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