Friday, June 27, 2008

Minnesota on the Move!

Recently, I was asked by the Board of Minnesota APSE–The Network on Employment and Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition to represent our respective groups in providing public testimony at Minnesota’s State Rehabilitation Advisory Council’s public hearing on June 25, 2008. The purpose of this public hearing was to seek feedback from the public about unmet needs for disability related employment services in Minnesota, and about public satisfaction with current services.
There have been so many positive developments in Minnesota in the last couple of years. And so I was honored to share my observations as well as our Coalition’s views about some of the progress being made within our State with respect to making employment the preferred choice of Minnesotans with disabilities. I have reproduced my presentation to the Advisory Committee with some minor and updated edits. Here is the text of my remarks.
My name is Don Lavin and I work at Rise, Incorporated. I am here today as a board member of Minnesota APSE-The Network on Employment and a founding member of Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition. Both of these groups are working to make integrated employment in the workforce at competitive wages and benefits--the first and preferred option of Minnesotans with disabilities. I appreciate this opportunity to share our observations and views about Minnesota Rehabilitation Services(RS) and its role in meeting the job placement and employment assistance needs of our citizens with disabilities.
First, I would like to say that Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition appreciates and values the State agency’s participation in last year’s "Employment First Summit" held in Chaska, Minnesota in June, 2007. The summit was attended by more 100 invited stakeholders and champions of an employment first vision throughout Minnesota. The summit process resulted in eight consensus recommendations for improving employment services and outcomes in Minnesota.
These recommendations are articulated in a summit consensus report we fondly refer to as "The Manifesto." We called the document a manifesto to communicate our intent to act on the recommendations crafted from the summit. Indeed, we discussed these recommendations and strategies for their implementation with federal and State agency leaders (including Minnesota RS) at a mini-summit held in St. Paul in April of 2008.
Virtually all of these recommendations align very closely with the federal/State VR program and we believe many of them are already in various stages of implementation or on one or more State agencies' radar for further discussion. For this reason, we would like to encourage Minnesota RS’ leadership to continue its participation and collaboration with our Coalition so we can work toward mutually shared goals. This means working collectively to make competitive employment in the workforce an expectation and reality for every Minnesotan with a disability who wants to work.
I think many of you know that I (and other members of our Coalition) have been outspoken critics of the federal-State vocational rehabilitation program over the years. However today, on behalf of our coalition, I would like to publically acknowledge and applaud the measurable progress made by Minnesota RS in a number of critical areas:
  • First, we appreciate the agency’s internal efforts to make Minnesota a model employer for our citizens with disabilities; Minnesota RS’ collaborative efforts with Department of Employee Relations (DOER) and Pathways to Employment (PTE), Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Program, is an excellent illustration of what we need to be doing to set an example and demonstrate what is possible in private industry.
  • On the policy front, we would like to applaud the agency’s collaboration with Minnesota's Department of Human Services (DHS) to launch and expand Evidence-Based Practices in Supported Employment (EBP-SE) in support of Minnesotans with serious mental illnesses. These exciting new projects are driven by research in the area of best practices and model exactly what we are talking about in encouraging an employment first philosophy.
  • We would also like to call attention to the recent launch of culturally-competent employment services in support of new Americans with disabilities who are refugees or immigrants to our State. These are critically needed services that widen accessibility and build bridges into the workforce for newcomers with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), cultural and language differences, and disability barriers.
  • We are very excited that the Department of Employment and Economic Development(DEED), Minnesota RS, and PTE chose to pursue a national grant sponsored by the federal Department of Labor and administered by the National Training Assistance and Research (NTAR) Leadership Center at Rutgers University. This national project’s goal is to assist states in expanding competitive employment for adults with disabilities. Minnesota was one of only three pilot states to receive this grant award! This is exactly the kind of leadership we need to steer and transform our system to address unmet needs, craft new ideas and policies, and build on our known strengths to expand job opportunities throughout Minnesota.
