Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Beautiful Mind: The Final Chapter

I was there to say good-bye to an old friend. And I had arrived a little early to express my sympathy to his former wife and a few family members and friends.

It was “disability” that had brought us together by chance many years ago. He was in need of a job and a serious mental illness (SMI) had derailed his career dreams. And I worked for an organization that just happened to be in the business of supporting people in finding a good job. After 30 years now, we were just friends. And we got together for lunch every month or so to catch up on what was happening in each other’s lives.

I knew he was terminally ill. And I’d been checking in with him more frequently of late. And then late one afternoon in May, his home phone was disconnected. So I knew something wasn’t right. I received a voice mail message at my home phone the next day confirming the sad news. On May 10, 2010, Dr. Daniel C. Brodhead had died from cancer at the age of 69 at a local hospice in the Twin Cities.

Dr. Dan and I shared a number of similar interests. Most importantly, we shared a strong passion about work and its fundamental importance to illness management and recovery of individuals living with SMI. Only five short years ago, I had shared Dan’s story and life-long battle to reclaim his career dreams. I titled my blog entry “A Beautiful Mind Revisited” and the piece was inspired by Ron Howard’s cinema masterpiece A Beautiful Mind. After seeing Howard’s movie, I was awestruck by the many life parallels of its main character, John Nash, and my good friend Dan.

More than 25 years ago now, Dan and I worked together on a groundbreaking program called Minnesota Mainstream. It was Dan’s vision to reconnect individuals with SMI to their career fields through the use of mentoring and customized employment practices. In the early 1980s, the use of social capital (i.e., recruiting and involving job mentors) and customized employment practices (i.e., self-employment strategies, negotiating jobs with business leaders to custom fit the interests, strengths, and skills of job seekers) was virtually unheard of.

With Dan as its original Program Manager, Minnesota Mainstream was launched and delivered successful employment outcomes into high paying jobs in the competitive labor force for hundreds of its program associates. Dan’s “brainchild” was featured as a promising practice in the Torrey Report, a national advocacy publication reporting on successful mental health practices and strategies. Indeed, Minnesota Mainstream had exceeded our wildest imaginations, and trust on me on this one--Dan could think big!

After a couple of successful years as Minnesota Mainstream’s manager, Dan decided to leave the program to pursue his own career development. And Dan looked to the many lessons learned through his Minnesota Mainstream experience. He tapped the powers of social networking by contacting colleagues he had graduated with from his Doctoral Program in Physics at Yale University many years ago. And by using his newly honed skills in customized and supported employment, Dan negotiated a job for himself with a former colleague who was now running the Physics Department at Texas A&M University. Dan negotiated a Post-Doctoral Fellowship position and customized the duties to his talents. The position involved working on problems in theoretical physics. Dan telecommuted from his home in suburban Minneapolis by tapping the powers of modern electronics. Through the use of his computer, e-mail, phone, and fax machine, Dan executed his job duties and maintained routine communications with his colleagues working in Texas.

After more than 30 years of unemployment or working sporadically in unskilled labor positions, Dan was finally doing what he loved best—working to solve classical problems in theoretical physics. He often shared his excitement with me about the sophisticated work he was doing, but frankly speaking, his mathematical formulas and physics concepts were way over my head! Dan worked in a customized job in the field of physics for seven years until his retirement. And afterwards, he continued to take on short-term projects to occupy his time.

I knew how much this job appointment at the university meant to Dan. He spoke with great satisfaction about coming full circle and overcoming the debilitating effects of an illness that had shattered his independence and career aspirations for much of his life. And he understood the importance of his contributions as a role model by demonstrating to others what could be accomplished in not giving up and working smart to defeat the social stigma associated with mental illness. Dan was very proud of his work with Minnesota Mainstream and he helped to pioneer new thinking and practices about career possibilities that break the proverbial glass ceiling for job seekers with SMI.

And so here I was sitting alone in the Chapel at the funeral service celebrating Dan’s life. I was seated among a medium sized crowd, a majority of whom I did not know. A number of touching eulogies were delivered by Dan’s family and friends. They were brutally honest about his mental illness and the challenges it brought into his life. With that said, people spoke about Dan’s unique zest for life, his self-deprecating sense of humor, those terrible jokes he abused us with, his love for music, reading, and poetry, and his unbridled love and dedication to family and friends.

And everyone spoke eloquently about the importance of his career! Each eulogy touched on Dan’s advancing beyond his illness to finally do the work that he was meant to do. It was abundantly clear that work was very important to Dan and it brought meaning, respect, and accomplishment into his life.

It was very moving for me to hear about the impact of Dan’s career achievements through the words, minds, and hearts of others who knew him best. I have no doubts that Dan would have preferred for his career journey to take on a much earlier, vertical trajectory into the workforce. However, suffice it to say that his employment at a major university did matter a great deal to him. Dan was brilliant in so many ways and this prestigious appointment as a Post-Doctoral Fellow challenged his vast imagination and intellectual capacities. I know this career achievement in the latter years of his life was very fulfilling and helped to lighten past disappointments.

In all candor, I learned more about mental illness and employment from Dr. Dan’s life experiences than any scholarly book or research study I’d ever read. He helped me to understand the importance of employment to illness recovery in ways that no one else could articulate it. Dan made significant contributions to our understanding about the power of social capital and customizing jobs and practices to reach better outcomes. Minnesota Mainstream was demonstrating these principles in its daily practice many years before the research and journal articles documented their fundamental importance.

Dr. Dan was very gracious about allowing me to share his story so I could inspire others to follow in his footsteps. And I’ve spoken to literally thousands of consumers and professionals about his incredible career journey. In a recent presentation I was making about customized employment practices, I shared the “Final Chapter” of Dan’s life. And quite unexpectedly, I found myself getting pretty emotional about it. I talked about Dan’s key lessons learned and how they were validated posthumously by family and friends at his funeral service.

