The Two Sides of the Employment First Coin

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Like a two-sided coin, the advocacy movement of Employment First has two core linked components. 
The first side is about ending obsolete practices – to phase out the needless segregation, less-than-minimum wages, and limited work tasks given to people with disabilities that make up much of sheltered work. 
The second side is to provide a system that supports, for every individual with a disability, a preference for quality employment services that are individualized. These are services that lead to well-matched jobs to enhance productivity, social success, and wages in community integrated businesses.
The success of both goals are interdependent. Moving people with disabilities out of sheltered workshops does not achieve the goal of a quality life if, after leaving, they remain excluded from typical community life, and instead sit home doing nothing, or be relegated to day programs focusing on non-vocational activities, or fail in poorly-matched and weakly-supported jobs.
And this is what might happen if states close workshops without investing in supported employment services. If states just maintain their supported employment for the small percentage of people receiving those services (about 22% nationally in the US), this will only perpetuate a serious bottleneck to employment people with significant disabilities have faced for the last 30 years. New services must be expanded or incubated to be able to serve more people. 
In addition, the level of quality of such services varies widely from place to place. Far too few agencies are well versed in marketing planning, job analysis and customization, or naturally sustainable job support strategies. A commitment to cutting edge service is a needed investment.
But, as well, ending a segregated approach with demonstrably poor outcomes must be part of the discussion of what needs to change. We cannot just ignore this half of the goal. Many of the large disability service agencies take the position that segregated facilities will just “fade away on their own” (to quote one such position paper) once better employment services are offered. But that is overly simplistic and has proven untrue over time. It will take proactive steps to end the current reliance on sheltered employment as a solution to work for people with disabilities.
If we consider both sides of Employment First, then we must acknowledge three basic conclusions. 
  1. First, change won’t occur until we freeze referrals to sheltered workshops, as is finally now being done in several states. Then there must be an active process to downsize the census over time.
  2. Two, offering quality employment services to many more people requires a large investment in capacity-building. This includes not only core basic training for the new staff that must be hired, but also in-service development to greatly increase the quality of career planning, job development, and job support. Many agencies still only provide rudimentary levels of these skill sets.
  3. And, finally, if established agencies are to successful change their missions and services, they must have access to technical assistance on organizational restructuring. Agency conversion can be complex and fraught with land mines, from family resistance, management restructuring, and the changing of agency mission and staff organization. Agencies taking this leap must be offered support, guidance and the resources necessary for them to succeed.

By | 2017-05-18T15:42:56+00:00 December 2nd, 2013|conversion, sheltered workshops, supported employment|13 Comments

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13 Comments

  1. Jon Alexander December 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Dale, I think the reason that Employment First initiatives are making progress in many states is that they are NOT about closing anything and instead are focusing only on increasing the employment rate of people with disabilities. If we do the latter, we don’t need to talk about the former.

  2. Anonymous December 2, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    This is good stuff. I would add in addition, you need to work with families early to help them think about community life for their son or daughter. Schools still segregate and we have segregated recreation. If we can help families to think about generic community and develop those capacities for their son or daughter early, then there will be less demand for segregated employment. We need to teach families to think about community employment when they are young– build a dream for a big life!

  3. Dale DiLeo December 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Hi Jon. I don’t agree with you on this one, and that is the exact point of the post. I think we absolutely do need to talk about the problems with workshops. In fact, I think avoiding that conversation the past 20 years has been the cause of much of the stagnation.

  4. Bob Lawhead December 2, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    I’m with Dale on this based upon the experiences we’ve had in Colorado.

    The present funding for supported and customized employment approaches in Colorado and many other states is below what is necessary to sustain a viable supported employment service infrastructure. There must be a funding shift to free up dollars for the expansion of integrated employment supports. This requires that we gradually reduce funding for segregated services and increase funding for integrated services. Additionally, we must communicate to public policy makers that integrated employment supports are more cost effective than segregated day programs (see Rob Cimera’s work).

    The states will want to actively move in this direction to avoid legal action for violation of the “most integrated setting” standard defined within the ADA and confirmed by the 1999 Olmstead Ruling of the Supreme Court. Those states dragging their feet on shifting funding out of segregated services and into integrated ones should attend to the recent U.S. Department of Justice action in Oregon and Rhode Island.

    We’ve tried just letting it happen over the last 20 years. It’s time to demand an end to segregation for those states that continue to fund sheltered workshops and segregated pre-vocational settings. Integrated employment services must be expanded through enlightened state leadership, increased funding for integrated employment outcomes and focused technical assistance/training!

  5. Richard Frettoloso December 3, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Just to piggy back on Dale’s and Bob’s comments, I would add that utilizing Goodwill (in enclaves or any other capacity) does not constitute integrated or community employment. I have seen this happen on too many occasions.