  • We are also excited that Minnesota RS has increased its focus and resources into the arena of School-to-Career Transition Services. The best way to shape future outcomes in Minnesota is to address the employability and job placement needs of youth and young adults with disabilities. To this end, we need more "communities of practice" that focus on blending of expertise, resources, and services so more youth and young adults have opportunities to move directly into the workforce or enroll in post-secondary education and training programs.
  • We are encouraged to see a high level of collaboration occurring among several State agencies and programs working toward a shared vision of increasing competitive employment objectives. A number of joint initiatives with the Minnesota’s Department of Human Services (DHS), Minnesota’s Department of Education (DOE), Pathways to Employment (PTE), the Social Security Administration (SSA), and other workforce divisions within the DEED are now bearing fruit. In particular, PTE has been successful in funding a number of employment innovations as well as investing in critical new projects and infrastructure changes to advance competitive employment as the first choice across multiple and underserved disability populations. PTE's investments in public-private ventures, including Minnesota's Employment First Coalition, are examples of positive outcomes and high quality work on behalf of Minnesota's State agencies and workforce development programs.
  • We are pleased Minnesota RS has recently created a taskforce to examine better ways to deliver employment services to Minnesotans who are deaf or hard of hearing. This is especially critical for those living in greater Minnesota who are not accessible to the customized services they as well as their employers require to address their unique job placement and employability needs. The recommendations flowing from this taskforce will only lead to more accessible services and better job placement outcomes for youth and adults with hearing loss.
  • As our Coalition looks at both federal and State policies, it is clear that Minnesota RS needs to continue to refine its policies to encourage integrated employment in the workforce at competitive wages and benefits. Of course, federal Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) 110 dollars can only be used to develop competitive employment outcomes for RS’ customers. And Minnesota’s State-funded extended employment program is already crafted to reward organizations working to increase integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits. Our policies are not perfect but many are already structured to incent better outcomes in the workforce at competitive wages as well as setting a high standard for hours worked. Just a cautionary note, however; we need to keep our expectations high but recognize that some RS customers may need to work limited hours initially as they begin their journey to greater independence.
  • Other allied policies such as Minnesota’s Medical Assistance Program for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) and SSA’s new ticket-to-work regulations are good examples of policies that encourate working and incent greater independence and self-sufficiency for individuals who want to work.
  • We are pleased to see Minnesota RS supporting the development of emerging employment practices including self-employment and small business development initiatives for entrepreneurs with disabilities. These practices should be supported and expanded.
  • We are so pleased to hear that Minnesota RS is working to rebrand and modernize its communications about the important work we do with private industry and the workforce development community. We would like to offer whatever assistance we can in moving our workforce system to a position where its fundamental focus is not on rehabilitation or disabilities but rather on strengths-based practices, customized employment, and the elimination of poverty.

In sum, there are many positive things happening here in Minnesota, but there is a lot of work left to do:

  • We still have too many people with disabilities who are not working.
  • We still have too many people with disabilities who are underemployed.
  • We still have too many people who are working but earning sub-minimum wages.
  • We still have too many employers who don’t know about how to hire and support someone with a significant disability.
  • We still have too many professionals who don’t have the skill sets to place and support someone with a significant disability in the competitive workforce.
  • We still have too many federal and State policies that favor segregation and do not promote working.
  • And we still have too many services that need transformation to align with emerging research and best practices.

Yes, we still have a lot of unfinished business. With that said, we are living in a time of unprecedented opportunities for change if we have the courage to consider a new vision and act with purpose, clarity, and creativity in pursuing it. In Minnesota, we have a strong foundation to build a new future. And we are presently riding a wave of momentum that will help to take us there. Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition appreciates the positive leadership that Minnesota RS and other State agencies have and are demonstrating to make competitive employment in the workforce not an exception, but common and expected practice.

We look forward to a continued partnership and working with VR’s leadership and counselors to make Minnesota, a nationally recognized "employment first" State.

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