Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Sunset of Work Enclaves and Crews

About a week and a half ago, my agency went through a three-day CARF accreditation survey to renew its certification as an employment service provider for persons with disabilities and other barriers to employment. For those unfamiliar with CARF, it’s a national peer accreditation body designed to improve services and outcomes for recipients of rehabilitation, habilitation, and employment service programs. The accreditation procedure involves a process where trained surveyors meet with senior management, direct service staff, and key stakeholders of an organization including program participants, employers, family members, referring and funding agents, and others. The survey team examines an organization’s compliance with nationally accepted, defined standards and then advises about performance in relationship to these standards.
The survey team sent to my organization, Rise, Incorporated, examined our administrative and program compliance with more than 800 national standards. I am pleased to say our survey went extremely well with only minor recommendations and consultations for self-improvement to bring our performance into alignment with best practices. Kudos to all of Rise’s management, staff, program participants, and various business partners for their dedication to excellence and keeping our organization’s performance at such a high level of achievement.
Frankly, it wasn’t the recommendations, suggestions, or consultations by our hard working, dedicated survey team that caught my attention and greatest concern. Rather, it was a compliment! Let me explain.
During scheduled exit interviews, CARF survey teams commonly review their findings and offer recommendations and guidance to an organization about specific areas that are needed for improvement. Of course, an organization is then required to take corrective actions to address any weaknesses or deficiencies observed. During exit interviews, survey teams also take note of particular organizational strengths and exemplary practices they have observed during their visit.
Well, at Rise’s exit interview, one of the surveyors had taken note of an "exemplary practice" that he had observed and written into his survey report. He went on to explain his pleasure in visiting an excellent job site where my agency had placed a few individuals. The surveyor commented about the outstanding level of peer integration he had observed and took special note of the quality of the jobs performed by these individuals. He mentioned how he couldn’t readily identify who the workers with disabilities were. The surveyor also remarked how this employer clearly relied on these individuals as core members of their production team. Finally, he commented this was an effective business partnership that was so clearly and mutually beneficial to all parties.
Of course, my colleagues had taken great delight in this surveyor’s remarks. Everyone was very excited he identified and praised our organization for this exemplary practice. OK, I recognize I’m "wired" a little differently than most of my colleagues but I heard the "compliment" with a different set of ears. When something is identified as exemplary, it means that it stands out from the rest. Right? In short, when something is exemplary it’s not the norm of what one expects to see or has observed. Whether at Rise, or perhaps during his visits to other venues where he has survey experience, this surveyor had called out this observation from others. And what I "heard" is this– job placement integration, high quality job matches, competitive wages and company benefits, and natural job supports inside a business are not common practice. Since these qualitative factors are not typically observed in most employment outcomes of people with significant disabilities, we consider them to be exemplary.
You know, it’s not that I can’t take a compliment but I guess I’m driven by other forces. Until job placement in the workforce is encouraged and an expectation for all, and until core qualitative factors including integration, great job matches, competitive wages and benefits, and natural job supports are "customary" practices, then the glass is still half-full to me. As a senior manager, I am driven to push my organization to be the best that it can be. And leadership to me means setting high goals, finding the means, and pursuing the highest performance standards possible.
Now here is the truth. Employment and disability service organizations, including my own, often fall short of exemplary practice when it comes to the job placement and full integration of youth and adults with disabilities in the workforce. This is especially true for Americans living with significant disabilities. We haven’t as yet mastered sufficient skill sets to customize employment in support of people we consider to be the most "challenging to employ." Nor have we developed a marketing edge or business savvy to negotiate and develop integrated employment at competitive wages for many of these individuals we support.
The end result? There is a national unemployment rate of approximately 65-70% for Americans with significant disabilities. Further, a recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts estimates that approximately one-third of individuals served by disability service providers don't work at all. And for those who do work, approximately 30% work in sheltered employment or center based settings.
For still others, employment service providers often cling to group support strategies including the use of work enclaves, mobile crews, or other congregate approaches. The truth is that these models of group support have failed to deliver on the promise. The payment of subminimum wages is commonplace. The matching of job interests and talents within a group service concept is often suspect. The goals of social peer integration are often lacking at many of these congregate job sites. The natural role of business leaders in the supervision and support of workers at group sites is often intermittent or even non-existent. And finally, in many of these group service models, employment service providers routinely assume the role as employer of record or payrolling agent. In summary, all of these factors tend to weaken the bonds of business ownership and buy-in.
These characteristics inherent and associated with the running of work enclaves and crews communicate a powerful message to business leaders– individuals with disabilities can’t work effectively without disability experts or job coaches supervising them. It seems to me this underlying message is confusing and counterintuitive to the critical message we want to be sending to employers.
Please don’t misunderstand the point I'm making here. There is little question that employment consultants and job coaches are essential and fundamental to developing or creating successful business partnerships and outcomes. However, there is no evidence that business leaders cannot learn how to supervise and support most individuals with disabilities on the job. To the contrary, most research demonstrations show the exact opposite to be true when given adequate time and responsive technical support. The role of a supported employment provider, therefore, is to deliver the critical supports that business cannot or should not provide. It seems to me we often underestimate the capacities of business to do the job and have weak plans to engage them in trying.
In my view, organizational performance excellence always seems to be connected to the same common denominator– that is, choosing to serve people one person at a time. And the individual job placement and support strategy is indeed the best approach to achieving the kind of results the CARF surveyor was talking about during our exit interview. I am pleased to say that my organization assisted 676 people obtain individual, integrated job placements at competitive wages and benefits in 2007. With that said, we can do even better. We still have many organizational improvements to make before I can say with a high degree of accuracy that quality competitive employment, wages, benefits, and peer integration is available and accessible to everyone.
You know, CARF teaches and guides us to achieve many important organizational and program performance standards. With that said, I am driven by my own set of performance outcome standards. And I can’t say with a good conscience that what we are doing is truly exemplary until what was communicated to me as an exemplary practice becomes common and customary practice.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Don!!

I was gonna read the Time Management essay as well, but you know, no time for that...



10:45 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...


I didn't have the time to write it either.

10:59 PM  

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