  6. Joel Nelson December 3, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Dale,
    Sorry, I must disagree with your premise that over the past 20 years there has been an “avoiding conversation” that has led to the stagnation of transition to the least restrictive employment option. Many of these facilities have offered a great service for people with disabilities. It has been the funding restrictions that have led to the stagnation. I agree with Jon, don’t focus on closing good facilities that have employees who know how to work with people with disabilities. Open up the funding so these facilities can do their job better. Free up the funding so they can make this transition a much smoother process. If you believe in choice for people with disabilities, than allow them to choose a trusted provided, who have been there through there ups and downs in their lives, to provide this transition.

  7. Anonymous December 5, 2013 at 11:58 am

    The point of an all encompassing view of Employment First is something that doesn’t seem to be discussed very often. We hear closing workshops and promoting people to work in the community is the way to go. And I believe in that by the way… But the conversation almost always omits details that make up the big picture.

    It also doesn’t seem to address how are we going to transition from short term to long term goals? These changes will drastically affect the lives of the people served and how million dollar businesses operate. And as we’ve seen, if you don’t have some sort of funding source that is set up to take advantage of current funding models (a Day Program), you can’t run a vocational program that solely focuses on Employment First as you’d be broke within a year.

    The best way to address the article I think is to address the questions/statements made towards the end.

    1. “First, change won’t occur until we freeze referrals to sheltered workshops, as is finally now being done in several states. Then there must be an active process to downsize the census over time.”.
    True, BUT… When would you freeze referrals? What happens to the people who have been in said programs? POOF! Workshops are gone! Now What?
    What do you do with people who have been in the program 5, 10, 15 years (or more) and are entrenched in a work style that is not conducive to Employment First? They are young enough to have productive careers. However, they have been accustomed to a work world that has little to no relation to true community employment. Are we prepared to keep workshops open and/or transfer these people to day programs until they can be properly prepared to participate in CE? Furthermore, there seems to be this thinking that if the workshop wasn’t there that there are jobs all over the place the participants would be able to get. I don’t understand where that mindset comes from when you see the success/participation rates we are faced with.
    Speaking of success rates…. Can we see some!!! If states are closing workshops left and right that is a good thing. But what has happened to those people? Is there proof that given some sort of guidance that Customized, Supported, Job Carving has worked to a significant degree?
    Will all providers be held to the same standards? If the ethical agencies who are doing the right thing and make all the efforts to get people ready for CE are doing so, but there is a for profit agency out there who games the system by offering “free money”, will they be dealt with swiftly? Yes, the game might end eventually for them. But if there is any option for workshop type work, individuals/guardians might very well go there for the easy way out. What happens to the providers doing all the heavy lifting in the meantime? What happens when all those ill prepared to work individuals get dumped into the pool of remaining providers?
    What level of accountability will individuals have to participate in vocational programing? We know that high functioning people are often not willing to come to a workshop/education center. Will their funding eventually be tied to their participation in a vocational program? How will we assess who is ready for CE and who is not? What happens if you are deemed ready and don’t participate? Or what happens if you get jobs and quit for reasons that aren’t tied to your disability?

  8. Anonymous December 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    2. “Offering quality employment services to many more people requires a large investment in capacity-building. This includes not only core basic training for the new staff that must be hired, but also in-service development to greatly increase the quality of career planning, job development, and job support. Many agencies still only provide rudimentary levels of these skill sets”
    I feel my organization is on the forefront of promoting community employment. But as we have seen, there isn’t a model in place for what would replace a workshop. With how strict they seem to be about non-sheltered, does a career/educational center where curriculum is taught and career development explored fall into what Employment First is looking to do (since technically it looks sheltered)? And if it does, will there be curriculums developed that speak to adults and adult situations? This is another situation where it doesn’t seem any real digging has been done. The people doing all the legwork to prepare people for employment often don’t have backgrounds in vocational training or an understanding of the private sector’s hiring standards/practices. How are they going to be equipped to train people to enter a environment they may not truly understand?
    And again, until the funding is changed, how can an organization invest in the infrastructure that is needed to support community employment? We are told all the time that we are overstaffed. In reality, we are one or two jobs away from being woefully understaffed. Especially if any significant job coaching is required. How do you improve in-service development to such a diverse group of individuals? If classroom settings are okay, then what is being done to show what is a quality support in terms of planning, job development? Rudimentary is all anyone has because nothing has ever been done to address adults. For that matter, little has been done for our current population to get them interested in working. How many individuals in the current population truly understand what work is?
    3. “And, finally, if established agencies are to successful change their missions and services, they must have access to technical assistance on organizational restructuring. Agency conversion can be complex and fraught with land mines, from family resistance, management restructuring, and the changing of agency mission and staff organization. Agencies taking this leap must be offered support, guidance and the resources necessary for them to succeed.”
    I think I’ve answered a fair amount of this in the paragraphs preceding. But it’s a HUGE statement. So many programs are not in the slightest equipped to make such a change. This policy shift is literally telling people to change their entire business/operation model. Even if they want to make the change, is it possible for them to do so? Even expansive supports aren’t going to help when you now need business minded people and have nothing but people with backgrounds in social work. Is there any regard as well given to the sheer amount of time it takes to job develop for one person, let alone an entire census? Retraining, new hires and massive amounts of hours spent to restructure will be needed for nearly any organization. This also includes a shift of mentality in the schools as well that need to present employment not as a first option, but as maybe the only one. Any wiggle room will result in people graduating and feeling they don’t’ have to work (IMO).