You know, I‘m often told that employment is only a “choice” people with significant disabilities can make among many options. Well, indeed it is. And Dr. Daniel Brodhead taught me that it’s the clear, obvious choice if physical, social, intellectual, economical and emotional health is important to you.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Year of the CAT

Following the Minnesota Employment First Summit in 2007, a consensus report (known as the Minnesota Employment First Manifesto) was published and widely distributed with eight core recommendations. These eight recommendations continue to guide Minnesota in the direction of becoming an Employment First state with a goal to promote integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits as the preferred outcome of Minnesotans with disabilities and other barriers to employment. One of the Manifesto’s core recommendations amplifies on the importance of developing local learning communities to introduce new practices and produce sustainable outcomes through guided policy support, training, and technical assistance. The attendees of the Minnesota Employment First Summit stressed the importance of “thinking globally, but acting locally.” The Summit consensus report states the following:

“It is recommended that Minnesota consider funding several Communities of Practice (COP) demonstrations in both urban and rural areas of Minnesota (e.g., school-to-career transition services). By design, Minnesota COPs would engage interagency practices with key collaborating secondary and postsecondary schools, workforce centers, and other adult service providers leading to post-secondary education, training, and/or competitive employment outcomes.”

The Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT), funded by the State of Minnesota and launched by Griffin-Hammis Associates (GHA) in 2009, are providing a new source of energy in organizing and developing these COPs (now called Community Action Teams or CATs). MNTAT introduced three CATs in the past few months and the possibility of a fourth is now in the works. The CATs are teams of change agents and community leaders representing education, workforce development, employment, county social services, mental health, disability self-advocates, adult service providers, business, and other stakeholders who are concerned with the competitive employment of Minnesotans with significant disabilities.

The CATs are serving as real time laboratories and engines of change in local communities within urban, suburban, and rural areas of Minnesota. Each CAT team is receiving focused training and technical assistance (T&TA) from MNTAT and GHA to introduce new practices in support of individuals with a wide array of disabilities. The goal is to replace old, ineffective practices with promising strategies documented to be more effective in producing competitive employment outcomes especially for job seekers considered among the most challenging-to-employ by these local communities. Each CAT has made a commitment to work as a local interagency team and support a minimum of five individuals with significant disabilities in obtaining integrated employment. As learning communities, the CATs are less concerned about the quantity of results, and rather, focused on achieving qualitative, sustainable outcomes through engagement of new service approaches.

What approaches? MNTAT and GHA are equipping the CATs with a new vision, expectations, skills and competencies, tools, and importantly, the confidence to carry out employment approaches in brand new ways. The CATs are receiving hands-on training in methods of creating strengths-based employment through the use of Discovery, a thorough, rigorous process of identifying dominant employment themes of interest and possibility to a prospective job seeker. Also, the CATs are receiving guided T&TA to carry out a wide range of employment possibilities driven by each job seeker's Discovery process. This training includes building new systems capacities for social networking, use of Social Security PASS plans and work incentives, planning for healthcare support, interests-based employment negotiations, systematic job instruction, self-employment and supported entrepreneurship, resource ownership, business within a business concepts, and the engagement of other non-comparative job development practices leading to customized employment.

Stated simply, the CATs are actively developing and negotiating integrated jobs carefully crafted to fit who people really are (their known interests and skills). The overarching goal is to change expectations of local stakeholders and build new skills and capacities so anyone who chooses to work will have opportunities to do so. In the future, job placement and employment opportunities in these communities will no longer be limited to “qualified” job seekers but also “quality” job seekers who have bona fide skills to contribute to the local workforce.

At the same time, the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI), a state funded project led by Minnesota APSE—The Network on Employment, is paying attention to policy issues each CAT is encountering as it rolls out these new service approaches. The fundamental goal is to examine and address all policy concerns inhibiting the workforce participation of individuals who are supported by the CATs. The body of MEPI’s findings will be consolidated and shared with state agency policymakers and local leaders to promote changes and expand the employment and workforce participation of unemployed and underemployed individuals.

By design, each CAT is supported by a lead organization or individual who is responsible for managing logistics associated with all T&TA activities and scheduling. Each CAT holds monthly team meetings including on-line interactive sessions with MNTAT and GHA consultants. The monthly meetings are organized to provide updates on participant progress, address local problem solving concerns, and identify critical T&TA needs. In addition, each CAT works with MNTAT and GHA to develop an on-site schedule so guided T&TA support is accessible to practitioners who are carrying out the employment support practices in real time. This consists of one-day of formal training and two days of field-based TA. The consultants work directly with practitioners as well as job seekers and their families and help to guide local collaborations. In addition, the T&TA is organized to support organizations and CAT members with administrative issues, funding strategies, and conducting hands-on outreach to the local business community.

The use of CATs in Minnesota is due to a growing recognition that wide scale, sustainable change really gets down to translating theory and policies to practical strategies that will result in tangible, measurable change for individuals. Also, the use of CATs enables Minnesota to address complex systems changes locally by engaging all key stakeholders who are impacted directly by the proposed changes. The CATs, therefore, offer communities new pathways to change with access to the guidance and technical support they need to implement new ideas in manageable, incremental steps.

In 1976, one of my favorite music artists, Al Stewart, recorded his classic hit song The Year of the Cat. He ends the song with these lyrics:

But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day
You know sometime you're bound to leave her

But for now you're going to stay
In the year of the cat

Well, I am an active member of the CAT serving Anoka County, Minnesota. Anoka County has the honor and distinction of being the first CAT to be organized and launched by MNTAT. Our CAT has taken on the task of addressing the employment outcome goals of individuals with a wide array of disabilities and employment barriers. I have no idea how far the Anoka County CAT will take our community in driving necessary changes and building new pathways into the workforce for all. But I do know this—there is indeed the rhythm of a new born day in Anoka County. I'm impressed with the spirit of the CAT and the energy our team is investing to re-imagine local service strategies. It's the year of the CAT and I have no interest in turning back.

For more information about Minnesota's CATs, you can visit the MNTAT website or contact MNTAT Director Bob Niemiec at  

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Gateway to Customized Employment: Think Laterally!

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand. Imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Albert Einstein

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with my colleague, Bob Niemiec, Director of the Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT), about a learning phenomenon each of us has observed in the teaching of customized employment (CE) practices. I thought this topic deserved some discussion here because of its importance to the Employment First movement in Minnesota and the United States.

First, the good news is there’s a lot of excitement about the promise of CE. And second, there is a growing public investment in workforce training to transform practices and improve integrated employment outcomes in support of people with disabilities. In increasing numbers, direct service practitioners from the fields of education, rehabilitation, employment, business, and disability are enrolling in training seminars to learn new skills so they can support more people in going to work.

