Friday, October 23, 2009

Disability Employment Policy in Virginia

I am very grateful to the NTAR Leadership Center for giving me this opportunity to be a guest blogger. This week I will share a little about what’s been happening in Virginia over the past three years to improve employment options for our citizens with disabilities especially those with significant disabilities. This has long been a passion of mine throughout my career in many fields serving people who have disabilities.

This passion grew inside of me while serving as a Special Educator in the 70’s, a Peer Counselor at a Center for Independent Living throughout the 80’s, and a Training Associate at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University during the 90’s through the mid 2000’s. In all these roles I encouraged my customers (a term I prefer over clients or consumers because it challenges me to serve folks to their satisfaction) to seek gainful competitive employment to maximize their opportunity to live independently in the community. These jobs allowed me to assist people one-on-one or in groups through counseling and training sessions to learning the skills they needed to find and maintain meaningful careers. Although these jobs were very satisfying and I was able to help a lot of people I wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact on employment policy for people with disabilities. This opportunity came my way during the summer of 2006 through a gubernatorial appointment.

Shortly after my part time Appointment as the Governor’s Special Advisor on Disability issues in the Workforce I had the opportunity to sit down with Governor Kaine to discuss his expectations of my role. He immediately charged me with the task of identifying a disability issue where he could make a significant impact on during his Administration and could use as his thumb print in making a difference. I responded immediately which I believed surprised him a little. I said Governor Kaine there is no issue more important to Virginians with Disabilities than having the right to work, earn a good wage and live in the community with other citizens. With that we shook hands and he sent me on my way “to get it done.”

I began working on this task by checking into disability employment programs that were already in place and seeing if there were any opportunities for collaboration. This investigation led to a meeting between the Departments’ of Veterans Affairs, Rehabilitative Services (DRS), Virginia Employment Commission and a veterans employment initiative housed at the Virginia Department of Transportation. The Governor's Office on Workforce was also represented by the Senior Advisor on Workforce Daniel LeBlanc and me. During this meeting each agency described what services they provided to assist people and veterans with disabilities to enter into meaningful careers. The meeting ended with agencies agreeing to find more effective ways to collaborate.

This initial meeting was probably the spring board for the Secretary of Public Safety appointing a taskforce to look at ways to increase employment for wounded veterans returning to Virginia from Iraqi and Afghanistan. Mr. LeBlanc, DRS Commissioner Rothrock, and other employment stakeholders including me worked on the taskforce to develop recommendations which are currently being implemented. These recommendations are intended to improve career options for Virginia’s wounded warriors.

The second major activity that I worked on was a Public-Private Partnership grant (from the Board for People with Disabilities) project. This innovative project was facilitated by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. It involved Temporary Staffing Companies working with DRS, the Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired and selected Employment Service Organizations to increase employment opportunities in state government for qualified employees with disabilities.

This unique project had the strong support of the Governor who issued Executive Directive #8 to reinforce his commitment to hiring qualified employees with disabilities in state government. ED #8 ordered all state agencies, colleges and universities to examine their hiring policies and remove any that might be barriers to hiring or promoting qualified applicants/employees with disabilities. In addition the Chief of Staff issued a memorandum encouraging all human resource managers to attend training developed by project staff in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM) to assist them in implementing ED#8. Lastly the directive requires all state agencies and institutions of higher learning to report to the Secretary of Administration annually on their progress in implementing thee Directive.

Another major responsibility of the Special Advisor is to serve on the Executive Management Committee of Virginia’s Disability Program Navigator Project. In this role I serve as a resource to EMC members, Navigators, WIB Directors, and Workforce Center Managers on program and physical accessibility issues. Our Medicaid Works program has been a strong partner and resource for our state’s very successful Disability Program Navigator project along with DRS and the Workforce Office currently housed in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). These collaborative efforts enabled Virginia to compete for a unique grant opportunity that would present its self in the spring of 2008.

