Archives September 2013

Workshops: The Burden of Proof is On You

Over the last year, I’ve been in front of numerous audiences to discuss the concept of Employment First and the need to phase out facility-based sheltered workshops. I don’t make the argument lightly. It is a wholesale change of focus for many. It uproots individuals from their comfort zone. It is threatening to agencies and parents. It requires funding and core policy shifts. 

Yet, I have no doubt it is the right thing to do. And not just because it seems right from a value point of view, which it does. The reasons are multiple, and added up they are compelling.
1. Research has unequivocally found that those who attend workshops, when matched to those who don’t, earn less, have more limited vocational experience, and ultimately take longer to find jobs and cost more to serve over time. 
2. Those who experience community employment and sheltered work choose community employment as their preference.
3. Segregation of people with disabilities has proven to make them more open to neglect, abuse, and exploitation.
But regardless, I find that most of those who refuse to make changes to a sheltered work system simply aren’t listening. They don’t want to examine evidence, because they see no need to change what they are comfortable doing. The threat of change, and the likely corresponding difficulties that go with any change, are too troublesome.
But the burden of proof should always rest on those who have put people in environments that deviate from the typical experiences of our communities. We really shouldn’t have to prove community is better. Before placing someone in a workshop (or institution, group home, day habilitation, etc.) that program should first show evidence their outcomes exceed what can be experienced by people with disabilities in a community setting with reasonable-costing support. It’s like prescribing medication. Do the gains outweigh the side effects? Before you take any drug that will have an impact on your health, you would want to know what all its effects will likely be.
The default setting should always be what is typically experienced by community members as it applies to the life of a person with a disability, with reasonable support as needed.
All disability support, programs and interventions are actually accommodations, from a wheelchair to supported employment to sheltered work. The level of deviation from typical life varies in scale with each, as do their outcomes. When a disability program deviates from typical experience, there must be a cost-benefit analysis. That is, weigh the benefits of the intervention against the costs, including price, difficulty, risk of stereotyping and discrimination, and the risk of reducing quality of life and life experience. 
For example, clearly a wheelchair has great benefits in increased mobility and corresponding independence. Compare this to its costs, which is not only its price, but also includes risk of discrimination and false stereotypes of lower intelligence, productivity, and more that people in wheelchairs have wrongly experienced. Despite the risks, most people with mobility needs use a wheelchair and confront the related issues.
But for workshops, the evidence clearly points to community employment as a better cost-benefit result. Maybe in the past, sheltered work showed a better outcome for individuals who would otherwise sit at home and do nothing; but that isn’t, nor should be, the situation today. Sheltered work is not today’s answer to disability unemployment. Disability facilities, the burden of proof lies with you. And there is no evidence there.

Mixed Marketing: How Job Development Can Be Hindered by Typical Agency Communications

Recruiting for an Intensive Behavioral Group Home
Having visited and consulted with many disability employment organizations over the years, I believe the single skill most in need of training is in the area of marketing and job development. A major component of job development is the communication that agencies do within their communities. Marketing is all about communication, and there are a number of areas that contribute to a solid marketing approach. But one key at the start is to ensure that the organization does not offer competing and confusing messages about the individuals they serve.
What do I mean by a competing message? First, consider the marketing message that employers should be receiving about potential workers with disabilities. It should focus on business success, capability, and productivity. People should be presented positively and as a benefit to any business that includes someone with a disability in its workforce.
There are at least several areas I have observed where competing messages can occur.

1. Staff Hiring Ads that Convey Negative Messages about People with Disabilities
I recently read an hiring ad of an agency that included the following: “Work with people with developmental disabilities. Must be able to handle aggressive behavior.” The recruitment ad pictured above labels the residents as “intensive” and “behavioral.”
Intensive? Behavioral? Aggressive? Anyone reading the ad would likely feel fear, not competence. This kind of public description should be banned by law.
2. Logos and Program Names Based on Disability, Hope, or Helping
Agency logos often symbolize disability, sometimes in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. I have seen wheelchairs, crutches, and even bandaids in the logos of disability agencies that provide employment services. This defines the labor force you represent to employers by their deficit, not their capabilities.
3. Charity Appeals
A lot of agency fundraising can link charity to pity. Walk-a-thons, golf charity days, and the like often include a communication of need related to the disability. A message goes something like this: “Without your help, this person’s life will be miserable.” Agencies that run thrift stores also use the theme that “Your donation = jobs for people with disabilities.” This has several issues. It equates employment with charity, and can imply the jobs relate only to within the stores themselves, an idea that could limit employers thinking about what types of jobs people with disabilities can do.
4. Misguided Awareness Campaigns
Many agencies or advocacy groups attempt a well-meaning effort to build awareness of a disability label by marketing campaigns or holding special events. But sometimes subtle fear or pity messages are included. Note the use of fear in this ad at left about Asperger Syndrome.
5. Workshop Marketing for Sub-contract work
Sheltered workshops rely on businesses providing sub-contract work to them, and often give them the message that the provider agency offers cheaper labor by the business sending the work out rather than hiring within. This actually competes directly against job placement marketing, and gives a message about a lower value for workers with disabilities.
There is a good deal more analysis we can explore that relates to principles of communication and marketing. It would require us to research disability stereotypes, and analyze communication approaches that have been researched and proven successful with business. We can’t cover that here, but if your agency is interested in this topic, join our online Job Development Web Course scheduled for October 2.