Monday, November 30, 2009

Reflections on USBLN Conference

I had the privilege of attending the United States Business Leadership Network’s ® (USBLN) National Conference in National Harbor Maryland in September thanks to the NTAR Leadership Center. I, as Executive Director, and Regina Stankaitis, as President, represented the Connecticut Business Leadership Network, an association of small, medium and large businesses committed to maximizing employment for people with disabilities.

A major theme of the conference was maximizing the amount of the 220 billion dollars of disposable income of people with disabilities that business could acquire. Presenters discussed marketing to people with disabilities outside of the business and within. For example, Nordstrom’s featured its catalogue ads with disabled models as well as its lighting which makes its goods more accessible to people with disabilities. Ernst and Young talked about its role with the USBLN ® in developing a pilot program to certify disability owned businesses like minority and women owned businesses. Many employers presented strategies for hiring qualified candidates with disabilities. Randy Lewis of Walgreens talked about universality in workplace accommodations - a modification to a tracking system for people with intellectual disabilities made everyone 20% more productive.

What continues to strike me is that businesses "get it" about disability. Disability rights advocates no longer need to make the business case for hiring people with disabilities. They make it to each other. They understand that good customer service to people with disabilities generalizes to better customer service. They understand that good management of people with disabilities and workplace accommodations translates to good management overall.

I was recently at a meeting where human service professionals and disability advocates were discussing job carving. They explained that this involved dividing a job up so that it included functions that could be done by a person with an intellectual disability. A retired insurance executive exclaimed “that’s not ‘job carving’. It is just what good managers do.” This awareness extends well beyond the small number of companies that disability advocates consider when naming disability-positive companies. It extends to all businesses that want to be on the cutting edge when looking at ways to maximize their bottom line.

Melissa Marshall, Executive Director

Connecticut Business Leadership Network

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reflections on Working with States

For the past couple of years, I have directed the activities of the Center for Workers with Disabilities. CWD is a technical assistance center for state Medicaid Infrastructure Grant projects that is housed in the National Association of State Medicaid Directors, an affiliate of the American Public Human Services Association. CWD is also part of the NTAR Leadership Center consortium. I came to the field of disability employment with experience in welfare reform, workforce development for low-income families, and youth development. Each of these areas has given me useful insights that help enhance efforts to promote employment of people with disabilities.

Welfare reform demonstrated the value of providing states with flexibility to craft “to work” policies and programs. The welfare reform experiences of states have given us lessons on what works (and doesn’t work) to support low-income families in employment. The field of workforce development has pioneered important new approaches, such as industry-based or sectoral employment strategies, that show real promise for creating pathways to good jobs and that states are beginning to incorporate into their disability employment efforts. The field of youth development uses an “SOS” framework – Services, Opportunities, and Supports. I think this concept can be applied broadly to support human capital development for all youth, and also for adults with barriers to employment.

Working with Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (MIG) projects provides a unique opportunity to be part of an “infrastructure development” initiative. MIG funds are used to support system-building activities designed to make lasting change to health and employment systems for people with disabilities. This, along with flexibility in the use of funds, has enabled states to improve coordination across complex systems, build leadership at the state level, develop policies and programs to better support access to health care and employment, and experiment with new approaches to employment for youth and adults with disabilities.

It’s no surprise then that a number of MIG projects are taking part in the NTAR Leadership Center’s activities, including the State Leaders Innovation Institute and the State Peer Leaders Network. Through the NTAR Leadership Center, we are able to support state leaders in bridging workforce development and disability employment initiatives, and in connecting to broader state economic development efforts. And through CWD and the NTAR Leadership Center, we are able to facilitate state-to-state peer exchange and networking, which is proving an invaluable component to supporting innovation in the field.

2010 will be an important year for MIGs and other disability employment efforts. If health care reform legislation is enacted, it will make significant change to Medicaid and private insurance with important implications for people with disabilities. Additionally, with the expiration of MIG funding in 2011, 2010 will be a pivotal year for “telling the story” of the MIGs and addressing sustainability. I look forward to working with our states and partners to build long-term sustainability for state systems change efforts.