In the spring of 08’ Daniel LeBlanc came across a very unique grant opportunity that he believed would enhance employment opportunities for Virginians with significant disabilities. This opportunity was being provided by a US Department of Labor grant awarded to the National Technical Assistance Research (NTAR Leadership Center) Project at Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. The purpose of the institute would be to assist disability and workforce development stakeholders to use innovative approaches in increasing employment options for people with disabilities in their states. The Governor’s Workforce Office along with our partners from DRS enthusiastically set about the task of developing the proposal. We also received input from members of a state team that I had formed as a part of the grant process. Our state team comprised of representatives from businesses, state agencies, academics, an Employment Service Organization and employees with disabilities.

Unfortunately, we were notified in late spring that we were not selected as one of the three states. However, our proposal was strong enough to entitle our state team to receive technical assistance from the NTAR Leadership Center on two priority areas to be selected by our team. We chose; building relationships with the economic development community to increase employment options for citizens with disabilities and turning entrepreneurial opportunities into meaningful careers for Virginians with disabilities. However, as we began receiving technical assistance in July 2008 the team seemed to focus on the first one because it seemed to have the greatest potential of bearing the most fruit.

During the second technical assistance session, NTAR Leadership Center Director Kathy Krepcio announced that the NTAR Leadership Center would like to assist the Virginia team in carrying on its work due to its commitment in implementing several activities identified in its first TA session. The plan is also included as a part of this Blog.

As team leader I had no doubt what I wanted and felt we needed. I proposed to my team that we hold a statewide forum with all the major employment stakeholders and include employees with disabilities and the Economic Development Community in our discussions. I believed such a forum would assist me in answering the Governor’s charge by giving him a tangible product he could point to as an achievement of his Administration. The purpose of the Forum would be to develop a blueprint on ways to reduce the horrific unemployment rate among Virginians with significant disabilities. The team approved my recommendation at our March 2009 meeting and I appointed a committee to begin the work of planning this uniquely different forum. The Planning Committee, chaired by Howard Green from the RRTC/VCU, began its work in earnest in mid April. The Planning Committee came up with an excellent day and a half agenda to ensure the Forum would complete its work. COFFEY Consulting assisted us with the logistical aspects associated with holding such an event.

The Governor’s Disability and Economic Development Forum was held September 15th & 16th at the beautiful and Historic Hotel Roanoke. It was kicked off with a welcome video by Governor Kaine who charged the 80 attendees to come up with this great document. We had four excellent facilitators who assisted attendees to come up with the ideas and recommendations. To do this they developed three discussion topics and attendees were assigned to a topical group without consideration to their background or stakeholder interest. The Planning Committee believed this would encourage free thinking and a wide variety of ides being generated without stakeholders having to be concerned about turf issues. These discussion topics are listed below:

Discussion topic 1 – Employment Opportunities
  • In your experience, what are Virginia’s greatest strengths in creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities?
  • What activities are occurring within the workforce and economic development systems that could be built upon to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities?
Discussion Topic 2 – Leveraging Strengths and Resources Over the next five years, what would it take for Virginia to become a world leader in leveraging the strengths of people with disabilities and the workforce/economic development systems to:
  • Create employment opportunities for people with disabilities?
  • Expand the pool of qualified applicants who are ready and willing to work for relocating companies and new businesses?
Discussion topic 3 – Promising Strategies What are the three most promising strategies that your group would recommend? Currently the planning committee is in the process of reviewing the blueprint so it is very doubtful that it would be a part of the blog at this time because I believe other member of our team need to review it before it becomes public. However as soon as it is approved by the entire team I will make sure Kathy Krepcio gets a copy that she can share with those of you who have an interest in seeing it.

I have pledged to our team to work with Daniel LeBlanc to see that this blue print is delivered to Governor Kaine and appropriate members of his Administration in a timely manner. I will also work with appropriate staff to see that it is handed over to the Transition Team for the incoming Administration. However, I want to make it clear to other Virginia Employment advocates that they also have a responsibility! After Danny and I have gone on our way you must keep inquiring of the next Administration and the ones to come in the future about the implementation of this blue print. Remember qualified employees with disabilities are depending on you to be vigilant.

Thank you for taking time to read the information in this blog and I look forward to responding to your questions and having a real productive dialog on the important topic of how to increase employment options for people with disabilities.

