Sunday, September 09, 2007

Reflections on Minnesota's Employment First Summit

On June 12, 2007, an "Employment First Summit" was held in the State of Minnesota at the Arboretum in Chaska, Minnesota. The goal of the Summit’s planning committee was to bring together key constituents throughout Minnesota who believe strongly in the idea that integrated employment in the workforce at competitive wages should be the expected and first choice of Minnesotans with significant disabilities. The Summit’s planners invited people with disabilities, family members, disability advocates, educators, government policymakers, business leaders, employment service providers, human services professionals, veteran representatives, and other interested citizens to participate in the event.
The purpose for the Summit was simple. A high percentage of Minnesotans with significant disabilities are not working competitively and contributing their talents to our economy. Despite national research and service demonstrations showcasing the employment capacities of people with disabilities to contribute in meaningful ways, the unemployment and underemployment rates of adults with disabilities remain unacceptably high. With an unemployment rate of 4 to 5% for the general population in the United States, most national studies document that 65-70% of adults with significant disabilities are not employed in jobs that offer integration and competitive wages and benefits.
The primary reasons for this high gap in the unemployment of adults with and without disabilities are not a mystery. Many stubborn barriers inhibiting competitive job placement such as low expectations or lack of access to public transportation are systemic and resistive to change. For this reason, the Summit’s planners chose a strategy with a focus on creative solutions instead of rehashing old discussions as to why people are not working. Three fundamental questions were posed to the Summit’s attendees:
  • How can we invest in the economic potential of Minnesotans with disabilities so competitive employment is expected, planned, and engaged for all?
  • What ideas do you have to minimize or reduce known barriers so competitive employment is the preferred choice of Minnesotans with disabilities?
  • What can you do to encourage and collaborate efforts with other key partners to make competitive employment in the workforce the first choice of youth and adults with disabilities?
The Summit’s opening keynote speaker was Neil Romano, Founder of America’s Strength Foundation. In 2003, America’s Strength Foundation conducted a national study of emerging attitudes among American citizens about disability and employment in collaboration with the Gallop Poll and University of Massachusetts’ Center for Social Development and Education. Mr. Romano shared the surprising findings emerging from this study and their implications in an American economy that will experience serious labor shortages. Romano shared his provocative views about America’s need to move the away from a system that offers "programs’ and stagnation to a business model that "invests" in individuals as economic assets.

The Summit was organized in ways to gather a cross-section of information from those in attendance. To illustrate, the planners chose to organize affinity groups to gather ideas among attendees from specific constituencies (i.e., disability advocacy, business leaders, policymakers, employment providers, etc.) In addition, the planners were interested in securing actionable recommendations that might flow from mixed constituent groups among the attendees. Therefore, a morning session was dedicated to facilitating specific affinity groups and the afternoon session focused on reactions from integrated teams of attendees. All group sessions were facilitated by representatives from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Inclusion and recorders were assigned to each group to document proceedings and responses by all attendees.
More than one hundred people attended the Summit and offered ideas, suggestions, and recommendations to end segregation and bring competitive employment within the reach of all Minnesotans who live with disabilities. The goal was to extract specific ideas or strategies to increase better performance and to resolve or minimize the known effects of existing barriers to integrated employment through effective actions. For example, this might include specific public policy reforms, better transportation access, enhanced funding, existing service redesign, new legislation, professional staff development training, more effective coordination among education and adult service providers, use of assistive technology applications, introduction of customized employment techniques, and so forth.
A summary of the findings and priorities as recommended by Summit participants is still being processed by the event’s planning group. A written "manifesto" will be disseminated to all participants and interested parties in the near future to help guide future public policy reforms, enhance interagency cooperation, and better articulate performance expectations and directions of public and private organizations alike. Although the written report is not as yet published, the attendees shared a consensus about several actionable items including the following:
  • Ongoing Dialogue and Connectivity Among Minnesota’s Employment-First Champions. There was strong interest for an ongoing dialogue about Employment First issues. The Summit’s participants recommended that the meeting format become an annual event in Minnesota to strengthen connections among key stakeholders and build ongoing momentum around specific systems change objectives in the future.
  • Employment First Vision & Supporting Public Policy. A cross-section of participants expressed concerns that current public policies are not working in obtaining competitive employment for a majority of Minnesotans with disabilities. A number of participants identified a need for significant statewide public policy reforms similar to changes made in the State of Washington. Washington State recently engaged a Working Age Adult Policy (WAAP) thereby raising expectations about competitive employment in the workforce for all. This WAAP reinforces an employment first vision by limiting public funding to competitive employment outcomes or specific pathways leading to integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits.
  • Building on Minnesota's Known & Emerging Strengths. Participants stressed the importance of building and expanding upon known and emerging strengths in Minnesota’s public and private employment provider system. To illustrate, emerging directions toward evidence-based practices in supported employment (EBP-SE) for adults with serious mental illnesses, customized employment practices for youth with significant disabilities in transition from school-to-careers, and the use of occupational communication practices in supported employment for adults who are deaf or hard of hearing should be reinforced and expanded.
  • Focused Training & Technical Assistance Resources. There was an expressed need for the creation of a training and technical assistance (T&TA) entity in Minnesota to address critical training and technical support services for the leadership, management, and direct service staff of Minnesota’s secondary education, disability, and employment provider communities. It was strongly recommended that this entity incorporate T&TA strategies that focus specifically on employment first practices. This T&TA entity is needed to eliminate fragmentation and introduce a model of organizational change and staff development practices through the use of web-based training, State and regional training workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring, employment first issue forums, dissemination of promising policies and practices in workforce development, resource identification, individual case consultations, and other helpful strategies.
  • Launching "Communities of Practice" Demonstrations. Attendees stressed the importance of "thinking globally, but acting locally." It was recommended that Minnesota consider funding several Communities of Practice (COP) demonstrations in urban and rural areas of the State with goals to engage employment first practices for youth and adults with significant disabilities (i.e. school-to-career transition services). By design, Minnesota’s COPs would engage interagency practices with key collaborating secondary and post-secondary schools and adult service providers leading to post-secondary education, training, and/or competitive employment outcomes.
  • Rebranding of "Rehabilitation" in Language and Practices. There was a recommendation to modernize and humanize the strategic marketing of "rehabilitation" in favor of a strengths-based employment model. The core goal is to craft new language and realign messages to encourage and expect integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits for all. This recommendation includes rebranding of fundamental messages about people with disabilities, their talents, and their employment potential in today’s economy.
  • Minnesota as a National Leader in Promoting the Employment of Adults with Disabilities. Attendees recommended that a Statewide campaign be launched in Minnesota at the highest levels of government to educate employers about the untapped labor pool and opportunities in our State to increase the recruitment and employment of adults with disabilities. The ultimate goal is make Minnesota a model and leading State in the nation in the competitive employment of adults with disabilities, including individuals with multiple disabilities and significant job-related barriers.

