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A Whack on the Side of the Head

To my readers, please take a careful look at the chart I’ve attached at the beginning of this article. I will wait for you at the next paragraph, OK? If you would like to enlarge the chart for ease of reading, click on it twice.

OK, are you back with me now? Great! This chart was developed by a colleague of mine named Alyssa Klein. Alyssa is a progressive employee of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS), and she works for a statewide project called Pathways to Employment (PTE). PTE is Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (MIG) funded by the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) and a state interagency initiative of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and DEED. My colleague, Alyssa Klein, is a specialist who works in the focus area of school-to-career transition and she’s leading the way on incorporating universal design service delivery principles and practices in support of youth with disabilities and in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system(MnSCU).

Let me begin by sharing that Alyssa and I have been working on a couple of committees together. These committees are examining more effective ways to increase the competitive employment of Minnesotans with disabilities by promoting statewide systems policy changes and fostering the use of universal design principles. For our purposes here, universal design means opening up access to secondary and post-secondary education, workforce, and communities in ways that benefit everyone. For example, this could include contextual, work-based learning and engaging the natural supports of businesses to increase the job skills and employment of individuals with disabilities. Or it could mean incorporating inclusive learning strategies in secondary and post-secondary education to promote the career education of unique learners. The overarching goal of universal design is building the capacities of our communities in ways that benefit and welcome the participation of all.

Well recently, I was at a meeting with Alyssa when she distributed and shared this “Preparing for a Career” document I’ve asked you to look at. This one page chart is a concise, straightforward description of supports being offered by local educators and adult service providers to increase the competitive employment of youth and young adults with disabilities. These career supports are on the radar in a geographic area where my organization operates its employment services for job seekers and businesses.

Well, my “whack on the side of the head” came without warning. And it clarified my thinking a great deal. You know, we tend to make things complicated and convoluted in the community rehabilitation field. As I looked at the Preparing for Careers chart, I was struck by the simplicity of its presentation. First of all, Alyssa used ordinary, everyday language. If you noticed, there’s no mention about disabilities or any notion about needing “rehabilitation.” No references are made to “disability silos” or promoting vocational evaluation, work adjustment training, extended (sheltered) employment, or non-work day habilitation services customarily marketed to transition-age youth with disabilities and their families.

Instead Alyssa intentionally used everyday language and graphics with clearly defined steps that can be applied to the transition and career planning needs of any youth. If you examined the document carefully, you may have noticed it does not map out a “model of program services” but rather offers a blueprint for thinking about career possibilities. The chart walks youth through a few simple, logical steps so they can thoughtfully consider and weigh their future career options. Finally, the communication piece nudges youth to consider a full range of possibilities for moving forward with their careers and taking actionable steps with guided support from family members, educators, workforce representatives, and other community support systems.

You know, I thought Alyssa’s chart was a refreshing way to connect youth with career exploration and planning opportunities and to do so in a far less invasive manner than traditional approaches. The truth is this—when given a choice, most youth with disabilities and their families prefer accessing community and business-based supports over enrollment in rehabilitation programs. Many are just plain tired of being assessed, evaluated, work adjusted, and behavior-managed in programs designed for people with disabilities. As transition-age youth begin to take those initial steps into adulthood, they are searching for ideal employment conditions and the job supports they need to develop and use their talents in the workforce. Therefore, in my view, this is a healthier way to be thinking and communicating about the supports many youth will need to map out their career planning goals and advance their post-secondary education and/or employability plans.

In the past year, Alyssa Klein convened a Community Action Team (CAT) in Anoka County to increase focus on improving school-to-career transition services in our community. She is challenging a diverse group of educators and adult service professionals to consider investing resources in new ways and implementing innovations to reshape the delivery of career discovery and workforce development strategies for youth and young adults with disabilities. Our CAT is responding with creative ideas and building multiple pathways into the workforce in support of transition-age youth.

For example, the team has supported the running of Camps to Careers to expose youth to high growth employment opportunities in the workforce. And new discussions are underway to rebuild career discovery and exploration experiences for youth living in these communities through additional career camps and access to trial work experiences, on-the-job evaluations, informational interviews, business and college tours, business mentoring, job shadowing experiences, and other strategies.

Anoka County’s CAT is working to build additional career development opportunities through supported education concepts and customized training strategies in partnership with local colleges. Also, the CAT is working to build bridges with local business leaders by engaging contextualized, work-based learning, on-the-job training programs featuring stackable skills credentialing, and job skills apprenticeships and internships with employers taking the job training lead.

Finally, Anoka County’s CAT is working to expand youth access to customized employment assistance. Traditional job placement practices tend to focus energies on matching job seekers to vacancies in the workforce based on individual job qualifications such as education, training experiences, and past work history. For this reason, traditional job placement methods tend to be successful with only 30-35% of youth and adults with disabilities. National employment data documents these practices are not particularly effective in obtaining jobs for individuals with the most significant disabilities.

Customized employment, however, offers greater promise because it focuses on developing, negotiating, and if necessary, creating jobs to fit the interests, skills, and strengths of job seekers. Customized employment is a completely voluntary, non-comparative job development process where tasks are negotiated and crafted in ways to fit the skills of an individual worker. In other words, customized employment changes the playing field by emphasizing new policies and using practices and strategies that focus on individual strengths.

To illustrate, customized employment practices might include the carving of job tasks to fit the interests and skills of a job seeker. It could include job creation promoting value added services and economies to a company’s services or manufacturing operations. Also, it could include the launch of self-employment initiatives or microenterprises allowing for increased flexibility and customization of tasks or supports needed by the worker. In addition, it could include: (1) individual resource ownership (purchasing equipment or new resources that open job opportunities and add economic value to a company’s bottom line); or (2) incorporating a business within a business economic development strategy.

I am certain about this--the future is looking brighter for youth living in Anoka County. And I'm excited to be a member of the local CAT that is working hard to make fundamental changes in our school-to-career strategies. This local partnership is giving true meaning to Minnesota’s adopted value proposition “We need everyone in the Workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.”

Thanks Alyssa for all you do!

This post first appeared on A New Vision: What If We Lived In A World Where Disabilities Become Possibilities?, please read the originial post: here

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A Whack on the Side of the Head


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