Poster by Michael O'Harro
Recently, I accepted an invitation to speak at a Statewide video conference entitled: The Meaning and Value of Employment of People with Disabilities in Minnesota
. This video conference is being planned and sponsored by Pathways to Employment (PTE),
Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (MIG). The mission of PTE
is to increase the competitive employment of people with disabilities and meet Minnesota's workforce needs by bringing together people with disabilities, employers, businesses, government, and providers. This upcoming conference is dedicated to a discussion on real values of employment, beyond wages, from the perspective of workers with disabilities. The target audience for the video conference is people with disabilities and family members, County staff, providers of disability-related services, and advocates from all around the State of Minnesota. Appropriately, the event will include perspectives and views of people with disabilities as well as advocates working to promote competitive employment for working age adults with disabilities.
I will share my viewpoint and conclusions with the audience based on 32 years of management experience with employment and workforce development programs. And I intend to keep the discussion light and fun so I’ve decided to use a "David Letterman Top Ten" approach as I present the main reasons why youth and adults with disabilities should choose work as their first option. Here they are–
10. Work makes you feel good.
American author and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, said it best- "What exercise is to the body, work is to the mind." Thoreau’s observation is not only correct but supported by employment related research. In the area of mental health, for example, supported employment has been identified as an evidenced-based practice (EBP) in recovery from a serious mental illness. New research tells us that people shouldn’t wait until they recover before they go to work. Rather, the opposite is apparently true– people tend to recover BECAUSE they go to work! There is little question that having an occupation is fundamental to human wellness and for so many reasons.
9. The workforce needs you.
Numerous workforce studies forecast labor shortages in the next decade including warnings about how impending baby boomer retirements will deplete the American workforce of critical talents. Also, studies document the challenges business are having finding skilled and unskilled labor across a spectrum of economic sectors. To illustrate, a recent study by Manpower, Inc. revealed 41% of American companies surveyed were having trouble filling jobs. Clearly, changing workforce demographics and dynamic economies in America are creating new opportunities for partnerships with private businesses. Now is the time to engage the employability of all interested and available workers with a wide range of skills and abilities.
I am a member of an employment leadership team in Minnesota that recently crafted a value proposition to communicate the importance of including everyone in our local workforce. Minnesota’s value proposition says this– "We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper."
And including everyone means tapping every available citizen who wants to work.
8. Work is a part of your identity.
Whenever we meet new people, a ritual of getting to know one another commonly ensues. Generally speaking, people are initially interested in asking us questions about who we are and where we live. And the third most likely inquiry is this– "What do you do?"
Indeed, having an occupation is highly valued in our American culture. A job becomes a central part of the fabric of who we are and contributes to how others see and relate to us. Kate Stepkin, a U.S. baker, put it this way– "Work is an essential part of being alive. Your work is your identity. It tells you who you are."
"What do you do?" And how should chronically unemployed individuals answer this question? Further, how does their answer shape self-esteem or contribute to valued roles in their community?
7. Work gives you a chance to meet new people.
Many national studies validate that people with disabilities experience high and chronic unemployment separating them from the social and economic fabric of their communities. To illustrate, the National Organization on Disability (NOD)/ Louis Harris Poll conducted a study in 2004 and found people with disabilities were more likely to experience high unemployment (65%) and discrimination. Conversely, they were less likely to socialize, eat out, or attend religious services than their counterparts who don’t have disabilities. In addition, this study found people with disabilities were less likely to report overall satisfaction with their lives with only 34% saying they were highly satisfied verses 61% of their counterparts.
To say it simply, social similarities attract and differences repel. A working life gives people with disabilities an opportunity to meet and connect with others in their community. And this experience of friendship and collegial team work educates the public about the competence of people with disabilities to work and live in the mainstream of community life. Social integration is critical to widening opportunities, battling stereotypes, galvanizing human rights, and ensuring the American public’s support of universal design policies so no one is left behind and everyone is included.
