Thursday, April 12, 2007

Washington State's Working Age Adult Policy

I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation by a team of professionals from the State of Washington. Our guests from Washington State were invited to take part in a video series about innovations in supporting employment for adults with significant disabilities. This video series is being sponsored by Pathways to Employment (PTE), the State of Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (WIG). The panel presentation by the Washington group was fascinating and I took away two fundamental principles critically important to expanding integrated employment outcomes in the workforce in Minnesota (and presumably elsewhere).

My first observation about Washington’s presentation was the importance of bringing clarity and a strong policy foundation to an articulated vision. On July 1, 2006, Washington became the first state in the nation to develop a Working Age Adult Policy (WAAP), thereby, mandating a new direction promoting competitive employment in the workforce at living wages for its residents with developmental disabilities. With this new policy, Washington essentially discontinued its public funding of sheltered employment and other community service options in favor of job placement expectations in the workforce for all individuals. In other words, Washington introduced a new vision with clear expectations that its public resources will only fund services that lead to integrated employment at living wages. Although some exemptions are granted due to medical concerns, Washington is saying through its WAAP that real change is only possible by redirecting resources in ways that encourage and reward employment and self-sufficiency outcomes.

The panel shared Washington’s successes, experiences, and challenges in implementing this statewide WAAP. The speakers included a service provider, a supported employment training consultant, and a county administrator from King County, the Seattle metropolitan service area. Jon Lund, President and CEO of Tangible Systems, discussed the WAAP from a provider’s perspective including his experiences leading a conversion from a sheltered workshop model to supported employment. Ray Jenkins, Division Director for King County Developmental Disabilities, discussed his County’s role in implementing WAAP, redirecting funding resources, and changing public expectations about disability and employment in the workforce. And finally, Cesilee Coulson, Executive Director for the Washington Initiative on Supported Employment (WISE) discussed the role of her organization in delivering training and technical assistance to adult service providers to support systems changes and conversion to supported employment services and outcomes.

All three panelists offered a powerful employment-first vision as well as strong policy foundation for statewide systems change. This includes significant expansion of job placement opportunities in the workforce for adults with developmental disabilities in Washington. An interesting discussion point about this public policy change is that Washington did not direct its disability service organizations to shut down their sheltered employment or center-based services. Also, they did not delineate specific strategies or services to be delivered. They simply changed the overreaching vision and redirected organizational energies by changing expectations about outcomes.
Under WAAP, service outcomes were redirected by changing the patterns of what public funding could be used for. Today, public resources in Washington are only available to support individuals in competitive employment or those in "pathways" that lead to integrated employment at living wages. In the Seattle area, for example, this means working and earning $12.00 per hour in the workforce or participating in defined activities that will result in achieving this goal.

Hmm. Is it really fair that Washington is making employment an expectation and responsibility of all citizens? Shouldn’t adults with significant disabilities be offered a "choice" about engaging in work at competitive wages? According to Ray Jenkins, when we offer people with disability "choices" about whether or not to work, it is equal to subsidizing substandard lifestyles of ongoing segregation, dependence, and poverty with public funding. What kind of choice is that?

A couple of days ago I attended a pre-conference meeting hosted by PTE concerning one of my favorite topics-- customized employment. This meeting was held with Mike Callahan, one of my colleagues and a nationally recognized expert on this subject. During the meeting, someone asked Mike a similar question about his view on "consumer choice." He answered the question this way. Mike went on to describe how his daughter had recently reached working age and it NEVER occurred to him to ask her about whether or not she "chooses" to work. Mike’s daughter, like most of us, was raised with high expectations about working and contributing to her self-support as an adult. Mike went on to say:

"Working ought to be a default position in life for all adults. Why shouldn’t we expect everyone to work? Why not let individuals with disabilities and complex lives "opt out" instead of making judgments about their potential or capacities to succeed in the workforce? With the emergence of customized employment practices, we are developing the tools to make employment in the workforce a real possibility for an expanding number of individuals."

The second issue that continues to resonate with me after listening to the Washington group’s presentation is this State’s ongoing investment in training and technical assistance (T&TA) to improve job outcomes for its residents. Like Minnesota, Washington was one of our nation’s first States to participate in the early Supported Employment Systems Change Demonstration Projects funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) in the mid 1980s. These projects were intended to increase supported employment opportunities for adults with significant disabilities in the United States. With the sunset of these statewide systems change projects, however, many states lost momentum in expanding supported employment. This includes the updating of emerging and evidence-based employment practices in support of adults with the most significant disabilities. Not Washington State!

In Washington, local State and private agencies made a long-term commitment to sustaining T&TA activities and goals that were originally associated with the Supported Employment Systems Change Initiative. Through WISE, Washington presently invests 1.4 million annually to support a variety of training events, annual conferences, individual case consultations, and special projects to keep Washington’s organizational change efforts and staff development activities on the cutting edge. In Washington, access to critical T&TA activities helps to support the State’s progressive vision, organizational and systems change objectives, and ongoing skills development of professionals who manage or carry out the intent of the WAAP. It makes perfect sense!

On June 12, 2007, Minnesota will be hosting its Employment First Summit with a purpose to examine new ideas to make employment in the workforce the first choice of Minnesotans with significant disabilities. For my money, the Washington panel offered two gems that I intend to take with me to Minnesota's Summit.
First, I believe we need a bold new policy similar to Washington’s WAAP to help guide our journey into the future. Second, we desperately need a formal T&TA body like WISE to plan, coordinate, and deliver timely training and consultation to reach our goals.
It is wishful thinking to assume a progressive vision and policy foundation alone can drive our desired changes. We also need focused and adequate investment in Statewide T&TA to support organizations and professionals in improving career and workforce opportunities for unemployed and underemployed Minnesotans with disabilities. These two principles will go a long way in laying a strong foundation essential to achieving progressive and sustainable systems change.

Hey Washington, way to go! And thanks!

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