Sunday, November 09, 2008

Yes we can!

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On November 4th 2008, Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African American to be elected President of the United States. I can still see the wild elation and pride in the faces of his diverse supporters as he strolled out on stage to acknowledge his election victory. Obama spoke eloquently to the crowd about his amazing journey to the presidency and reaffirmed how tried and true American values are still very much alive today. This improbable election of a black man in a predominantly white America is a socio-political barometer of just how far this country has come in its race relations and goals of inclusion.
Obama’s stunning victory aside, there is still a lot of work left to do.
This blog is dedicated principally to a discussion about employment and disability related issues. And I have intentionally avoided political discourse here because I believe the employment and self-sufficiency goals of Americans with disabilities is a non-partisan issue. The truth is I don’t believe either major party, Democratic or Republican, has delivered on the promise of a more inclusive life for Americans with disabilities. For decades, there’s been a lot of rhetoric on both sides of the aisle about this issue. However, neither party has adequately dealt with the unemployment gap of Americans with disabilities no matter which party is in control of the Presidency or Congress. Today, in the year 2008, the unemployment rate of Americans with disabilities remains a national disgrace.
Is the election of Barack Obama a political breakthrough? Well, I am not so easily impressed but I am willing to give the new President-Elect the benefit of the doubt. It will take more than political sound bites, however, to bring about "change we can believe in." This country needs to take measured steps to remove systemic barriers that are contributing to the high unemployment of adults with disabilities to bring about real social and economic change.
Mr. Obama has not asked for my advice (hey, I am not a plumber!), but I’ve logged more than 35 years in this business of disability and employment services. And I’m more than willing to share my two cents with the new Obama administration. So here are 11 ideas to significantly and substantially improve the competitive employment of Americans with disabilities.
1. Make the competitive employment of Americans with disabilities a national priority. I am serious about this. The costs of lifelong unemployment are simply staggering in human and financial terms. We can no longer afford to have Americans with disabilities idle and outside the labor force. Recently, an employment leadership team in Minnesota crafted a value proposition for our State that says it best–"We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper."
We are dealing with several converging factors here. Despite the present economic crisis, the emerging workforce in America is going to experience serious labor shortages and a depletion of talent in the next decade as baby boomers exit for retirement. How will American business handle this labor shortage given our demographic realities? Well, unemployed people with disabilities have important qualities and talents to contribute and they can work successfully with the right measure of job support. Also, lifelong dependency on Social Security disability benefits is not only an expensive proposition but a waste of human potential.
As the old expression goes– "Success happens when preparation meets with opportunity." And make no mistake about this– opportunity is knocking.
2. Embrace a national "employment first" vision. Simply stated, we need a new vision of what it means to live with a disability in America so everyone is included and contributes up to his or her potential. Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition has defined employment first as expecting, encouraging, providing, creating, and rewarding integrated employment in the workforce as the first and preferred option of youth and adults with disabilities. Our country needs an employment first vision to help shape public policy across numerous disability service systems including secondary and post-secondary education and adult human services.
A nationwide vision for change should be crafted by a Presidential Committee and adopted by all appropriate federal agencies such as the Department of Labor, Department of Education, Social Security Administration, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, and others. Such a coordinated policy would better serve the collective interests of Americans with disabilities. An articulated national vision will also encourage the states to adopt similar policy initiatives to widen opportunities and employment outcomes.
3. Refine public policies and rebalance resources to support an employment first vision. A nationwide vision for change needs to be reflected in all appropriate federal public policies impacting education as well as adult health and human services for Americans with disabilities. These policies need to be unmistakably clear about expectations for competitive employment as well as flexible to encourage and reward an employment first approach. Our country already spends millions of dollars on secondary education, adult community services, Social Security disability benefits, transportation, and comprehensive health care of Americans with disabilities. Many of these resources, however, are not used to encourage job placement in the workforce. Resolving our national unemployment problem will require a "rebalancing" of many existing resources to encourage and increase competitive employment and self-sufficiency outcomes.
4. Establish a national goal to systemically reduce the unemployment of youth and adults with disabilities. There is an old adage– What gets measured, gets done. There have been a number of national studies documenting the high unemployment rate of adults with disabilities. We need to identify an accepted baseline of unemployment and then establish a national goal to focus the public’s attention on new policies and funding priorities to eradicate this persistent problem. Our national goal should be bold and increase the employment rate by a substantial percentage over an identified period of time. And we should implement a national "scorecard" to measure our performance in narrowing the high unemployment gap between Americans with disabilities and the general public.
Of course, establishing a measurable national goal means crafting a uniform definition of employment so everyone is working from the same set of assumptions. At a minimum, these standards should include the following:
  • regular or customized (negotiated) jobs in the workforce