6. Work provides life structures.
Work gives a fundamental purpose and meaning to our lives. It offers life structures and regular routines such as:
how we spend our time
what we spend our time doing
where we spend our time
who we spend our time with
why spend our time in the way we do.
Work offers consistency in our schedule and fills structured time with challenges, social relationships, and activities that nurture personal growth.
5. Work allows you to invest your skills and talents for pay.
Contrary to stereotypes, myths, and half-truths, people with disabilities are real economic assets. And work enables people with disabilities to invest their time, skills, and talents to the economic gain of employers and themselves. As it is for all people, the real challenge is identifying, unlocking, marketing, and employing innate talents or acquired job skills.
Like the unique color of our eyes, texture of our hair, or other physical attributes, we are all born with individual gifts and talents to contribute. Sadly, potential contributions of individuals living with significant disabilities are often overlooked, dismissed, or underestimated. Individual talents, however, can be examined through creative processes such as "discovery" or "person-centered career planning."
Discovery and career planning are designed to study and assess potential economic contributions of youth or adults with significant disabilities. These procedures are not assessment tools for screening the appropriateness or suitability of working. Rather they are strategies for identifying and determining how talents, assets, and potential contributions can be marketed to private industry. Once these possibilities are identified, they can be marketed to prospective employers through traditional job placement approaches. Or, customized employment practices can be used to build job opportunities around the unique interests and skills of individuals receiving the employment assistance.
In my view, it seems like such a waste of talent when no clear effort is made to employ the skills or innate potential that virtually everyone holds. Why not exchange these talents for real pay?
4. Work contributes to greater independence and self-support.
Unless people work or happen to be independently wealthy, most rely on someone else or the government for their keep. For chronically unemployed individuals, gaining a measure of economic power in their lives increases autonomy and choices about many personal matters. Earning a competitive wage and other employment benefits contributes to one’s self-support and provides discretionary income empowering people to set short-term and long-term goals.
3. Work contributes to higher productivity and achievement.
Competitive employment enables people to use their strengths and practice their skills. This leads to higher levels of individual competency and achievement. In addition, work enables people to pool their talents with others to achieve something greater than themselves. When people reach tangible personal goals they've set for themselves, it fuels higher self-esteem and personal competence. And when people with disabilities contribute to attainment of a company’s business accomplishments, it educates and breaks down social and economic barriers to success.
2. Poverty sucks!
I remember a politically incorrect poster many years ago by Micheal O'Harro. The poster portrayed a rich man standing in front of his Rolls Royce sipping on a cocktail. Inscribed above the photo was a sarcastic message– "Poverty Sucks!" Well, it sure does. Money may not buy happiness but it sure helps people pay the bills and live a minimum standard of life that brings comforts and pleasures.
A colleague and friend of mine, Joe Maronne, said it best– "If you think working is stressful, try a lifetime of unemployment and poverty." Right on, Joe!
1. Why work? Because you CAN!!
If you live with a disability, there is no better time in history than now to consider work. Almost anyone can work if he or she chooses to, has a good plan, finds an interested employer, and has access to essential work and community supports. Today, we have improved work incentives and public policies, amazing technologies to increase accessibility and functionality, better public and private transportation systems, and more effective employment practices to customize jobs and deliver the job supports people need to contribute in the workforce.
Is "going to work" really that easy for most people with disabilities? Of course not. If it were, there would be more people working. There are still significant barriers to employment for many Americans with disabilities because of low expectations and lack of access to responsive services many people need to meet presenting challenges or overcome individual circumstances.
If you really want to work and you’re getting the run around, I highly recommend seeking out educational and adult service providers who observe an "employment first" philosophy and believe in your abilities to work. These are the providers who are most likely to deliver on your potential. And yes, it may take some time to find the right employer or develop a job that is good match to your abilities, but it will be well worth the wait.
There is a place in the American workforce for anyone who chooses to work. We need to find it, develop it, or if necessary, create it.
For all of these reasons, I say-Choose work!