Thank you,

Ed Turner

Governor Kaine’s Special Advisor on Disability Issues in the Workforce

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reflections on Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Reauthorization

On October 1, 2009, I had the privilege of participating in a USDOL national listening session on how the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) can be used as an opportunity to improve the ability of the workforce system to serve jobseekers with disabilities. According to the Labor Department’s press release, over 700 people participated either in person or via webinar, an indication both that people think WIA reauthorization may actually happen in the year ahead, after several years where it has not been a priority issue, and that there are many opinions of how the One Stops and workforce system can be more responsive to people with disabilities.

I will share several impressions from that day.

First, it was exciting to see the two Assistant Secretaries—Jane Oates from the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), and Kathy Martinez, from the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) – sitting side by side. Aside from the fact that they appeared to be enjoying each other’s company, and that they stayed for the entire 3-hour event, the picture of them sitting together seems to send a message that disability employment is clearly on the agenda at ETA. I have had the chance to see (the always dynamic) Assistant Secretary Oates speak in public several times where she has emphasized the importance of interagency collaboration at the federal level, especially between the USDOL and the US Department of Education. It’s great to see this collaborative spirit also applies in-house to the various agencies within the Labor Department itself. It also fits in perfectly with what the NTAR Leadership Center is promoting around cross-agency partnerships and collaboration at the state level.

Many of the day’s 21 speakers spent their five minutes discussing contributions made by Disability Program Navigators. In preparing my remarks, Kathy Krepcio and I decided to primarily focus on the tremendous efforts made by the three states in our State Leaders Innovation Institute, Maryland, Minnesota and Connecticut. We reflected on issues these states and others have raised repeatedly about some of the challenges people with disabilities face as a result of a fragmented workforce development system, with its various programs that sometimes result in contradictory messages about employment expectations for people with disabilities. We hope that a reauthorized WIA can make some progress towards a unified federal policy affirming that people with disabilities are an integral part of the nation’s workforce, and that there can be better alignment across traditional labor, education, and health and human services agencies at all levels to promote employment of people with disabilities.

When we launched the SLII, the Great Recession was just beginning to take hold of the American economy. In the months since then, and with the prospect of high unemployment continuing for months if not years to come, people often raise the issue of how the workforce system can possibly hope to better serve people with disabilities, with so very many non-disabled jobseekers in the labor market. In watching our states go about their work, I’m coming to think we need to learn from their example that jobseekers are jobseekers first, regardless of their unique challenges, and that the workforce system has as much of an obligation to serve people with disabilities as it does any jobseekers.

On a side note: Two of my kids have recently taken up fencing, and we were all interested to read an article in the front section of the New York Times about young fencers who are in wheelchairs. Fencing is a popular sport in our home state of New Jersey, and it was great to see that the New Jersey Fencing Alliance has invested in making wheelchair fencing, which traces its roots to returning World War II veterans, available in our area.

Maria Heidkamp,

Senior Research Project Manager at the Heldrich Center

and Director of the NTAR Leadership Center's State Leaders Innovation Institute

Friday, October 9, 2009

Employer Collaboration and Coordination

Today, publicizing our work and organizations through “new media” such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube has become the norm. Like many of you (and if you haven’t already you will soon), I completed media training and found myself on blogs, podcasts, and videos. Now I admit I find technology interesting and am pretty savvy about promoting my work as a grants officer at Kessler Foundation, which funds employment opportunities for people with disabilities through our “Transition to Work” initiative. Yet, I often find myself suffering from information overload — too many sites to visit and so little time.

Now just imagine you are the hiring manager at a local company. It is particularly overwhelming from a human resource perspective to recruit job seekers with disabilities. Where are they? It is common knowledge that an employer’s willingness to hire individuals with disabilities is ultimately influenced by easy access to a large job pool of qualified applicants.

Some employers may turn to the Internet. Web access has spurred the growth of job boards specifically marketing to people with disabilities. Sites such as,, and, enable consumers to post resumes and apply for advertised jobs. Companies seeking recent college graduates look to and

State vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs and community rehabilitation providers are forming new marketing initiatives with business to promote recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities. In New Jersey, the MOSAIC Center Disability Employment, a pilot program funded by Kessler Foundation, is a single point of contact linking job seekers with disabilities with employers seeking qualified workers. It is a no-cost service that matches candidates’ skills and work experience to available job opportunities.