Minnesota’s Employment First Summit was an exciting event and it energized many key constituencies around a common vision and purpose. A lot of great suggestions were communicated and supported by the attendees. And many of these ideas are being distilled into actionable priorities. These recommendations will not only be disseminated to all of the Summit’s attendees and other interested parties but a "mini-summit" will also be scheduled with State agency leaders and disability change agents to discuss the findings and determine what the next action steps should be. We are hopeful many of these recommendations will find their way into State agency workplans, employment legislative agenda, and strategic planning for various trade associations, workforce councils, disability advocacy bodies, secondary and post-secondary schools, business associations, as well as adult disability and employment service organizations.

When the federally-funded, Minnesota Supported Employment Project (MNSEP) ended more than 17 years ago, so did much of our State’s focus and energies in expanding these opportunities. Several people who attended the Summit lamented that it would be a shame if this event’s creative energies became history like so many past efforts to fulfill the vision of bringing competitive employment into the lives of Minnesotans with significant disabilities. A lot of synergy was created by bringing together a dynamic, diverse group of stakeholders and rallying them once again around an elusive dream. However, all of this good will and momentum will be meaningless without responsive leadership, action, and connecting the Summit’s proceedings to future goals.

Minnesota APSE-The Network on Employment was one of this event’s key organizational sponsors. Minnesota APSE’s membership met on September 7, 2007 in Duluth, Minnesota and took concrete steps by embracing many of the Summit’s core recommendations as its blueprint for the future. Minnesota APSE has launched a new and ambitious strategic plan and its membership is excited about advancing these ideas from suggestions to widespread practice.

Wherever I go, people are still talking about the Summit and how this event seems to have ushered a new era in Minnesota. This time around, people seem to realize the unique timing of presenting opportunities. A majority of the Summit’s attendees recognize the critical need for integrated leadership and accept they have an important role in shaping and making things happen. Be certain about this–there will be a second Minnesota Employment First Summit scheduled for 2008. The dream is alive and the journey to social and economic justice continues.


Blogger Steffi Edwin said...

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1:02 AM  
Anonymous Connie Moore said...

I was a participant in the Employment First Summit and am a member of MN APSE. Don's words ring true. We are driven to see the dream finally become reality. I would go on but Don has spoken perfectly what needed to be stated. As for the Steffi Edwin comments - these seem to posted by or on behalf of the company referred to in the post and is repeated in many blog comments ver batim. A simple internet search yielded the same comment on numerous blogs. So buyer beware as this post really has little if anything to do with Don's subject matter.

8:05 PM  

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