The bad news is this—many adult learners are struggling to grasp the concept of CE. The core problem is not their ability to learn new ideas but rather to unlearn old ideas. In particular, experienced, seasoned providers of disability and employment support have strongly ingrained patterns of thinking and behavior with respect to delivery of their services. And what we are seeing consistently is this internal struggle to integrate CE principles into old paradigms of education, transition, disability, and community rehabilitation services.

People are hesitant to give up on obsolete practices despite their ineffectivess. Speaking candidly here, it’s a lot easier training new, inexperienced learners about CE because they do not view these practices through a lens of past work experiences. At a recent training event, I even joked with attendees that I was searching for powers to “permanently erase their memory banks,” so we could make room for a new way of thinking. And then a new way of working.

One of our greatest challenges is that people want a quick fix. They are looking for the kind of clarity you will only find in a high definition television. People want a concrete model. They want a program or a recipe of ingredients that will lead simply to the development of integrated employment outcomes for all. And this is troubling to say, but many are looking for a logic model that offers no pain and fits in conveniently with their existing policies, economics, staffing roles, and program service structures. Well, you know, it just doesn’t work that way.

Here is a common misunderstanding—customized employment is not a program. It’s not a program, service, or model. Customized employment is an outcome. It’s an outcome driven by a job seeker’s interests and signature strengths, designed to meet an identified business need, and negotiated in ways to customize the ideal conditions of employment for both parties. CE offers social integration and competitive wages and benefits for job seekers who are unable to benefit from a traditional, comparative job placement approach. If you really need a recipe, this is it—we plan and secure CE one person at time.

As I observed the struggle to grasp CE principles during a recent training event for professionals, I was reminded of a passage I once wrote in a publication back in 2000. I titled this book Reach for the Stars: Achieving High Performance as a Community Rehabilitation Professional, and my underlying theme was identifying the core characteristics of high performing employment consultants. I shared ten basic qualities that separate high performers from the rest of the crowd enabling them to produce consistent, high quality outcomes. And I dedicated an entire chapter to creativity and imagination, the capacity to deliver person-centered employment services and manage complex problem-solving in unique, individualized ways. There’s little question the highest performing employment consultants approach their roles with a firm grasp of creativity skills that are challenging to package into a formula and to teach.

In my research for writing this chapter, I was introduced to the principle of lateral thinking, a term coined by Dr. Edward de Bono. In de Bono’s research on creativity, he refers to lateral thinking as low probability or sideways thinking. Lateral thinking is complete freedom of our thought processes regardless of its contradictory nature or logical acceptance. It’s stepping outside of an existing paradigm (i.e., people can’t work) and examining a problem from every possible angle (i.e., What will it take for this person to work). And it’s recognizing that setting aside the dominant factors in a problem-solving process (i.e., we don’t have transportation) is sometimes the best way to begin a search for new ideas.

In most problem-solving situations, there is a tendency to use high probability or vertical thinking. Vertical thinking is both linear and high probability because it takes into account common cause and effect laws. Vertical thinking is usually driven by a logical assessment of the “facts” as we understand them. Although vertical thinking is a sound process for many basic problem-solving activities, it’s not necessarily effective for the most challenging ones.

According to de Bono, a lateral thinker’s goal is to search for different (creative) ways to look at and approach a particular issue under study. While vertical thinking is grounded in rules of logic and requires a definite direction to be effective, lateral thinking has no particular direction, form, or rules. In other words, lateral thinking offers complete freedom of thought without any rigidity or inhibitions.

Here is sage advice about the use of lateral thinking from Dr. de Bono’s research:
  • Use lateral thinking to generate an abundance of ideas.
  • Be wary of using logical judgments in problem-solving because: a) we can only deal with the facts we’re aware of; and b) the “facts” we’re aware of may not be true or relevant.
  • Conventional thinking is to accept something as adequate or true until something else proves it to be inadequate or untrue. What if we reversed our thinking process?
  • Be wary of letting rigid paradigms block your thinking about a situation or problem area. And you should consider the usefulness of getting an outside view of a challenging problem (i.e. use of consultants).
  • Remember that trying to be right often interferes with one’s ability to see what is wrong.
  • One simple, helpful technique is to shift the focus from a part of your problem to another. By placing each element into the spotlight, you’re sometimes able to generate new ideas and associations.
  • Lateral thinking has no fixed direction so it’s important to look at your presenting problem from every possible angle including the top, bottom, and sides.
  • It’s acceptable, and sometimes helpful, to move entirely away from your problem in order to solve it. (hint, hint....the workshop!)
  • Chance is important to the generation of ideas. And chance offers something for you to look at when that something could have never otherwise been a serious consideration.
  • It’s sometimes helpful to examine associations from outside fields because a standardized idea in one field can become an original idea in another.
  • Be wary of seeking out relevant information alone in your problem-solving; it's often a hindrance because relevant information is usually borne of old ideas not new ones.
  • Brainstorming ideas with others is mutual cognitive stimulation with no inhibitions. Brainstorming activity is often helpful to generating new ideas and building on associations for possible solutions.
  • Simplicity and effectiveness are your two major aims of lateral thinking.
  • Logic should only be used to confirm your conclusions not to solve your presenting problem.
  • If you do not use lateral thinking, you will eventually be eclipsed by someone else who does. 
If you think about it, CE is an example of lateral thinking at its very best. For many decades, people with significant disabilities were presumed unemployable in the competitive labor force. It was lateral thinking by the pioneers of supported employment and customized employment that challenged false truth claims about the employability of individuals with disabilities. Supported employment and customized employment are replacing old ways of thinking with bold new practices.

Lateral thinking is fundamental to the success of employment consultants because their ultimate goal is to come up with winning ideas and strategies to resolve challenging unemployment and underemployment problems. For this reason, lateral thinking and creative problem-solving ought to be integrated as critical skills components in the job training and preparation of employment consultants and other practitioners of CE services.

Is this training really necessary? Well, here’s one thing we know for sure—vertical, linear thinking has resulted in a 21% employment participation rate for Americans with disabilities nationally. We need to transform practices and perform our job roles with higher creativity if we hope to achieve better results. And this goal will require fundamental changes in approach. Here's a thought--Think laterally! 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chasing Answers to Age Old Questions

I thought I would share some “sound bites” encapsulating the spirit and challenge of the Employment First movement in the United States. I take no credit for originality in framing these fundamental talking points. In fact, a number of them have been presented in one form or another by various colleagues of mine either in Minnesota or around the nation who are working toward a common vision of integrated employment in the workforce as the first, preferred option of men and women with disabilities.