  • arrangements where employees with disabilities are included on the payroll of the employing company or industry (unless self-employed)
  • employment tasks that offer at least minimum or prevailing wages and benefits
  • jobs that offer ordinary opportunities for integration and interaction with co-workers without disabilities, with customers, and/or the general public
  • arrangements where employees with disabilities are supervised and supported by company managers and supervisors to the fullest extent possible.
5. Rebrand the existing system of "rehabilitation" to one of strengths-based practices. The present system of rehabilitation is invested in an array of services designed to correct problems associated with the presence of disabilities. Even the lexicon associated with delivery of special education and adult disability services communicates the wrong message. There is an unintended perception in the public that people with disabilities are "damaged" in some way and need to be "rehabilitated" so they can join the workforce like the rest of us. This is an archaic way of thinking and communicating about our work.
I propose a rebranding of this important work we do. Our country needs to move toward an educational and workforce system that identifies, markets, and employs individual assets and strengths. Emerging practices in customized and supported employment offer exciting possibilities to change the present system of rehabilitation services. Many people with disabilities, especially those with complex and significant disabilities, do not need rehabilitation but rather customized job supports to choose, get, and keep competitive employment.
6. Educate and invest in private-public partnerships to engage business leaders. There is a growing body of evidence that hiring Americans with disabilities is just good business. Studies have demonstrated that workers with disabilities are loyal employees who bring necessary talents and skills into the workforce. Despite stereotypes about disability, there is no evidence that employees with disabilities are unsafe or less effective on the job than employees who do not have disabilities. Further, the American public has expressed a strong support of businesses that choose to hire job seekers with disabilities. In fact, one national study indicated 87% of the American public would prefer to give their business to companies who do so (Gallop Poll, University of Massachusetts, and America’s Strength Foundation, 2006).
With this said, we need more business leaders to champion this important cause and carry our message forward. On the demand-side, there are many thousands of satisfied employers who have practical experiences as well as expertise in the hiring and integration of workers with disabilities. And many can speak about their employees with disabilities with direct authority and knowledge about their business contributions. In America, we don’t need a charitable marketing campaign but rather a national business dialogue about the economic values in hiring employees with disabilities. This not only means hiring qualified job applicants but also hiring quality workers who can perform essential job tasks customized to fit their identified strengths.
America needs large and small businesses to step up and educate their peers about their company’s experiences. In Minnesota, we are working to invest in the public education of business leaders to allay fears about hiring workers with disabilities and teach companies how to access this largely untapped labor resource.
Finally, we need to simplify the process of accessing technical support (i.e., job customization, job coaching, etc.) from the public and private, non-profit sectors so businesses can learn how to build internal expertise to supervise and support their employees with disabilities.
7. Invest in the development of new technologies and training in customized employment practices to increase competitive employment outcomes. If competitive employment and self-sufficiency are important national goals, then we must work to identify service practices, technologies, resources, and expertise that will lead to better return on investment (ROI). There is ample national research to document specific practices that are most effective in producing competitive employment and wage outcomes for youth and adults with disabilities.
If there is a public "buy in" that integrated employment and competitive wages ought to be a national priorities then we need to invest ample resources in wide-scale staff development and training initiatives so educators and adult service professionals are prepared to assume new roles. For many this proposed change in philosophy and practices will be viewed as a threat. Regardless of the resistance, these changes must be pursued. If we intend to promote a new direction away from caretaking to business consultation roles, these professionals will need to be equipped with new skill sets. With these new competencies, professionals can support companies in recruiting, hiring, training, supervising, and integrating employees with disabilities in the competitive labor force.
8. Increase the demand for competitive employment through more effective marketing and public education of self-advocates and family members. The real engine of social change is not money but rather expectations. Of course, we need adequate public resources to obtain high quality education and adult service outcomes. However, without high expectations, people with disabilities and their families will often settle for program services and outcomes that do not encourage them to participate fully in the mainstream of community life. This is reinforced by the fact that a majority of adults with significant disabilities are supported today in programs that offer segregation and long-term dependency regardless of the cost.
Sadly, many youth and adults with disabilities and their families give up on the American Dream because they believe competitive employment is beyond their reach. For example, it is common to hear family members share their apprehension or disbelief about the prospects for competitive employment of a loved one because educators or adult service professionals have discouraged them from setting their goals too high. It is also quite common for youth with disabilities (and their families) to be lacking current information about opportunities available or where to access innovative services that may lead to competitive jobs.
A colleague of mine, Shauna McDonald, is a family advocate and she framed it correctly. Shauna said this– "We will get better outcomes from schools and adult service providers when families demand it." She is right. If people with significant disabilities and their families are willing to settle for a life of dependency, very few people are likely to challenge this choice.

