Thursday, March 06, 2008

Battle of the Zubaz

Editor’s Note:

On Friday, I was forwarded a link to a website by a colleague. I read with much amusement an editorial challenging a consensus report and recommendations flowing from Minnesota’s Employment First Summit held last June, 2007. The opinion article was written by John Wayne Barker of Merrick Inc., a provider of services for adults with developmental disabilities in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I don’t know John Wayne Barker and we’ve never been formally introduced. However, he seems to have a good sense of humor. On his editorial page, he says that we should take his opinions with a grain of salt. After all, he does own and wears a pair of Zubaz. After reading his editorial, I want to say publicly that we seem to have at least one thing in common. I also own pair of Zubaz as you can see in the photo to the left. It’s perhaps a small place to start but I am willing to work with Mr. Barker to build a better community and workforce in Minnesota that welcomes the full participation of people with disabilities. I would like to believe that we can find a common ground. From his editorial, however, it appears we have a long way to go.

Mr. Barker, as a member of Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition, I helped plan, organize, and run this event. Also, I assisted our planning group sort through and condense recommendations that led to the production of our “Manifesto.” This document calls for making employment the first and preferred choice of Minnesotans with disabilities. For this reason, I thought it was only fair play that I give you an insider’s response to key points and questions you have raised. These are my own views and not those of the Coalition or any organization.

Let me begin by saying I applaud you for taking the time to write your piece. Although I disagree with most of your points, I believe it’s important to have open dialogue about the Manifesto including what it says and what it does not say. So let me take up just a few of your issues here.

First Mr. Barker, you asked who these 100 leaders of this employment first vision were. And did they actually attend the Summit?

The planning committee identified and invited approximately 140 individuals representing different constituencies and geographic regions within Minnesota. More than 100 persons attended the one-day event held in Chaska, Minnesota on June 12, 2007. As the report indicates, we invited people representing specific disability and self-advocacy organizations, family members, business and private industry, State and county government representatives and policymakers, educators, employment service providers, veteran’s representatives, and members of the general public.

By the way, the Employment First Summit was not designed as a referendum on whether or not making employment the first choice was a good idea. The Coalition members were planning an “Employment First” Summit with a goal to mobilize interested parties in improving job and wage opportunities for Minnesotans with disabilities. Logically, the planning committee identified and invited people who were excited to share their ideas, suggestions, and possibilities about improving competitive employment and wages for unemployed and underemployed Minnesotans with significant disabilities. In particular, the Summit had a strong focus on supporting youth and young adults in making successful transitions from secondary education into the workforce.

Mr. Barker, you challenged the “unemployment” statistics used in the Summit’s consensus report and then played fast and loose with your own extrapolation of statistics!

First, let me be clear that the Summit’s participants agree with your challenge about Minnesota’s statistics. There was a consensus that we need more consistent procedures and accurate data to gauge the real unemployment of Minnesotans with disabilities. In fact, recommendation eight is all about developing uniform protocols across State and community agencies to measure the competitive employment rate of Minnesotans with disabilities with higher degrees of consistency and accuracy. We can’t work to improve Minnesota’s education and adult services in terms of better employment outcomes when we don’t know exactly where we are.

Secondly, you are basing your arguments from a single lens of serving adults with developmental disabilities. The Summit was broader and focused its attention on the competitive employment of all Minnesotans with disabilities. This includes people with serious mental illnesses, traumatic brain injuries, deaf/hard of hearing, developmental disabilities, as well as others with significant disability conditions. There are many national studies reporting a high unemployment rate of adults with disabilities in the 65-70% range. It is reported to be higher for some disability populations (i.e., adults with serious mental illnesses).

Sometimes we hear challenges in Minnesota that national data does not accurately represent employment outcome performance in our own State. As I stated earlier, without well-defined protocols for documenting disability and agreeing upon parameters for measuring what competitive employment really means, no one can truly answer this question with a high degree of accuracy. This is a problem we should work to correct.