I wanted to share these core principles with my readers because when examined together, they so clearly define the importance of our movement and articulate a logic model for social and economic change. Here they are:

With respect to embracing principles of universal design and redirecting our energies toward integrated employment and community living—

• Why do we feel a need to re-create what already exists in our community and workforce?

• And if it really doesn’t exist, and it’s still a good idea, then why don’t we create it to benefit everyone?

With respect to integrated employment and informed choice

• Why are 80% of Americans with disabilities not participating in the workforce and “choosing” a lifetime of dependency, segregation, and poverty?

With respect to person-centered and individualized service plans

• Why do educators and adult disability service providers say they engage “person-centered’ and “individualized service plans,” when they really support people with practices designed for groups or congregate service participation? (i.e., sheltered employment, work crews, work enclaves, etc.)

With respect to making sound public and organizational economic investments to increase and expand integrated employment outcomes—

• Why do we invest the least (our money, time, and energies) in what we say we want the most? (i.e., integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits)

With respect to new policies and practices to improve integrated employment outcomes—

• Why are we content to continue policies and implement practices that obtain integrated employment for only 20% of working age adults with disabilities?

With respect to using traditional rehabilitation vs. strengths-based, customized employment practices—

• Why do traditional rehabilitation practices intended to “change” people with disabilities continue to dominate current practice (i.e., use of vocational evaluation, work adjustment training, adult day habilitation, adult day treatment, sheltered employment, etc.) when “strengths-based” practices (i.e., discovery, customized employment, self-employment) are far more effective in identifying and negotiating ideal conditions of employment customized to fit each individual?

With respect to the use of traditional job development practices—

• Why do we exclusively use job development practices that focus on placing “job qualified" workers when such approaches obtain integrated employment for only 20% of potential job seekers with disabilities?

With respect to workforce equality and economic justice

• Why is there a minimum wage floor that applies to all American workers except job seekers and workers with disabilities?

With respect to money solving most of our problems associated with expanding integrated employment problems—

• Why do we believe our existing economic business models to operate adult disability services are sustainable in their current form?

• How do we redirect existing resources and implement new economic business models to encourage, support, and sustain integrated employment services for all?

With respect to making the business case for employment of Americans with disabilities—

• Since customized employment is by its definition a negotiation of job tasks or duties designed to meet an identified business or economic need as well as the identified interests and strengths of an individual job seeker, then why wouldn’t employers act in their self-interest to hire individuals with disabilities who can make a measured contribution?

With respect to narrowing the wide gap between vision and practice

• If we can fundamentally change what it means to be “qualified” to work in the competitive labor force through the use of discovery, customized employment, and other strengths-based practices, why not encourage and extend these opportunities to all individuals including those with complex lives and significant disabilities?

With respect to personal and professional accountability

• If you don’t like your own answers to these questions, why not seek out training or technical consultation to move in new directions?

• If you don’t like common responses to these questions, why aren’t you actively involved in the Employment First movement?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Politics of "Choice"

Critics of the National Employment First Movement often refer to “choice” as a fundamental argument in promoting their point of view. Needless to say, a diverse range of stakeholders hold strong opinions about integrated employment as a valued, preferred outcome in support of people with disabilities. This is especially true with respect to men and women who live with complex and significant disabilities.

So going to work is a choice?? Well I guess there are a lot of people who believe it should be if you live with a disability. If fact, individual choice is imbedded in many public policies associated with disability education and adult services.

Promoting an individual’s rights and choice about services they receive is about staking the high ground. It’s the honorable and respectful thing to do, right? Well, of course, it is. However, it’s also a clever and convenient cover for maintaining the status quo.

Let me be perfectly clear here. This is America. People should certainly have a “choice” about whether or not to work. And few people I know take issue with this point.

Despite strong values about the importance of work, leaders in the National Employment First Movement are not interested in forcing or coercing anyone to work against his or her will. Everyone needs to come to his or her own conclusions about the value of working and make a thoughtful decision fitting to personal circumstances. This is true for all working-age adults whether they live with a disability or not.

For most Americans, however, choosing an occupation and going to work is pretty much an expectation. And “not working” is rarely included in a menu of acceptable options. For most Americans coming from modest means, the real choice is not about whether to work but rather making choices about the right career. And most Americans take affirmative actions to make a living if for no other reason than to avoid a lifetime of dependency and poverty.

My wife Colleen and I raised our three daughters with high expectations about choosing a career. We encouraged each of our daughters to use their natural strengths. We supported them to discover these strengths and consider their proper impact in the workforce. And we encouraged each of them to exploit her interests and talents for economic, social, and person gain.

No doubt, these are common expectations rooted in the American family tradition and certainly embodied as underlying values in our nation’s educational system. Well, that is, unless you are born with or acquire a disability.

Let’s examine some facts. The federal Department of Labor indicates only 22% of Americans with disabilities were participating in the workforce in January, 2010. By way of contrast, 70% of all Americans were participating in the labor force despite the worst economic recession in more than 60 years.

Educators and disability service professionals often make claims about delivering “person-centered” and “individualized services.” In fact, development of individualized education programs (IEP) is the law for a majority of students supported by special education in our local high schools. Yet eight out of ten Americans are not participating in the workforce due to the presence of a disability. Well sorry, but I’m not buying this argument that 78% made an informed choice not to work.

To be brutally honest, employability issues are complex and the deck has always been stacked against individuals with disabilities. Our communities in America were not crafted with universal design principles encouraging the participation of all. And this fact is evident in policies and practices associated with our schools, communities, and workforce. The truth is a majority of Americans with significant disabilities will spend much of their lives in a parallel universe designed primarily to support them apart from their peers who don't have disabilities.

Despite the best of intentions, low expectations continue to prevail. And low expectations continue to drive public policies that sustain disability “silos” in support of youth and adults with disabilities. And direct participation in the workforce and earning competitive wages is considered an unobtainable goal for far too many.