Nanette Relave
Director, Center for Workers with Disabilities

American Public Human Services Association

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Insights from National Research

Many of us who work in the field of employment supports for people with disabilities often become frustrated by the ongoing high rates of unemployment (and underemployment) for people with disabilities. We see ourselves toiling year after year to get more people employed, and wish that employment was a reality for all persons with disabilities. We see the positive outcomes of working, and wonder why so few people with disabilities are gainfully employed.

Part of the problem is that we have been working primarily on the supply side – working to improve the supply of ready and able workers. As a field, we have not paid enough attention to the demand side. We have not created the need for workers with disabilities among employers. As a co-author of the soon to be released NTAR Leadership Center research report "Ready and Able," I had the opportunity to visit and learn about a number of exciting and innovative demand-side programs bringing people with disabilities into the workforce on a broad scale. As I visited these programs and interviewed people involved in these projects, including persons with disabilities, I was impressed by the vision and ingenuity of the businesses and employment organizations.

In this blog entry, I will highlight a couple of them and share some impressions and questions. Project SEARCH at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has resulted in many people becoming employed and gaining work experiences. Project SEARCH was initiated by Erin Reihle, RN, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and has been replicated across the globe, moving into fields other than health care, and offering a promising model for blending demand and supply to bring people with disabilities into the workforce.

Our research project offers an in-depth profile of a replication occurring at Monmouth Medical Center in Red Bank, NJ, showing how the model can be adapted to meet individual employer needs. The New Bedford, MA Chamber of Commerce’s Supported Employment Network offers an example of a unique partnership between the business community and local disability employment organizations, with funding from the local office of the state developmental disability support agency. This collaboration has resulted in hundreds and hundreds of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities working and contributing their labor to the community and local economy.

These two efforts, along with the other profiles created in our research project, document unique, business-led effort to gain valuable employees from diverse groups and create pipelines for hiring workers. As such, these efforts also assure that Americans with disabilities can enjoy the same benefits of work as most other people, both monetary and personal.

The question is, why are these great collaborations the exception rather than the rule? Don’t businesses want good employees? Don’t people with disabilities want to work?

The easy answer for this is that it requires people to reach out to different communities. Businesses usually talk to other business. When the local branch of the state developmental disability state agency in New Bedford, MA reached out to the Chamber of Commerce, there was a positive response, as the director of the Chamber at that time was already involved in the community above and beyond representing business interests. A failure to collaborate on either part would have doomed this project. Openness to difference, however, will result in the meeting of supply and demand, and in our research profiles, we have given a number of wonderful examples of this.

Dan Baker
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities
Co-Investigator, NTAR Leadership Center National Research

Friday, November 6, 2009

NTAR Leadership Center National Research: Ready and Able

Over the last year or so, I have been working on an exciting research project through the NTAR Leadership Center. My colleagues and I are profiling market-driven practices that promote employment for people with disabilities. We have been especially interested in learning about partnerships with employers that lead to increased hiring, retention, promotion or accommodation of people with disabilities. At this point, we have completed our field visits, interviews and other research, and we are now in the process of writing up what we found in a report to be called, “Ready and Able.”

While all of the people we spoke to in doing our research have a common belief that people with disabilities can work and want to work, the word that comes to mind to describe our research is “diversity.” For a start, our research team is comprised of people with different backgrounds. I have experience primarily with the “mainstream” workforce development system, and my two colleagues – Bob Nicholas and Dan Baker – have extensive experience with disability systems. The experience of seeing the subjects of our profiles through these different lenses has enriched the research and led to greater understanding of diverse perspectives.

We have found amazing diversity in the approaches we are profiling. Employers partner and collaborate to employ people with disabilities in so many different ways. We are seeing collaborations between major national employers and public sector agencies. Some models focus on a particular industry or occupational sector, in partnership with public or nonprofit intermediary organizations. We talked to different types of job brokers – a private staffing service and a non-profit “Alternative Staffing Organization” – to understand how they work to increase employment of people with disabilities. We found some really great partnerships that expand opportunities for college students and graduates with disabilities. And we also spoke to people working in local and regional hubs that bridge the gap between people with disabilities and employers. We found some great people and organizations working in creative ways to act as catalysts for disability and employment partnerships.