With that said, I challenge you to consider what the unemployment rate of adults with significant disabilities might be when the consensus report’s definition of integrated employment in the workforce at minimum or prevailing wages is applied. OK, I will go one better. Why don’t we ask officials at Minnesota’s Department of Human Services (DHS) or Ramsey County (where you operate your programs), what a fair estimate might be for individuals served in DT&H programs when using these standards. I would happy to report the facts here either way.

You indicate there are between 103,000 and 206,000 people who live with developmental disabilities in Minnesota. Whoa! That’s one heckuva range there fella. Your figures demonstrate our lack of command of facts and why calculating an accurate employment rate is so challenging. Yes, I recognize there is a wide range of skilled folks with DD and I don’t argue with your statement there are people out there employed in the workforce. With that said, are you really confident peddling this notion that 92% of Minnesotans with DD are either working in regular employment, are in school, or don’t want to work? You are making a lot of assumptions here.

Respectfully sir, to make a claim that 8.1% of adults with DD are a more reliable statistic than the 65-70% national research estimates is cooking the data. It’s absurd because you don’t know if folks with DD outside of the DT& H network are really working or satisfied with their circumstances. And if they are not working, you don’t know whether they would prefer to be.

Even if I were to accept your premise, let’s look at the 8.1%. For the record, a recent national study of outcomes in community rehabilitation programs conducted by the University of Massachusetts’ Institute on Community Inclusion revealed that only one in four adults with DD experienced integrated employment in the workforce. Further, this study found about one-third of participants with DD do not work at all. I will agree Minnesota’s performance is probably more favorable when all forms of employment including sheltered employment, center-based employment, work crews and enclaves, and sub-minimum wages are applied. However, this rate looks dramatically different when the parameters of integrated employment in the workforce at competitive wage and benefit standards on the payroll of a company are applied.

This is not an indictment about how bad Minnesota is. As the report indicates, there are pockets of excellence in our State. The Manifesto is a blueprint for building on this excellence and promoting changes that offer Minnesotans with disabilities the same opportunities to work, earn money, and showcase their talents.

You suggest there isn’t any need to change the vision and goals driving Minnesota’s service delivery system. You say the “real action” is to do genuine person-centered planning.

Mr. Barker, it was the lack of vision that created our communities and an economy that excludes many citizens from full participation. It was a lack of vision about universality that created this need to build education and adult disability service systems that segregate people from other citizens. We created these rules and we can change them. The truth is vision has always mattered. And we have unacceptably high unemployment because American business, government, education, and local communities have not worked together to resolve the problem.

Genuine person-centered planning? You are right on! But here’s where we part company–programs with amorphous leadership that are lacking in a defining vision and performance expectations lead to mediocre outcomes. We see it time and time again. Organizations hide behind this issue of “choice” and competitive employment becomes just another option, not an expectation or desired goal.

My wife Colleen and I raised three daughters who are now young adults. Whether or not they live with disabilities is irrelevant. My daughters were raised with cherished values concerning self-determination. My wife and I taught them they could be anything they wanted to be and productive citizens if they discovered their natural talents and worked hard to employ them. My daughters always had a choice. And I guess, you are right, any one of them could have said–“you know, this working thing is just not for me.” The difference is there was a defined consequence in making this choice. There was always an expectation concerning self-support and a responsibility to choose work that was hopefully satisfying and a good match to their abilities. My wife and I were always there to offer whatever support they needed to make this happen.

Let me be honest with you. I am sick and tired of patronizing attitudes about the job potential of people with disabilities. With that said, I want to be clear that I agree with you on a core principle. I have no interest in either telling people what to do or forcing anyone to work against their will. The Manifesto is clear that “employment first” means expecting, encouraging, promoting, and rewarding integrated work. This means moving to a strengths-based model that helps people to identify their talents. And it means working collaboratively with businesses to employ them. Also, it means moving away from attitudes and practices that completely dismiss people as future and potential employees in the workforce.