  9. Anonymous December 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    I apologize if this came off as negative. I’m actually thrilled someone is asking these questions out in the open so we can discuss. This only looks negative though in terms of asking the question of the article. Are we really addressing the issues that come with closing down workshops? Maybe this is being done in backrooms somewhere. I know we are doing our best. But in relation to the entire system, I have certainly heard the questions but nobody really organizing ways to get answers.
    Workshops are bad as they are currently set up. CE is the way to . I believe with all my heart if we keep people out of these programs that they will grow and develop. But they need to have expectations and there can’t be easy ways out offered. We also need good people who have experience developing others and people who can make in roads to the business community. Tax Incentives and mandates will only go so far. We need our job seekers to live up to the billing that they are every bit as good as someone w/o a disability.

  10. Titletownmike December 6, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    One must not lose sight that “one size does not fit all.” I am skeptical of those that speak about choice, self-determination and self-directed supports when they will not or cannot accept the informed decision of those that would like to be employed or remain employed in a “sheltered workshop.”

  11. Titletownmike December 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    The innuendo has been made that “sheltered workshops” result in a life of poverty for individuals with disabilities. The asset limitations by the Social Security system whereby an individual can only have up to $2,000 is what is keeping people in poverty. If people lose their employment in a sheltered workshop and cannot find work in a community-based setting (about two-thirds were unable to do so in one state that closed them down)their public assistance dollars are increased as their Supplemental Security Income or SSI will increase. Also, their is data that reflects that many individuals who are no longer employed in sheltered workshops work many less hours in community-based settings and their taken home pay is less. Again, resulting in greater public assistance.

  12. Titletownmike December 24, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Dale – take a long hard look at the data reported by the state of Vermont. Only 23% of the individuals who lost their jobs in Work Centers were placed on integrated, community-based jobs. Is this acceptable? I think not and it demonstrates that what you are advocating for across the board in your one size fits all approach is not acceptable.

  13. Anonymous February 13, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    I have worked in a Vocational setting for over 20 years, in two separate positions, the first as an Employment Specialist finding Community work for our program participants and now I am currently managing the programming in our sheltered workshop. I agree with the concept of Employment First – more people should be working in the community, but I do not agree with how it is being done. In everything I have read or heard about the Employment First Initiative, no one addresses the responsibility of the business community’s commitment to hiring people with DD. Closing down workshops and increasing funding for staff training will not automatically result in more people hired. Only businesses willing to pay someone $8.00 or more an hour will achieve this result. So far I have not heard of any approaches from people preaching to close workshops to get people working on how they are going to get businesses to do this. In addition, the Federal government and many states are talking about increasing minimum wage. The reality is that when minimum wage increases, people with disabilities are the first to be laid off. I have seen it time and time again in my tenure in this field. The Governor of MA has just committed $5.5 million dollars to “transition” people out of workshops into Community Based Day programming. This means that while people are waiting to be hired (along with everyone else on unemployment, college graduates, Veterans) we can take people to the movies, get them volunteer positions, have classroom trainings discussing work and even have them pass time playing card games. All of those activities are acceptable ways to for people with DD to spend their day while waiting for a job that no business has committed to giving them. At least now in a workshop setting, people have a purpose and earn a living – they have a job. It seems to me, that if you took the same $5.5 million dollars and created a grant program that companies could apply for to supplement wages when they hire someone with a disability ( company pays $4.00 an hour and the grant they receive pays $4.00 an hour) more businesses would diversify their workforce and hire people. Companies care about their bottom line, they are in business to make a profit. Some are better than others in hiring people of different abilities, but I assure you they all want to know they are getting their money’s worth from each and every employee. Shutting the back door to sheltered work will not be the answer to the disabled unemployment or under employment situation – it will just add to it.

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