With respect to emerging practices, we are now living in an era where integrated employment in the workforce can be developed or created around the known interests, strengths, and abilities of job seekers. It’s called customized employment. Customized employment is changing what it means to be “qualified” to hold a job in the workforce because these positions are carefully crafted and negotiated with business leaders around what people can do. We need to fund and expand customized employment practices so everyone who wants to work has the opportunity to participate in the workforce.

And so on to the central point of this post. I tend to hear a lot of unbalanced arguments about individual choice. And many of them are deployed in ways to exclude integrated employment as a viable option, or to push it away as a distant, unlikely goal for many people. Dr. Roy Grizzard, a former Assistant Secretary for the federal Department of Labor, once referred to dismissing the job potential of Americans with disabilities as “the subtle bigotry of low expectations.” Dr. Grizzard was spot on.

You can count me in this camp that believes people with disabilities are more alike than different from other Americans. And when given real opportunities to make informed choices, most would choose integration over segregation, competitive wages over sub-minimum wages, and contributing their talents in the workforce over prolonged dependency in disability service programs. With the right levels of education, encouragement, opportunity, and support, I believe most people would choose integrated employment as their first option.

Finally, when I hear shallow arguments in defense of traditional (re)habilitation programs and an individual’s right to choose them, I am reminded of the wisdom shared by author Steven Covey:

“While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Minnesota's First Annual Disability and Employment Conference

The First Annual Minnesota Disability and Employment Conference was held on December 1-2, 2009. Sponsored by Pathways to Employment, Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (MIG), and presented by the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI) and Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT), the conference was attended by more than 300 participants representing varied constituencies.
The Minnesota Disability and Employment Conference used a unique format with topical presentations on foundations in customized employment practices. Topical presentations by leading experts in the field were followed by facilitated table discussions led by trained volunteers with all conference attendees.

Following the lead of Minnesota's highly successful Employment First Summits held in 2007 and 2008, the Minnesota Disability and Employment Conference was another big step in the State’s goal to build capacities and increase integrated employment in support of Minnesotans with significant disabilities using strengths-based practices. The conference challenged  all 300 attendees to work together to double the employment participation rate of Minnesotans with disabilities by the year 2015 through the development of new policies and and expansion of more effective practices.

A copy of the conference proceedings can be downloaded at the link below.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Employment First: Full Throttle Ahead!

To my readers,

I work for an organization that specializes in customizing job placement, training, housing, and employment in support of people with significant disabilities and other life challenges. Also, I am actively involved in promoting organizational systems changes to improve policies and practices that will lead to integrated employment, education, and community living opportunities for all.

In 2005, I created a blog called A New Vision with a goal to promote awareness, public education, and discussion about the importance of productive employment and community integration in the lives of people with disabilities. After a five year run and 125 posts later, I decided to develop this blog to refresh the focus from one of vision to the importance of coordinated goals and action.

Most Americans don’t realize that people with disabilities are the single largest minority population in the United States. The United States Bureau of Census and Statistics reports that 54 million people are living with some level of disability in our country. Even more amazing, the United Nations estimates there is are a half-billion people with disabilities throughout the world!

The personal, social, and economic impacts of living with a disability are simply staggering. Many research studies have closely examined quality of life factors for people with disabilities in comparison to their American peers. Virtually all studies validate the existence of wide gaps in almost every important quality of life measure. For example, people with significant disabilities are far more likely to be living in poverty. They are much more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or homeless. And people with significant disabilities are more likely to have difficulties accessing a quality education, affordable housing, adequate health care, child care, recreation and leisure, and public transportation.

As a general rule, disability is a key factor in poverty and dependency on others. In other parts of the world, children and adults with disabilities do not enjoy the same quality of life benefits as their peers. Here in the United States, most people with significant disabilities are financially dependent on some form of government assistance or welfare for a majority of their lives.

To illustrate this point, the federal Department of Labor revealed that only 21.6% of Americans with disabilities were participating in the workforce in contrast to 70.0% of all working age Americans in December of 2009. Other studies document the connection between disability and poverty. For example, a Louis Harris/National Organization on Disability Poll revealed 34% of adults with disabilities live in households earning less than $15,000 as compared to 12% of people without disabilities. This wide gap in the employment participation of Americans with and without disabilities is significant and unacceptable to most fair-minded people. And what a waste of human potential!

As a society of diverse people, Americans need to accelerate the idea that employment, social, and economic change is possible. The inclusion of all Americans into every aspect of community living such as education, employment, housing, leisure and recreation, and civic participation is within the reach of everyone when communities are designed with universal principles and offer the right measure of support. This, of course, includes the workforce.

We can longer ignore that policies and practices of the past have been ineffective in producing opportunities and quality of life outcomes all Americans deserve. That said, the scope and dimensions of implementing universal design will demand time and colloborative action to improve public policies and embrace practices known to produce better employment and economic outcomes.

Social and economic change is possible if we are willing to move ahead with bold goals and act on a shared vision. Simply said, we need to establish a culture of expectations where employment is the first choice of all adults who live with disabilities as it is for all working age adults who need a job. The time for talk and good intentions has past. As we enter a new decade, we must choose to act to make employment a reality for all.

Employment First—Full Throttle Ahead!

Don Lavin

Sunday, January 24, 2010

MNTAT: Tackling Minnesota's T&TA Needs

Originally posted on August 24, 2009

Back in November of 2007, the Minnesota Employment First Coalition convened the first of its annual summits with more than 120 invited stakeholders inside our state. The first summit was a new beginning and important revitalization of a lost focus among Minnesota’s employment first champions. In my view, this energy slowly evaporated after the sunset of the Minnesota Supported Employment Project (MNSEP), a five-year, state systems change grant that concluded its run in the late 1980s. Approximately 20 years later, attendees of the employment first summit vowed to recommit their time and energy to pursue the original dream—to open and widen opportunities in the workforce for anyone who would like to work including adults with significant disabilities.

The summit in 2007 resulted in the writing of a consensus report also known as the Minnesota Employment First Manifesto. Our Coalition referred to this document as its Employment First "Manifesto” because the consensus report was a public declaration of our shared principles and intent to act on them. The Employment First Manifesto articulated a blueprint for the future and detailed eight specific recommendations to move Minnesota in the direction of an employment first vision.

