Monday, June 18, 2007

The Perfect Storm

On October 30, 1991, three autonomous weather systems produced dramatic meteorological factors resulting in a monster weather system off the east coast of Nova Scotia in Canada. The National Weather Service referred to this confluence of meteorological factors as "The Perfect Storm." The storm produced such catastrophic waves in the Atlantic ocean that it sank an unsuspecting sword fishing boat called the Andrea Gail. Pinned in by these awesome weather systems, the Andrea Gail had no real chance. The ship gave up its captain and crew and its tragic storyline became the basis for Sebastian Junger’s best-selling novel The Perfect Storm. Later, the novel was produced into a blockbuster movie by the same name in 2000.

Recently, I have been using this metaphor The Perfect Storm to describe a confluence of interrelated factors that are producing unprecedented opportunities in the workforce for adults with disabilities and other barriers to employment. I shared these views about The Perfect Storm with an audience attending my training session on Customized Employment at Minnesota APSE’s Annual Conference on June 11, 2007. Let me explain these factors and why they are producing exciting levels of opportunity for systems change.
Forecasted Labor Shortages
Virtually every national study I have read about the future labor force in America warns us about rapidly changing demographics in our country. In short, many baby boomers will be leaving the workforce for full-time or part-time retirement in the next decade. Most national studies are forecasting labor shortages resulting in competitive challenges for employers in recruiting and retaining talent. These serious labor shortages are expected across a wide spectrum of unskilled and skilled employment positions.
This forecast was affirmed by local companies attending Minnesota’s Employment First Summit on June 12, 2007. Local employer representatives from Minnesota were offering their ideas on strategies to increase job placement and employment opportunities in the workforce for underrepresented youth and adults with significant disabilities. They shared their view that many Minnesota businesses and industries are beginning to look at new ideas to bring workers into the labor force to address anticipated worker shortages.
With a rapid decline in the pool of potential workers available, most job placement and employment agencies will find themselves in a far stronger bargaining position than in the past. In short, employers will need workers to stay competitive in an increasingly global economy. And disability service organizations representing unemployed and underemployed workers are sitting on a highly marketable asset. With the right business message, we have never been in a stronger position to negotiate and customize jobs around the strengths of the employment candidates we represent.
Shrinking Public Service Dollars
It’s no secret to professionals working in the fields of education and human services that public resources are not growing at rates necessary to meet locally identified service demands. Be sure of one thing--we need adequate resources to do the job right. Be sure of a second thing--we are not going to get all of the public resources many think we need to do the job right. And a third thing, we are not using many existing public resources in ways that encourage and reward obtaining integrated jobs in the workforce at competitive wages. And finally, there will always be a lobby for public funding that bifurcates and competes directly with progressive programs embracing an employment-first message and objective.
I have been working to achieve an employment-for-all policy in Minnesota for more than 30 years and I have found all of these points to be true. And I guess I have three choices open to me:
  1. I can abandon the vision and leave my career because the goal appears too impossible to reach with the resources I have;
  2. I can compromise my goals and wait until I secure the resources I think I need to launch new services and achieve better outcomes; or
  3. I can embrace the integrity of my goals and choose the path of creativity by examining more effective ways to achieve workforce integration objectives with all resources available to me.
It seems to me that the first choice is cowardly. And choice two is disempowering. The only real choice is to pursue these goals by using a different kind of capital--intellectual capital. We already have the "know how" to make employment a real opportunity for everyone who wants to work if we are willing to look at the problem differently. Not 10 years from!
Yes, I view our shrinking public resources as an "opportunity." Why? It means there are fiscal challenges in expanding traditional disability service programs that do not produce adequate outcomes. In sum, we need to rethink our fiscal strategies. I believe the formation of new partnerships with American businesses and industries is our best pathway to achieving success. With new business partnerships, companies will share in the investment of people with disabilities going to work. It not only can be done, it's being done. We need to extend these opportunities for greater numbers of individuals.
New Public Attitudes about Disability
Corporations spend literally billions of dollars on marketing research to identify the attitudes and spending patterns of the American buying public. A couple of questions are in order here:
What if Americans had highly favorable opinions of small and large businesses who hire people with disabilities? And what if Americans actually preferred to give their business to companies who hire people with disabilities?
As I shared in a blog feature last August, 2006 entitled Making the Business Case-Part II, a study of public attitudes about people with disabilities in the workforce was conducted by the Gallup Organization with technical support from the University of Massachusetts and America’s Strength Foundation (Gary N. Siperstein, Neil Romano, Amanda Mohler, and Robin Parker, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 24, 2006, pages 3-9, IOS Press). This national survey produced startling data and is challenging old assumptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities in the workplace. For example:
  • 92% of all respondents reported "a more favorable" or "much more favorable" opinion of companies who hire people with disabilities
  • 87% of all respondents said they prefer to give their business to companies who hire people with disabilities with one-third strongly agreeing with this statement
  • 98% of all respondents who had been served by someone with disability reported that they were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the services or products they received.