Mr. Barker, you have to explain something to me because I guess I’m just not smart enough to understand this. In Minnesota (and the United States), we have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), Individualized Transition Plans (ITPs) Individualized Employment Plans (EPs), Individualized Habilitation Plans (IHPs), Person-Centered Planning, (PCP), Person-Centered Career Planning, etc. What is curious is that with so much individualized planning going on, why is it that youth and adults with significant disabilities just happen to “choose” options that do not include work? Is it because so many agencies primarily offer segregated work and non-work options? Isn’t it amazing that so many people choose things only available to them?

I ask respectfully-- is individualized, person-centered planning really working for us? As a good friend and colleague of mine, Joe Maronne, once said: “If everybody is doing it, then why isn’t it getting done?”

Mr. Barker, your editorial suggests the Manifesto is a “one-size fits all” model. And you imply that we are trying to make people with disabilities like the rest of “us.”

If a one-size model means promoting better methods to support people in being who they are by using their talents in the workforce and contributing to their self-support, then I stand guilty. If encouraging and supporting people to work and contributing to the best of their ability in the workforce means encouraging people to be “like the rest of us,” I confess my guilt on two counts. If it means supporting people to choose between working or volunteering and other non-work options, I would encourage paid, integrated work. I guess you can call it a not-so-gentle nudge. I am not against volunteering or participating in recreation and leisure. These wonderful and enriching activities can be coordinated around the center-piece of a working life as they do for most adults.

“Employment first” is about promoting new attitudes, teaching and incorporating new practices, refreshing old policies, communicating new strategies, building on excellence, expanding business partnerships, and widening opportunities in post-secondary education and the workforce. When people with disabilities are offered “informed and genuine” choices and then “choose” segregation, sub-minimum wages, and non-work options, it is their right to do so. Having the freedom to choose, however, does not negate the value in promoting individual responsibility for productivity and self-dependence. Our American values and systems of government, education, and business promote this idea for all citizens.
To use a similar analogy here, youth who reach age 16 also have freedom of choice to drop out of high school. However, few people would say this form of self-determination is a great idea. In short, there are always consequences in the choices we make.

Your editorial indicates the Manifesto’s recommendations are neither “new” nor “insightful.”

No one connected with the Minnesota Employment First Coalition is gloating about the document’s originality. I guess Thomas Jefferson has already covered many of these points about civil freedoms, rights, and equality of all Americans. This idea about people with significant disabilities going to work and being connected to other citizens in their community is not a novel idea. And you right, the Manifesto’s recommendations are not entirely new. What would definitely be new and novel is acting on them.

Your editorial seems to endorse the values of paying sub-minimum wages and challenges the notion of self-support.

This sub-minimum wage issue is far too complicated to address in a short paragraph or two. However, let me say this: No other minority population would tolerate payment of sub-minimum wages as sanctioned by policy in the United States for adults with disabilities. I recognize many individuals with significant disabilities struggle to meet competitive job productivity standards. Of course, this issue is exacerbated because most individuals working in center-based and sheltered employment programs have so few work options to choose from. Oftentimes, job assignments are not a very good match to interests or innate talents and skill sets. The end result is low productivity reinforcing a self-fulfilling prophecy that people with disabilities need sub-minimum wages and structured jobs in workshops and center-based settings.

This is why I believe it is critical for us to move to a customized employment approach that features strengths-based practices and negotiates employment based on skills and talents people have. Over the years, I’ve seen many people making sub-minimum wages leave workshop settings for jobs that are a better match to their skills. And guess what? When placed in individual jobs, these folks almost always secure employment earning the federal minimum or prevailing wage. In sum, we need to do a better job of finding, negotiating, and creating if necessary, jobs in the workforce that widen opportunities and are a better match to the signature skills people are good at. This is only common sense.

