Friday, January 11, 2008

Customized & Supported Employment: The Evidence Demands a Verdict

The political season is in full swing and it always brings highly charged verbal exchanges among the candidates running for presidential office. I watched with both interest and amusement as the Hillary Clinton camp recently accused Barack Obama of raising "false hopes." The brouhaha between them went like this–
"We don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered," Clinton said.

"This whole notion of false hopes bothers me," Obama replied. "There is no such thing as false hopes. We can focus and get things done."

Obama went further: "How have we made progress in this country? Look, did John F. Kennedy look at the moon and say ‘Ahhhh, it’s too far. We can’t do that. We need a reality check.' Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘You know, this Dream thing, it’s a false hope. We can’t expect equality. False hopes.'
Wow! You know, I don’t have a dog in this fight and it’s not my intention here to promote a political candidate. I am merely pointing out that Obama’s argument about change and progress is dead on. And his recent remarks are resonating with me today.
In about a week, Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition will release its long awaited "manifesto." This manifesto is a public declaration of our values and principles, and of our intention to act on these values, and make employment first practices common public policy and practice in Minnesota. The manifesto is one outcome of a summit held with more than 100 champions of an employment first vision held in Minnesota in June of 2007. The purpose of the summit was to begin planning a coordinated strategy to increase the competitive employment and economic development goals of Minnesotans with a wide range of disabilities. Our consensus report will bring forward specific policy recommendations promoting competitive employment in the workforce as the expected, first choice of all Minnesotans with disabilities including those with significant disabilities.
This past week I was speaking with someone about the publication and dissemination of the manifesto. And the same issue Obama is dealing with was raised with me. "Don, won’t the manifesto raise false hopes in Minnesota that people with significant disabilities can work in the workforce? And won’t this upset a lot of people?
Here was my response to this well-intentioned critic–
  • Who can be fundamentally against this idea that Minnesotans with disabilities be given full consideration and every opportunity to use their talents in the integrated workforce?
  • Who can be against a vision of expecting, encouraging, and rewarding people for going to work in the workforce?
  • If Minnesota can craft new public policies, reform old ones, and build better funding strategies to increase employment opportunities and outcomes in the workforce, who will argue against these goals?
  • If Minnesota can engage effective training strategies for educators, rehabilitation professionals, family members, and disability advocates that will lead to competitive employment and wage outcomes for greater numbers of Minnesotans with disabilities, who will block or discourage this?
  • If Minnesota can engage business leaders in a dialogue with progressive goals to expand and create new opportunities in the workforce for unemployed and underemployed Minnesotans with disabilities, who will stand in our way?
  • Who in Minnesota is against working together to craft uniform language and measurement standards across various government agencies so we can accurately gauge the true unemployment rate of Minnesotans with disabilities?
  • Who would argue against a core vision of youth and adults with disabilities and their family members making an informed choice with respect to working in the competitive labor force?
  • Is there really widespread opposition to promoting better collaboration, sharing expertise, and combining our resources to increase the job placement of youth and adults with disabilities who would otherwise choose to work and participate in Minnesota’s economy?

Well, guess what? These are essentially the core recommendations of key stakeholders who participated in Minnesota’s Employment First Summit. Who would be opposed to these ideals that are so fundamental and rooted in our American values? Only the "yes, but..." people and organizations who have something to lose.

Aha, you say! But the devil is in the details, right? Surely there are bona fide fears out there about the law of unintended consequences. And yes, it’s a wonderful vision but we don’t have the money or expertise to make it happen, right? And so it goes, there are countless fears that planning and offering such an employment first strategy in Minnesota would only serve to raise false hopes.

OK, I will readily confess if this job was easy, it would already be done. I guess I’m just not wired to settle for less than full citizenship and equality for all. In other words, Minnesotans with disabilities should have the same opportunities as the rest of us.

Will all Minnesotans with disabilities choose to work? Perhaps not. However, to expect less because people live with disabilities is patronizing. And we have a responsibility to extend promising practices and emerging knowledge to everyone who can potentially benefit. Evidence-based research continues to demonstrate that competitive employment in the workforce is no longer a false hope for many when we support people one at a time and apply the right formula. The development of customized and supported employment practices coupled with progressive public policies and assistive technologies is changing the landscape concerning what is possible. And today, competitive employment and customized (negotiated) jobs in the workforce are a real possibility for almost anyone who chooses to work.

Simply said, the accumulating evidence demands a verdict. And if Minnesota’s Employment First Manifesto is the equivalent of offering hope, stimulating excitement, and introducing new possibilities for an excluded group of our citizens, I stand guilty as charged.

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