Since 2007, the Minnesota Employment First Coalition has been working actively with state and county agencies, business leaders, educators, self-advocates, employment service providers, and other community groups to pursue tangible systems changes based on these recommendations flowing from the original summit. A progress report concerning Minnesota’s employment first performance was issued following the second employment summit held in December of 2008. The second Minnesota Employment First Summit Consensus Report, also known as “The Scorecard,” measures specific progress made within our state with respect to core recommendations voiced by attendees during Summit I. Minnesota's Scorecard can be downloaded for review at this link.

In January of this year, the State of Minnesota took an important step to correct a critical systems weakness cited by attendees at the original summit. There was a unanimous concern about Minnesota's need to develop a training and technical assistance (T&TA) entity to support the leadership, management, and direct service staff of secondary and post-secondary education programs as well as disability, business, and employment provider communities. It was strongly recommended this publically funded T&TA resource be grounded in employment first principles and promote evidence-based, researched practices that will lead to successful employment outcomes in Minnesota's workforce.

The State of Minnesota’s Medicaid Infrastructure Grant (MIG) called Pathways to Employment (PTE) issued a request for proposals (RFP) to create such a center and support the varied T&TA needs of organizations, businesses, and practitioners in our state. Following a competitive grant review process, PTE awarded a state contract to Griffin-Hammis Associates, LLC, a nationally recognized consultancy firm with a strong reputation in the areas of customized employment, job creation and job site training, employer development, Social Security benefit analysis and work incentives, self-employment, management leadership, mentoring, and social entrepreneurship. Griffin-Hammis Associates had worked closely with Minnesota APSE’s leadership to craft a proposal responsive to the state’s T&TA service needs as articulated in the Employment First Manifesto.

In April of 2009, the Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) was officially launched and Griffin-Hammis hired my colleague Bob Niemiec as its Director. Bob is an excellent choice to lead MNTAT. He has more than 25 years of professional experience in the field of disability and employment and has served a senior manager, direct service professional, consultant, trainer, mentor, and adviser. Bob is a former President of National APSE as well as Minnesota APSE and a founding member of the Minnesota Employment First Coalition. In sum, Bob is an employment activist uniquely qualified to direct MNTAT and provide the kind of leadership we need to advance emerging service practices in Minnesota.

By its design, MNTAT is a cross-disability initiative with a wide geographic reach that includes urban, suburban, and rural locations of Minnesota. The Center will use a variety of formats and media to respond to T&TA requests throughout the state. This includes the use of web-based training (webinars and webcasts); local and regional training events in collaboration with Minnesota APSE, and co-hosting an annual statewide disability employment conference with MEPI, the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative, a newly funded project managed by Minnesota APSE.

MNTAT will work closely and collaboratively with MEPI to insure an alignment of planned T&TA activities with policy listening sessions to be conducted with constituencies throughout Minnesota. The leadership and staff of MNTAT and MEPI are meeting regularly to share expertise, integrate project objectives, build cooperation, and foster synergy between the two newly funded projects.

In addition, MNTAT’s workplan will feature the development and support of five local Community Action Teams (CATs). The CATs will feature interagency, collaborative approaches to addressing the employment and workforce development needs of job seekers with disabilities within local or regional communities. The CATs will be supported by MNTAT with T&TA and will work to achieve measurable customized employment outcomes and systems change objectives in their respective communities. Finally, the CATS will serve as employment demonstration sites where employment first principles and customized employment practices are showcased, documented, shared, and replicated to expand opportunities throughout Minnesota.

MNTAT recently created a new website that will serve as its public portal to T&TA information, a calendar of scheduled events and activities, employment success stories, and a virtual library of resources accessible to the Center’s varied customers. To learn more about MNTAT and its project objectives, you can visit the Center's website here...MNTAT

This past year, an Employment Leadership Innovations Institute comprised of state and community leaders crafted a value proposition for Minnesota. The value proposition says this—‘We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.” The creation of MNTAT is another critical step in transforming Minnesota’s workforce development system so all of its citizens will have opportunities to contribute their talents and skills. The launch of MNTAT will reinforce the idea that all Minnesotans can be economic assets when they play to their strengths. To this end, MNTAT will support educators, business leaders, self-advocates, family members, employment providers, county case managers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and others with the critical T&TA they need to encourage and produce high quality employment outcomes in the workforce…one person at a time.

The Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative

Originally posted on July 18, 2009

What is your next bold move?

This was one of the core questions posed to APSE members at a community organizing session held at the National APSE Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 7-2-09. The purpose of this session was to motivate APSE members into action in their communities and encourage the formation of partnerships and launch of policies, practices, and energies critical to improving integrated employment for Americans with disabilities.

I am a board member of Minnesota APSE and our organization is poised to take on its next bold move. The State of Minnesota recently announced approval of a grant application from APSE to manage the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI or referred to hereinafter as The Initiative).

The purpose of the Initiative is to develop leadership and dialogue facilitation around disability and employment policy that will result in the increased employment of Minnesotans with disabilities in the competitive labor force and promote Minnesota’s value proposition: “We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.” Employment is fundamental to adulthood, quality of life issues, and earning the means to exercise basic freedoms and choices as citizens. The Initiative will implement an ambitious workplan to build multiple pathways into the workforce for youth and adults with disabilities who want to work.

The Initiative will work with numerous stakeholder partners to align policies, services, and practices to ensure that integrated competitive employment is widely recognized and routinely promoted as the preferred outcome of all Minnesotans with disabilities. Stakeholder partners will include business, government, education, disability advocacy organizations, employment service providers, community support agencies, self-advocates and their families. In addition, the Initiative will work in close collaboration with the recently funded Minnesota Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) to maximize the impact of employment policy and practice across Minnesota.

APSE, in conjunction with its state chapter Minnesota APSE, provides leadership for this Initiative bringing more than 20 years of experience and knowledge in the area of employment policy through its proven record of advocacy and education on the value of integrated employment and improved employment practices. Among the activities planned by MEPI for the two year funding period are:

• Develop a joint website in conjunction with MNTAT

• Develop a policy component for an annual employment conference planned and run with MNTAT

• Write and disseminate policy briefs and issue papers based on 15 topical policy listening sessions designed to gather input and build consensus from stakeholder groups on policy changes needed to increase and improve employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities (this includes five sessions in conjunction with MNTAT Development Sites)

• Support four mini-summits hosted by business leaders to champion increased integrated employment opportunities in the workforce

• Develop and update a scorecard highlighting progress in advancing employment policies and practices in Minnesota

• Make recommendations toward the development of a uniform definition of employment and uniform data management practices across state agencies

• Collaborate with the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and other state agencies to provide information on developing employment policies and practices that will lead to increased opportunities and pathways into the workforce by all Minnesotans who want to work

• Strengthen and build new alliances to enlarge the circle of employment champions

• Integrate systems change policy initiatives across federal, state and local agencies.