As you know, not all competitive jobs require speed to meet industry job standards. Further, job carving techniques, assistive technologies, and job engineering can help to increase an individual’s productivity to competitive standards. When we operate from such a narrow base of jobs to choose from, there are going to be inevitable mismatches that do not bring out the best in employees with disabilities.

Finally, you are right, not all people with significant disabilities placed into the workforce will earn enough money to be fully self-supporting. I don’t think anyone is arguing with this point. There are many people without disabilities who also need public assistance to make ends meet. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t work or contribute up to the level of their ability of self-support. It’s important to add that people with disabilities placed out into the workforce often exceed our expectations and perform beyond the economic goals the “experts” gave them credit for. You might want to read a recent post of mine called “A Working Life” about one such individual with an intellectual disability who found a way to stay employed for 27 years with only the benefits of natural job support.

You stated that “Minnesota assuming a leadership role” does not inspire you and has no impact in other states.

Are you serious? Did you know Minnesota APSE has had more than 3,000 downloads of the Manifesto document since it became available on our website a few short weeks ago?! This excludes another 1,000 or so report documents mailed out to people in Minnesota and throughout the country. Outside interest in Minnesota’s Employment First Summit is so strong, we have been asked to present information about our event and recommendations at the National APSE conference in July, 2008. Also, Minnesota APSE has been invited to share information about its Employment First Summit at North Dakota APSE’s Annual Meeting in April. Interest in employment first policies and approaches is growing rapidly as evidenced by other states that have already run or intend to run similar events.

This idea of “Minnesota leading” has several focal points. The first is that we believe the State of Minnesota, as one of the State’s largest employers, should set an example and hire people with significant disabilities. Second, Minnesota state agencies, educational systems, and community disability providers need to launch a Statewide marketing campaign to bring greater attention to the labor capacities of people with disabilities. This includes a coordinated public education effort promoting partnerships with Minnesota’s private sector to widen opportunities for Minnesotans with the most significant disabilities.

Finally, we believe “Minnesota leading“ means increasing opportunities and creating a higher quality of life for adults with disabilities who live in Minnesota. This is not about gloating that Minnesota has more people working than other states. It’s about reigniting a spirit in Minnesota that we can make things happen and people with disabilities don’t have to settle for volunteer work or recreational and leisure programs because no one will hire them. Minnesota has the talent to create and implement policies and business partnerships that will lead to increased job placement opportunities for individuals who were once considered long shots.

The real question is do we have the will to lead? I’ve been working in this business for more than 30 years and the landscape in Minnesota (and indeed the United States) looks very different to me. What was a barely noticeable ripple has become a wave of momentum. I just learned the State of Minnesota intends to use the Manifesto as an attachment to a new national grant competition with a goal to bring new funds into our State to promote employment innovation and effective policy change. Whether we’re talking about Ticket-to-Work, Welfare-to-Work, School-to-Work Transition, Homelessness-to-Work, Pathways to Employment, Customized Employment, or Evidence-Based Practice-Supported Employment, there is a growing interest in Minnesota to expand and widen competitive employment outcomes in the workforce in support of youth and adults with disabilities. And this is the essence of the Manifesto.

In closing, I guess we are two guys united on the importance of Zubaz. Yet we hold radically different views of what the future holds for Minnesotans with disabilities. God bless America!

If you are interested, you can read the “Manifesto” and specific recommendations distilled from Minnesota’s Employment First Summit proceedings at Minnesota APSE-The Network on Employment’s website Also, I welcome you to read Mr. Barker’s editorial response to the Manifesto at this web link.


Blogger Don Lavin said...

A friend of mine sent me a link this past week to a local news article online announcing the return of zubaz after 20 years! A coincidence? I don’t think so!

Let’s be certain about this– John Wayne Barker and I, a couple of fashion gods, have played an instrumental role in resurrecting the popularity of this misunderstood staple of men's casual attire.

You would think the makers of zubaz would giving John and I “a little taste" for our recent marketing efforts!

Okay, here is the link if you want to join the revolution...

8:02 PM  

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