Bergen County College, the lead project partner, recently received federal dollars to expand its outreach beyond the disability community to include other minority populations. What makes this project unique is that the 16 founding partners grew to over 30 cooperating organizations. Its collaborative partners now are a diverse group of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations such as rehabilitation providers, recruitment companies, Chambers of Commerce, One-Stop Career Centers, Workforce Investment Boards, and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

You may say this concept is nothing new. That is true — except many collaborative employment partnerships remain active only on paper. This group meets face-to-face regularly and actually talks through issues that could throw the project off track. Like anything else, there are challenges, especially in this difficult economy.

MOSAIC is a project that has been operating quietly for almost a year…and seems to be working. It is a win-win project for all — saving employers time by providing skilled job seekers that are screened and appropriate for their openings and connecting greater numbers of people with disabilities to jobs.

Elaine Katz

Vice President of Grant Programs and Special Initiatives, Henry H. Kessler Foundation

Co-author of the NTAR Leadership Center research brief, Collobrating and Coordinating with Employers

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Seeding Change and Policymaking

Greetings, and welcome to the NTAR Leadership Center's new blog called "Seeding Change".

Why seeding change? Because I feel the work we are doing through the Center is about introducing people to new ideas, concepts, knowledge, and most importantly, other people from diverse fields. Our hope is that these 'seeds' will result in fostering new or different approaches -- approaches that will ultimately create jobs and better economic outcomes for adults with disabilities.

I also like the concept of seeding change because I like to garden, and I find that the “systems change” work that we all do is very organic and a lot like gardening. For example, in public policymaking, it is important to have an idea of what you want to accomplish. In gardening, it also helps to start out with a plan and a layout of what you want to grow. Yet, in either case, there’s no guarantee that what you end up with will look anything like what you planned. That is a given. In my garden, I am amazed that every year I approach it in the same way -- I plan it, plant it, prune it, weed it, water it -- and every year it ends up looking different!

I could, of course, rip it all out if what I wanted doesn't work out -- or I can embrace the unexpected, because it may be just as good or better than what I thought would grow. In my garden, I find doing a little bit of both helps. The perennial phlox that I planted several years ago decided to seed itself all over my yard and now comes up in the most unexpected of places. I could dig it up -- but I like its brazenness. On the other hand, my husband and I waged a relentless fight against the potato blight that threatened my Jersey tomatoes this past summer (potato blight and tomatoes? Who knew?). The point is: in gardening, I need to strike a balance between the things I have the power (and desire) to change -- and my willingness to live with the consequences of my actions or inactions. The same is true in making public policy!

When it comes to working in the trenches to reform a system, as many of you are doing, I have come to realize how important it is to be vigilant and pay attention to it every day. While I must admit I am not able to be in my garden on a daily basis weeding, watering, or fertilizing, I recognize that to neglect it for even one day means something is going to run amok. Last year, I somewhat ignored my garden (o.k., really ignored it), and I learned one valuable lesson -- the power of those plants that I do not nurture to take over. In this case, I underestimated the power of Creeping Charlie to take over the yard. And, as many of you who have worked in public policy know, trying to undo what has “taken over” while you weren’t looking is back-breaking, difficult work.

Finally, in both gardening and policymaking, I have found that new ideas can come from unexpected places. Inspiration for my garden can come from anywhere -- the farmers market, talking to friends, or looking at endless magazines. You never know where the muse is. The same goes for changing systems and creating opportunities: inspiration to change -- or to try something new -- can come from the most surprising sources.

Recently, I was talking to my colleague Mary Alice Mowry from Minnesota. Mary Alice was telling me that she had gone to a workshop at the Milwaukee APSE conference in early summer and it really energized her. She said the workshop asked the participants three simple questions. Number one: What time is it? Number two: What do you need to learn, unlearn, and relearn? And Number three: What is your next bold move?

So, as we launch this new blog, I invite each of you to become an active participant in the two-way “conversations” our guest authors will lead every week in this space. In the spirit of change and inspiration, please share your comments and insights, and tell us:

What do YOU need to learn and relearn? What is YOUR next bold move?

Kathy Krepcio

Director, NTAR Leadership Center