The following people will serve as the leadership team for MEPI:

Carol Rydell will serve as MEPI’s Project Manager. Carol has over 30 years of experience working toward inclusion for individuals with disabilities and has managed innovative projects at Kaposia for over fourteen years. She has developed a student-run business with secondary education students with disabilities, a welfare-to-work service, a customized employment service for Latinos with disabilities and has worked with local government and community organizations to maximize employment opportunities for women, minorities and people with disabilities. She also has experience as a consultant, advocate and teacher and is a trained facilitator and strategic planner.

Contact information: Carol Rydell, Kaposia, Inc., 380 E. Lafayette Freeway South, St. Paul, MN 55107, 651-789-2815 651-789-2815,

Jon Alexander     will serve as Co-Director of MEPI. Jon is Chief Executive Officer of Kaposia where he has worked since 1998. He is a nationally recognized leader in the development and expansion of customized employment services. He has been on the national board of APSE since 2005 and is currently its treasurer. He is a founding member of the Minnesota Employment First Coalition.

Contact information: Jon Alexander     , Kaposia, Inc., 380 E. Lafayette Freeway South, St. Paul, MN 55107, 651-789-2817 651-789-2817, .

Don Lavin will serve as Co-Director of MEPI. Don is Vice-President of Rise where he has worked since 1976. He supervises the planning, development, operations, and evaluation of supported and customized employment programs for youth and adults with a wide range of disabilities and other barriers. Lavin has a 34 year track record as a grant writer and strategist and is the author of eight books on competitive and supported employment practices. He is a national speaker, mentor, trainer and technical assistance advisor. He is also a founding member of the Minnesota Employment First Coalition.

Contact information: Don Lavin, Rise, Inc., 8406 Sunset Road Northeast, Spring Lake Park, MN 55432, 763-783-2815 763-783-2815,

Laura Owens is the Executive Director of APSE, a national membership organization with a mission to lead in the advancement of equitable employment for people with disabilities. APSE provides advocacy and education on the value of integrated employment, improves practices to promote integrated employment and promotes national, local and state policy development to enhance the social and economic inclusion and empowerment of individuals with disabilities. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Director/Founder of Creative Employment Opportunities, Inc., an employment agency for individuals with disabilities.

Contact Information: Laura Owens, APSE, 451 Hungerford Drive, #700, Rockville, MD 20850, 414-581-3032 414-581-3032,

MEPI is funded with support from a Competitive Employment Systems-Medicaid Infrastructure Grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to Minnesota’s Department of Human Services (Grant #1QACMS030325). The funds for this grant were authorized through the Ticket to Work-Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-170). Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance 93768.

Establishing a National Employment First Agenda

Originally posted on July 26, 2009

Recently, National APSE released a white paper promoting and supporting the Employment First movement in the United States. Entitled Establishing a National Employment First Agenda, the white paper identifies key principles and issues behind launching and sustaining a successful collaborative initiative at the state or local level. I was given the opportunity to contribute to the writing of this white paper along with my colleagues, Bob Niemiec, Director of the Minnesota Employment Training & Technical Assistance Center (MNTAT) and Dr. Laura Owens, Executive Director of National APSE. The early response to the release of the paper has been excellent. If you are interested in reading or downloading it, you can obtain a copy as this link:

Establishing a National Employment First Agenda

Minnesota's Employment First Scorecard

Originally posted on June 27, 2009

 On May 18, 2009, the Minnesota Employment First Coalition released its second summit report at the Minnesota APSE State Conference. This report entitled The Scorecard: A Progress Report Card on Employment First Performance in Minnesota is a summary of proceedings and new recommendations flowing from the 2nd Employment First Summit held in Saint Paul, Minnesota on November 14, 2008.
The Scorecard details specific progress the State of Minnesota has made in advancing its agenda toward becoming an Employment First State. The report identifies unfinished business as well as a renewal of consensus recommendations with respect to promoting and expanding integrated employment outcomes in support of Minnesotans with disabilities. You can download a copy of The Scorecard right here.

Minnesota's Employment First Movement in Mental Health

Originally posted on March 27, 2009

Editorial Note: I recently wrote this newsletter article for Minnesota APSE-The Network on Employment. It will be featured soon in our State Chapter's quarterly newsletter issue. However, I thought I would share it here with my blog readers as well.

The State of Minnesota recently issued its annual report for 2008 to the State legislature concerning the employment status of Minnesotans living with serious mental illnesses (SMI). Although we have a long way to go, this status report is rich with data and supports the progress Minnesota is making in clearing pathways to the workforce for its residents with SMI.

One of the most exciting trends identified in this 2008 report is Minnesota’s gradual transformation to evidence-based practice, supported employment (EBP-SE) to improve the quality of employment outcomes in the State. EBPs are specific service interventions documented to support success in recovery from SMI through clinical research trials.

EBP-SE is one of six EBPs in psychiatric rehabilitation identified by Dartmouth’s Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center (PRC) and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). EBP-SE is characterized by an individualized job placement and support (IPS) strategy and focuses on bringing integrated employment in the workforce at competitive wages and benefits into the lives of working-age adults with SMI.

Also, EBP-SE requires a practical framework for imbedding supported employment services within a mental health treatment milieu due to the demonstrated benefits of integrated work in illness management recovery.

In 2006, Dartmouth’s PRC and the Johnson and Johnson Foundation (J&J), a philanthropic grants organization, awarded Minnesota a four-year, systems-change grant to transform its mental health and workforce development system to an EBP-SE model. The J&J initiative in Minnesota led to the funding of six pilot demonstration programs in local communities with a goal of adopting EBP-SE practices. These six new projects have already served 270 individuals with excellent results.

Why is EBP-SE so important to Minnesota? National research documents between 50-60% of consumers with SMI are successful in obtaining competitive employment when supported by EBP-SE programs. EBP-SE program performance is far superior to traditional employment approaches that lead to competitive employment for less than 20% of their enrollees. Also, EBP-SE research has documented superior outcome performance to other approaches regardless of geographic location, race or ethnicity, gender, age, or disability status.