One historical argument against the idea of placing adults with disabilities into the workforce is this unfounded notion they will not be accepted by their co-workers or the American consumer. Not only is the stereotype false, national survey data clearly reveals that hiring people with disabilities is a sound business decision. The American public wants to see more adults with disabilities working and they are highly positive about companies who hire them.
New Public Policy Directions
Yes, we still have a lot of work to do on public policy reform initiatives. There is no question that many federal, state, and local policies remain inflexible and do not encourage a fundamental right to work, contribute one’s talents, and be self-sufficient. However, there is just cause for optimism as old policies are giving way to a more progressive agenda of human and civil rights.
I don’t know if you are keeping a scorecard but emerging public policy directions are clearly pointing in one direction–increasing the number of people who work in the competitive labor force. Capstone legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was just a beginning. We are now witnessing unprecedented policy reforms at the federal and state levels encouraging an increasing number of people with disabilities to choose work.
To illustrate, the federal-state vocational rehabilitation program will only invest its federal resources in program services that will result in competitive employment at the federal minimum wage or higher (sheltered employment is no longer considered a successful rehabilitation outcome). The State of Washington recently introduced a Working Age Adult Policy and is now redirecting it’s public resources to fund only programs with objectives to develop integrated jobs at livable wages (or service pathways that lead to integrated employment at livable wages) for adults with developmental disabilities. The State of Vermont has executed a statewide workplan to close it’s sheltered workshops and is now redirecting it’s funding in favor of programs that offer integrated jobs in the workforce.
Also, national research studies have identified supported employment to be one of six evidence-based practices (EBPs) in recovery from serious mental illness and many states are drafting new policies to encourage adoption of these practices in place of more traditional adult day treatment. There have been recent legal challenges to federal minimum wage policy exclusions for adults with significant disabilities in several states including Arizona and Nevada. Several states, including my own home State of Minnesota, have conducted employment-first conferences to study better ways to expand integrated employment to greater numbers of citizens with significant disabilities.
Would you like more evidence? We have growing initiatives around school-to-work transition for youth and young adults with disabilities, welfare-to-work for TANF recipients with disabilities, and ticket-to-work incentives for Social Security disability recipients. We are retooling employment-focused programs for our returning war veterans with disabilities. We are examining how to better integrate employment services with homelessness outreach and shelter programs for individuals who are homeless, many of whom live with disabilities. The list goes on and on.
Emerging Technologies
The advancement of assistive technologies is opening new doors to inclusion and participation in the community and workforce for many individuals with significant disabilities. The rapid development of electronic devices, personal computers and disability-friendly software, robotics, and other adaptive equipment is increasing the functionality and self-dependence of individuals with disabilities. We are witnessing amazing technological advances increasing the capacities of people to manage tasks of daily living, enhance their interpersonal communications, and carry out work-related functions with increased skill, speed, and accuracy as never before. Many of these technologies are eliminating or reducing the need for dependency on others, increasing independence, and giving rise to brand new thinking about human engineering and universal access design so everyone is included.
I think the Pennsylvania Initiative on Assistive Technologies (PIAT) at Temple University said it best–
"For people without disabilities, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible."
Emerging Employment Practices
Since supported employment was introduced in the mid-1970s, one thing has been abundantly clear--we continue to underestimate the talents and potential contributions of people with disabilities. Also, the emergence of customized employment practices has refocused our thinking about the possibilities for people with disabilities to work in an integrated job by identifying and marketing their strengths with an interested employer. In short, supported and customized employment practices and strategies are changing what it means to be "qualified" to work in the community labor force. Why? Customization gives us new tools to engineer integrated jobs in ways that are a better match to who people truly are.
Despite a growing body of research and robust number of national demonstration programs documenting the viability of supported and customized employment practices, the national unemployment rate for people with significant disabilities remains unacceptably high at 65%. Why? Well, we seem to be unable, but more accurately I believe, unwilling to give up on traditional practices that are far less effective in producing competitive employment outcomes and wages. We refuse to believe in the strengths and abilities of the people we are privileged to support and represent. We refuse to believe in the internal capacities of businesses to learn how to support their employees with significant disabilities. We refuse to believe in the effectiveness of well-researched employment practices as an opportunity for all. And yes, we refuse to believe in ourselves.
It is very frustrating because supported and customized employment practices are indeed effective when planned and delivered one person at a time.
One person. One company. One job.
In my view, there has never been a better time to work in the field of disability and employment services. If you are willing to look to the horizon, you will see this approaching storm. Yes, a perfect storm. The confluence of critical factors are all there. And if you are willing to believe in its possibilities and prepare yourself for this journey, you will most certainly be swept into its vortex. The time has never been better. And the opportunity is now.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:14 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...


7:28 PM  

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