Monday, July 30, 2007

Universal Access & Design Means Universal Benefits

OK, so maybe I’m not the sharpest blade in the tool shed. And I will admit that it took me a few years to figure this out. But hey, I arrived and I’m so glad I did.
One morning on my drive to work, I had this epiphany and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Like many professionals who chose a career in my field, I was drawn to this work I do because I wanted to make a difference. I had good intentions. I wanted to support people with disabilities in finding real jobs for real pay in the workforce. And I had been trained professionally to approach this goal from a model of "rehabilitation."
The rehab model is driven by this sort of thinking: If we can identify each individual’s job barriers arising from one or more disability conditions, then we can develop a rehabilitation plan to address and remove them. In a nutshell, unemployed people with disabilities referred to us had certain "deficiencies" associated with their disabilities and it was our job to correct these shortcomings so people could advance toward their job goal. The people who obtained jobs were then closed successfully as "rehabilitated" after working for 90 days or so.
Sure, we did indeed help some people get jobs in the workforce. But not nearly enough of them. And some people have disabilities so complex and challenging, that it was considered a leap in logic for them to go to work in the competitive labor market. Bingo! We needed and constructed sheltered workshops and center-based programs to support them because employers wouldn’t dare hire them. And besides, we needed to protect many of these vulnerable adults from the rest of us. Even today, only about 35% of adults with significant disabilities get this opportunity to work in an integrated job at competitive levels of pay and benefits in the workforce.
And so back to my epiphany. It occurred to me on this morning’s drive to work that I had it all backwards! In fact, the central focus of most community rehabilitation efforts is backwards. We tend to believe that by directing our resources and energies to change people with disabilities we are going to make them more employable. And we use a variety of misguided service efforts and call them work adjustment training, behavioral health management, sheltered employment, adult habilitation & training, mental health day treatment, and so forth. Heck, even some supported employment programs are structured in ways to address instrinsic changes or improvements within people served to make them more acceptable and employable.
OK, there is nothing morally wrong with trying to improve oneself and looking for ways to enhance one’s employability. However, what occurred to me is the real importance of my work was not in serving and changing people with disabilities. The greatest bang for my buck was in working to change everyone else! If I could change the perceptions and expectations of everyone else, I had a much better chance of getting people to work with me to increase competitive employment outcomes. In fact, if more people (including business leaders) better understood the universal benefits of integrated employment, they would demand it. On this day, I accepted the premise that no matter how hard I tried to "rehabilitate" people with disabilities, it was utterly meaningless unless the larger community and workforce was altered to welcome people with disabilities, encourage their participation, and contribute meaningful efforts to make it happen.
This discovery completely changed how I valued both my time and energy. Although I was already a strong advocate of supported employment services, I chose to advance my work in a completely new direction. I no longer had time for activities designed to "fix" broken people. If I really wanted to see people with disabilities, including those with complex lives succeed in the workforce, I knew I had to work to increase the expectations of others involved. It might be parents, educators, social workers, rehabilitation counselors, business leaders, policymakers, co-workers, or the neighbor next door. It might even be some of my own colleagues. And sadly, it might be people with disabilities who did not believe in their own capacities to work and succeed in the workforce. I accepted that I had a responsibility to share this vision and promote principles of universal design to increase integrated employment outcomes and end segregation.
Of course, this is an awesome goal going nowhere without creating a more aware, competent, and accessible community. And it means working creatively to impact a workforce that embraces diversity and welcomes all. Instead of correcting what is wrong with people, we needed a new system of services to identify and market the individual strengths of people with disabilities. And it was critical to get our service participants and others on board with these changes in approach.
I found that most of these core principles were cornerstones in the use of supported employment and customized employment practices. When applied properly, supported employment practices emphasize individual job placement approaches and encourage the building of natural job supports from within the employing company. The emergence of customized employment is about crafting new ways to identify and employ the strengths and abilities of individuals with significant disabilities through active negotiation of job tasks or duties with business leaders. Fundamental to both of these service practices is individualization–that is, serving people and measuring job success one person at a time. In addition, both practices promote the creation of real opportunities that are economically sound by meeting defined business objectives.