The research also reminded me of the diversity among people with disabilities – so many different types of people, so many different needs and approaches. And we have found, in many cases, that companies are increasingly seeing disability as another dimension of diversity – within their workforces and their customer bases.

While the approaches are varied, there are some important common themes that are emerging. Employers are embracing the business case for employing people with disabilities. They see individuals with disabilities as adding value and positively affecting the company’s or organization’s “bottom line.” One person called this being smart, not nice. The more successful experiences employers have, the more they want to hire people with disabilities. At the same time, employers do not want to have to maintain relationships with many varied disability service organizations. They want a partner to make it easy for them to recruit, hire, train and support people with disabilities. A good partnership or collaboration can serve this function. For a number of companies that have made a clear commitment to disability as diversity, the only question is how best to accomplish this.

Our research has shown me that “diversity” means creativity, great ideas and different approaches that enrich and strengthen the ways in which the private, public and non-profit sectors can work together to increase employment of people with disabilities. Stay tuned for the complete “Ready and Able” report. Meanwhile, tell us about your diverse experiences with partnerships that promote employment for people with disabilities.

Ronnie Kauder

Senior Practitioner in Residence, Heldrich Center

Principal Investigator, NTAR Leadership Center National Research

Monday, November 2, 2009

Conversations with Leaders

For the past several weeks, I have traveling around the country talking with state officials, business leaders and others about the work they are doing in the disability and employment area, listening to speeches and presentations, and observing the work of very dedicated people trying to figure out how they can crack the employment problem. While traveling, I have had so many interesting conversations, and listened to some presentations that were really thought provoking – I wanted to share a few with you.

My conversation with Terry Donovan who works on Pathways to Employment in Minnesota about the ‘diffusion of innovation’ theory and strategies for effectively moving pilot projects to national implementation successfully. We also talked about how to inculcate piloted local and state practices from their research and development phase into new ways of doing business. Terry and all the other folks in Minnesota we work with through our Center give me so many ‘aha’ moments when we talk that I always want to stay in Minnesota (except for that winter thing they have going there).

My talk with Michelle Martin (a women with enormous creative energy who has her own blog called ‘The Bamboo Project’ and who is assisting New Jersey with their disability employment efforts) was about the need to look at, and work with, jobseekers in terms of their ‘employment readiness’ versus some stereotype or silo like ‘disability’, ‘low income’, ‘TANF recipient’, or ‘dislocated worker’. Michelle is a rockstar! and is teaching me a lot about Web 2.0 technology and communications and all that energy – wow!

My discussions with folks in New Mexico about the necessity, if not the imperative, of objectively evaluating our employment programs and practices. My colleague at the Heldrich Center, Bill Mabe, and I recently presented at the Southwest Conference on Disability about what you need to know to structure an effective, user friendly evaluation (the presentation can be found on the Heldrich Center website I can’t say enough about the need to really know if the services and supports everyone is working on really are making a difference, or whether we are so emotionally attached to what we are doing that we can’t objectively see that some things just are not working very well.

Finally, I was recently presenting with Dana Egretsky from the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce (who also runs the New Jersey Business Leadership Network) in Atlantic City at a state conference on autism. Dana and I were scheduled to discuss the New Jersey economy, what employers are looking for, and how to best prepare for the world of work. We both realized that the presentation we were about to give was, most likely, going to be somewhat depressing given the poor employment outlook and how difficult it is to be upbeat when the reality of the job market is a bit bleak. What can you say except get a skill, stay in school, be positive and slog through it? Clearly, there are not a lot of easy answers for jobseekers right now. Yet conversations like these continue to make me realize how there are great people out in the field who are thinking about how to make changes, who want to have an honest dialogue about the status quo and challenges to real change, and who sincerely want to make a difference.

Kathy Krepcio

Director, NTAR Leadership Center