultimate decision concerning disability disclosure rests appropriately with the preferences and comfort level of each job seeker.
Wow! It was certainly an exhausting but exhilarating few days. You know, it appears to me that customized employment is heating up in the desert. And it is no mirage. From up close, I saw an oasis in all three locations with enthusiastic people gearing up to better support the employability needs of Arizonans living with SMI. In less than a week, I’ve received more than 20 emails from various individuals excited by the possibilities of CE and asking for more information.
In addition, I was impressed with "Town Hall" discussions held after each training event to assess and mobilize the engagement of CE opportunities in Arizona. It was clear to me that many attendees are looking for new ideas to increase job placement opportunities for the individuals they support and represent. Some shared how they intended to use some of the ideas to improve and diversify their program services. Still others discussed potential collaborations among public and private sector agencies and organizations to make CE a viable service in their region.
I still have etched in my memory banks the unexpected remarks of one particular workshop participant. She sat quietly in the front row and I occasionally made eye contact with her throughout the day. However, I just couldn’t trust my judgment as to whether she was buying into CE and what I was sharing with the entire group. She listened attentively throughout approximately seven hours of training and group discussions. However, she said nothing. And she wore a facial expression that seemed to communicate a laisse faire attitude on the topic.
Once the training event was over, many attendees stopped by to say thanks and bid their fond farewell. When the room was virtually empty, this young woman appeared out of nowhere and approached me. Her face was a bit flushed and she was beaming from ear-to-ear. With eyes as big as saucers, she said to me: "I want you to know how much this means to me. I have a mental illness and I’m in recovery. I am also a job developer and intend to use many of these ideas you shared here today to help the people I support. Really, I will!"
I was somewhat taken back by this young lady’s startling, sudden display of excitement. I shot back at her with a smile: "I believe you. You’re really going to use these practices in your work, aren’t you?!"
"Yes, I am," she replied with excitement. "I’m definitely going to build CE into my job placement practice. Really! Thank you so much for the training today," she said.
As the young professional walked out the door, I turned to the Arizona RSA training specialist who accompanied me and said: "I really hope many of the people I talked to over the last three days found my presentation to be helpful. However, this trip was well worth my time if I only reached this individual."
And I meant it.


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8:35 PM  

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