How can America increase its demand for integrated employment? We can accomplish this objective through better public education and advocacy. We need to make people with disabilities and their families more aware of the exciting possibilities available and open to them. It is particularly instructive to share employment success stories to create hope, stimulate imagination, and increase their expectations. When people with disabilities and their families recognize the clear benefits, expectations will change and they will choose work.
9. Invest in the enhancement of public transportation and other community support systems to promote employability. One shallow criticism of the employment first movement is this notion of engaging a one-dimensional employment strategy to the exclusion of others. Most proponents of an employment first vision recognize the importance of holistic planning and integrating critical collateral services to support the job placement and self-sufficiency goals of youth and adults with disabilities.
To illustrate, the best laid employment plans will never be successfully launched for some individuals without reliable access to public or privately supported transportation. Similarly, many adults with serious mental illnesses will not succeed in competitive employment without access to effective, responsive mental health treatment. Many job seekers who are deaf or hard of hearing cannot function successfully in their job search without access to American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or Occupational Communication Specialists. In addition, many adults with intellectual disabilities living in community residential services will require flexible, responsive staff support to accommodate their work schedules. Finally, young adults in secondary education programs often need access to a wide array of services within school as well as from the adult service system to successfully transition from school-to-careers.
To say it simply, job placement success is the product of identifying multiple, complex systems barriers and removing them effectively. This means considering the whole person and providing a critical array of community supports to make integrated employment a viable option.
10. Support systems change policies thoughtfully and methodically to substantially reduce programs that segregate people and compete with an employment first vision. Our country needs to move more aggressively toward policies to encourage and reward integrated employment as the first option. Most community rehabilitation and center-based programs tout their use of "individualized" and "person-centered" services. Yet the majority of these programs in the United States engage in direct service practices that do not lead to competitive employment. Low expectations coupled with these ineffective practices lead to predictable, long-term outcomes in sheltered workshops and center-based programs for a vast majority of Americans with significant disabilities.
Programs that deploy an employment first philosophy and engage customized and supported employment practices are far more effective in producing integrated employment and competitive wages across many diverse service populations (i.e., youth in transition, adults with intellectual disabilities, adults with serious mental illnesses, adults with hearing loss, etc.) As stated earlier, one of the key problems is in rebalancing resources away from traditional practices that are too costly in the long run and less effective in producing competitive employment results. We need new policies to limit and discourage enrollment in these programs if we want more people to secure competitive jobs in the workforce.
11. Work to eliminate sub-minimum wages. No other minority population in the United States would tolerate payment of sub-minimum wages as sanctioned by this country’s labor policies for adults with disabilities. I acknowledge 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 their interests or innate talents and skills. The end result is low productivity reinforcing a self-fulfilling prophecy that people with disabilities need jobs in workshops and center-based settings at sub-minimum wages. When adult service providers operate from such a narrow base of jobs to choose from, there will be inevitable mismatches that do not bring out the best in employees with disabilities.
Over the years, I’ve observed many people leaving workshop settings for jobs that are a better match to their skills. And guess what? When placed in jobs that are a positive match, these folks almost always secure employment earning the federal minimum wage or higher.
This is why it is critical for our country to invest in a customized employment approach. America needs to do a better job of finding, negotiating, and if necessary, creating jobs in the workforce to widen opportunities and better match the signature skills of job seekers with disabilities. This is only common sense.

To be sure, President-Elect Obama will have a full plate when he takes office on January 20, 2009. He will be distracted by an economic crisis fueled by a worldwide credit tsunami and an unpopular war that is draining precious federal resources. Still, I believe Obama understands the historic, unprecedented opportunity associated with his election to the nation’s highest office. And he has a duty to extend to America’s largest minority population the same privileges he enjoyed as a minority member in his own climb to national prominence.
Of course, what I am talking about here has nothing to do with "spreading wealth around" as Obama’s critics have assailed. Rather, it has to do with "spreading opportunity around" and investing in people so they a chance to contribute to the best of their ability.
Is America up to this challenge? Can we transform a sluggish, institutionalized system of federal, State, and local services so it encourages and rewards people with disabilities to move in a new direction? Well, I am taking a page from Obama’s play book–
Yes we can!

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