We often don’t look at our work this way, but adopting concepts of universal access and design benefit everyone– not just people with disabilities. To illustrate, the development and use of curb cuts or ramps, electronic door openers, or video closed captioning are technologies originally designed to support the independence of people with disabilities. These technologies, however, are now finding their way into the general public and clearly benefitting all citizens. In a similar way, it is not uncommon to hear about a company that has chosen to adopt a new work flow process, job support strategy, or job accommodation originally proposed to support an employee with a disability. The reason for this is that some ideas are just great ideas that benefit all of us.
The job placement and inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce is just another great idea whose time has come. Does supported employment benefit people with disabilities so they can use their skills, earn wages, be productive, and contribute to our economy in a meaningful ways? Absolutely! And does customized employment clearly benefit businesses that need reliable labor resources to fill jobs and stay competitive in a dog-eat-dog economy? Certainly! What is not clearly understood, however, is that the employment of people with disabilities directly benefits the general public. We are not just talking about the conversion of someone who is consuming public resources into a tax paying asset. This is obvious. It’s also about strengthening the fabric of our communities and recognizing how the productive contributions of people with disabilities in our workforce is a benefit to us all.
About two weeks ago, I heard a story that makes this point abundantly clear. I was attending the National APSE Conference in Kansas City, Missouri and sat in on an employer forum. This story was shared by Ms. Erin Reihle, a Registered Nurse and Director of Project Search. Project Search is an integrated employment program housed at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. According to Ms. Riehle, the hospital received a letter one day from a Mom who had recently given birth to a child with Down Syndrome. As the story goes, this newborn needed emergency heart surgery and a medical team was dispatched to perform the operation. After observing the Mom was upset and crying, the doctors and nurses tried to cheer her and shared how well the operational procedure had gone. They encouraged her with the good news that her child was going to be fine medically.
The Mom went on to write that this medical team had missed the moment. She had been crying because she had given birth to a child with Down Syndrome and was frightened about her baby’s future. As chance would have it, the Mom was paid an unexpected visit by an employee of the hospital who had routine job duties to perform inside her child’s room. The employee approached and took a peek at the baby. She said with excitement to the new Mom–"What a cute baby!" And then the employee went about her business and left the room. This skilled employee of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital lives with Down Syndrome herself.
This hospital worker was not among the professional medical team performing a life saving operation on that day. To a depressed Mom, however, her presence was comforting and she taught the Mom a valuable lesson about what the future could hold for her child in terms of leading a productive and useful life. Make no mistake about it, this hospital employee with Down Syndrome is an important member of the hospital’s staff. And on this particular day, she was able to share unique strengths that professionally trained doctors and nurses weren’t able to muster. An appreciative customer, the Mom was moved to share her private experience with the hospital's administration.
The truth is Ms. Riehle’s story is one of many that play out in the American workforce every day. What I have learned is this---every time an individual with a disability enters the workforce and contributes his or her talents, our community is far richer for it. And no matter what yardstick we choose to measure success, everyone benefits. Everyone.


Anonymous Assistive technology said...

You make so many good points in this. Unfortunately, it's very hard to change the way society views something, no matter what it might be. I wish you luck. I know that I'll be looking forward to the change.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Assistive technology, I am well aware of the challenges that lie ahead in trying to change public attitudes and expectations about disability and employment. It's a big job but I remain positive about emerging opportunities for change. I pointed out this confluence of factors and opportunities in my post "The Perfect Storm." In short, we have never been in a better position to change attitudes but we need a more formidible public education campaign to share what's possible with increased expectations, a good workplan, and some genuine creativity. This is part of what I am trying to do with this blog.

Thanks for visiting the blog and sharing your comments!

10:52 PM  

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