Monday, July 21, 2008

Sound Bites from the 2008 National APSE Conference

I attended the 19th Annual National APSE Conference held in Louisville, Kentucky on July 9-11 with this year’s annual theme being The Winner’s Circle: Everybody Works! Everybody Wins!
I was pleased to share information about the emerging Employment First Movement along with my colleagues, Bob Niemiec from Minnesota APSE–The Network on Employment and Susan Rinne, a leader from Indiana’s Employment First Planning Coalition. Our joint presentation was entitled A Shift in the Force–Employment First. Bob, Susan, and I also facilitated a follow-up workshop on the second day entitled Employment First Everywhere–An Interactive Session on Building Employment First States. Both presentations were well received and it was energizing for the three of us to speak with so many colleagues from around the country who are launching similar initiatives and grappling with the same issues in promoting systems change in their own states.

Bob and I shared with the audience how Indiana’s Employment First Summit was a key stimulus and model for planning our own initiative in the State of Minnesota. And Susan shared how the success of Minnesota’s Employment First Summit had reignited new efforts in her own State of Indiana. Many members in our audience spoke eloquently about similar initiatives in their own states to make employment the first choice of working age adults. There is clearly an emerging national interest in employment first initiatives and their impact in bringing about policy changes and promoting promising practices in the United States.
In addition to my own sessions, I had the opportunity to attend a number of outstanding presentations related to the employment of youth and adults with disabilities. Although time and space doesn’t permit a detailed discussion of all them here, I thought I would cover a few sound bites from keynote presentations that captured my attention.
Dale DiLeo, a nationally recognized trainer, consultant, and author of the book Raymond’s Room: Ending the Segregation of Adults with Disabilities delivered a powerful keynote presentation to open the conference. Here are a couple of sound bites from his presentation:
""Why is it that supported employment programs always need to defend the position that its practices work and outcomes are successful? I think workshops need to explain to the public why their programs are so ineffective in creating integrated employment and wage outcomes."
DiLeo was basing his argument on repeated evidence-based research studies and service demonstrations that measure and contrast the unique capacities of workshops and supported employment programs to generate integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits for their respective participants. In truth, there really is no comparison. Supported employment programs are far superior and more efficient in developing integrated employment outcomes at competitive wages and benefits.
Quoting Martin Luther King, DiLeo said this: "A times comes when silence is betrayal."
DiLeo was emphasizing a point about the ethics of segregating adults with disabilities given the advancement of pioneering service policies, practices, and technologies. The "Disability Industrial Complex" as DiLeo calls it, is far more concerned about goals of perpetuating itself than it is in addressing the unique job placement goals of individuals. Despite overwhelming evidence that supported employment practices reduce the need for segregated services, a majority of workshops and center based programs have been unable to reconcile their own self-interests with those of expanding integrated employment outcomes for a majority of people they support.
National data on disability and employment clearly support DiLeo’s position. He shared his view about the critical need for leadership to drive essential social and economic changes thereby making integrated employment an expected, informed, and accessible choice for all Americans living with disabilities.
Dr. Shirley Davis, Director of Diversity Initiatives for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), delivered the second day’s keynote address. Her talk was entitled Diversity in the Workplace. Here was my take away from Dr. Davis’ presentation:
"We are going to see unprecedented opportunities for people who want to work as our baby boomer generation begins to leave the workforce for retirement in the next decade ."
Dr. Davis introduced statistical evidence from her field of practice about the anticipated turnover rate in the workforce due to the aging of America’s baby boomer population. Also, she shared a survey conducted with baby boomers revealing a high percentage (more than 80%) are expressing their intent to either leave the workforce entirely or reduce their working life to a part-time schedule.
Dr. Davis articulated a position that changing demographic indicators in America mean significant changes are in store for our economy. Business leaders are already rethinking strategies to recruit and retain talent within their respective sectors of the economy. Since people with disabilities remain a largely untapped labor pool, this means employment service providers will have leverage in negotiating opportunities. However, we need marketing strategies to engage business leaders with new ideas so we can realize shared goals as business partners.
The closing keynote speaker at the conference was my friend and colleague Joe Marrone. Marrone is a Senior Program Manager for Public Policy and Director of Training and Technical Assistance at the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts. His keynote address was entitled: If everyone is doing it, then why doesn’t it ever get done?
Marrone’s most salient points were his remarks about people with disabilities having a "choice" when it comes to working:
"I don’t understand this idea that people with disabilities should have a choice about working. What ever happened to personal responsibility?"
Marrone shared his view that professionals working in the field of disability and employment could learn a lot by examining the service changes and progress made in the allied field of welfare reform and employment. Joe wasn’t implying the welfare system has solved all of its problems in supporting people to go to work. Rather he was merely pointing out that competitive employment and contributing to self-support is now an expectation driving welfare’s service delivery system. And more people are working today because competitive employment is a clearly defined expectation and goal for all. And only core services that support this goal are planned, funded, and delivered.
Marrone’s admonition reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the late Austrian psychiatrist and Halocoust survivor, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl. Frankl once said:
"Freedom is only part of the story and half the truth. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplanted by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast."
Here is another sound bite from Marrone’s presentation concerning emerging activities with the Employment First movement.
"I guess I just don’t understand all of this talk about employment first, summits, manifestos, and so forth. If employment is what comes first, then what comes second?"
Aha! Well Joe, I think I can answer this one for you. If employment comes first, then earned paychecks with competitive wages and benefits comes second! And when employment becomes the fundamental expectation of all working age Americans, there will be no further need for employment first because secondary choices will be needed by a minority of individuals who choose not to work for whatever the reason.
At the awards dinner, Patrick Henry Hughes, a virtuoso pianist, vocalist, and trumpet player, spoke with the APSE audience about his life experiences and growing up with significant disabilities. Born without sight and the ability to walk, Hughes is currently enrolled at the University of Louisville and is a straight A student majoring in Spanish. He attracted national media attention recently when he became a member of the University of Louisville’s Cardinal Marching Band. Hughes is a trumpet player and uses a wheelchair. As the story goes, his Dad (Patrick John Hughes) became a member of the "Hughes Team" by assisting his son’s field movements in the wheelchair at scheduled sporting and special events. The Hughes story has attracted national media attention and both Patrick Henry and the elder Hughes have received numerous invitations to speak at public venues to share their unique parent and child perspectives on living with a significant disability.
At the close of his presentation, Patrick Henry said this to our audience:
"I am still not sure where my education and career opportunities will lead me. I know there are many things that I cannot do. However, there are a number of things that I can do well and I intend to use and take advantage of these skills I have."
I don’t think Hughes left an iota of doubt in anyone’s mind about this fact.
Finally, APSE’s State Chapters delivered a fond and heartfelt farewell to Celane McWhorter, who will be retiring as National APSE’s Executive Director in the near future. As the chief executive for National APSE, McWhorter has been a tireless advocate and made many contributions to advance the employment of adults with disabilities in the United States. Celane will be greatly missed and APSE’s National Board is presently working to recruit a new Executive Director. The newly hired Executive Director will have big shoes to fill.
In closing, I would like to salute the Kentucky APSE Chapter for planning and running an outstanding and stimulating conference. They were excellent hosts and the event was a highly successful gathering of America’s champions of supported and customized employment.
I am already looking forward to next year’s 20th Annual Meeting which will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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