My own organization, Rise, Incorporated, is one of the six providers participating in Minnesota’s EBP-SE initiative. Rise is working with Family Life Mental Health Center (FLMHC) and other collaborators in Anoka County including Minnesota Rehabilitation Services, affordable housing and supported living providers, mental health self-advocates, Anoka County Social Services, and others to better integrate EBP-SE practices within a mental health treatment and recovery team model.

What have we learned? The principles underlying EBP-SE are different from conventional supported employment services in a number of ways:

Zero Exclusion Policy. Eligibility for EBP-SE is driven by a mental health consumer’s interest in working. There are no protocols for engaging participants in traditional “job readiness” type activities.

Mental health treatment and supported employment services are fully integrated. This is accomplished by establishing multi-disciplinary treatment teams that meet and coordinate their core mental health, housing, community support, and supported employment services regularly. An employment specialist is a critical member of the team and works full-time on the development and sustainability of high quality competitive employment.

Competitive employment is the goal. All participants supported by an EBP-SE program work in regular, individualized jobs at competitive wages and benefits in the community’s labor force.

Rapid engagement and job search. EBP-SE programs promote an assertive outreach process to engage unemployed individuals who express an interest in working. Also, it engages others who need ongoing job support to stabilize their community living and long-range goals for career advancement. In addition, there are no delays in beginning a competitive job search process for EBP-SE participants. The goal is to begin planning individualized job placement goals and contacting employers within 30 days of enrollment.

Job placement outcomes are driven by preferences and interests of the individual. The quality of job matching is fundamental to achieving personal satisfaction and long-term employment success. Therefore, EBP-SE programs focus on participants’ interests and preferences including job type, industry sector, business location, work schedule, and position duties or responsibilities.

Job follow-along supports are continuous. Participants of an EBP-SE program have access to job support on a time-unlimited basis. The EBP-SE mental health treatment team and employment specialist are in regular contact with the individual to maintain job success and assist with career progression goals. Also, the employment specialist may have direct contact with business leaders periodically if desired or requested by the employee.

Benefits Planning. The number fear about entering the competitive workforce by adults with SMI is the potential loss of disability and health care benefits. The impact of earned income through competitive employment is examined carefully and discussed with each participant before implementing a job search to allay fears and engage appropriate strategies. The mental health treatment team and employment specialist in an EBP-SE program share information about work incentives and monitor wage earnings once a participant chooses to engage in remunerative work.

Minnesota APSE—The Network on Employment and Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition (MEFC) are excited about this emerging opportunity to transform policies and promote professional development training to expand EBP-SE services on a statewide basis. The reason for this excitement is EBP-SE is highly consistent with the articulated goals of Minnesota’s fast growing Employment First movement.

To illustrate this point, EBP-SE focuses on assertive, rapid engagement of integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits. This concept is congruent with core recommendations identified in Minnesota’s Employment First Manifesto published in 2007. Also, the proponents of EBP-SE are working to build on existing service systems strengths to promote the job preferences of Minnesotans with SMI and meet the workforce objectives of their employers.

Finally, EBP-SE promotes the engagement of community action teams (i.e., mental health treatment teams) to transform local policies, infuse researched practices, and increase the number and quality of competitive employment outcomes of mental health consumers. Indeed, a majority of EBP-SE’s core principles are complementary to the stated goals of MEFC.

Minnesota’s vision to become an Employment First State means embracing an “employment for all” philosophy so no one is left behind. And it’s abundantly clear working-age adults with SMI are one of the largest underrepresented groups in Minnesota’s workforce. For these reasons, Minnesota APSE and MEFC see great wisdom in working jointly with State agency leaders, policymakers, and local community mental health teams and providers to pursue mutually shared goals.

Together, we can do much more to increase public awareness about the employability of Minnesotans with SMI. And together, we can make sweeping changes in service policies and practices so competitive employment is routinely recognized and accepted as the first choice of Minnesotans with SMI.

Minnesota's Value Proposition

Originally posted on February 1, 2009

During this past year, I was invited to participate in a State Leaders Innovation Institute (SLII). The purpose of the SLII is to improve employment opportunities and outcomes of Minnesotans with disabilities. Our group is examining strategies for changing the fundamental landscape of Minnesota’s workforce development system by connecting policies to State and local economic growth and development goals.

The SLII is a project initiative of the National Technical Assistance & Research (NTAR) Leadership Center and John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The project objectives for NTAR are sponsored by the Department of Labor’s Office on Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).

In early 2008, NTAR selected three states, including Maryland, Connecticut, and Minnesota, on a national competitive bid basis to participate in an intensive 15-month Leadership Institute. These three states were chosen "to become national leaders in pioneering new approaches and promoting the employment of adults with disabilities by enhancing partnerships with statewide workforce and economic development efforts." The NTAR Leadership Center is providing research, training, and technical assistance to support each state with its unique project objectives, initiatives, and systems change challenges.

Minnesota’s Leadership Team is working to develop new opportunities and better integrate adults with disabilities within high growth business sectors in our State’s economy. Specifically, our team is brainstorming new pathways into the workforce by building on recent efforts to increase job awareness, skills, opportunities, and outcomes of adults with disabilities within the State's manufacturing sector. Our team’s ultimate goal is to adapt and migrate these policies and practices to other high growth sectors to connect job seekers with disabilities to integrated, high-demand employment at competitive wages and benefits.

Minnesota’s team chose to breakdown its project workscope into manageable parts. For this reason, three work groups were launched with overlapping but discrete functional activities. Our first work team, the Regional Planning & Prosperity Group, is examining strategies to transform Minnesota’s Workforce Development and Human Services Systems through a new vision, better policies, improved use of funding, and promising practices that lead to increased employment in the workforce. This group’s core charge is to study and recommend policies to increase expectations, strengthen communities, forge critical public and private partnerships, leverage and integrate available funding, and promote community and business practices that increase employment and prosperity for all.

Our second work team, the Workforce & Economic Development Integration Group, is studying new ways to transform the "generic" workforce development system into a more accessible system with policies and practices that emphasize "universal design." This means a creating a workforce system that automatically includes Minnesotans with disabilities and works to link all labor resources within regional economic development and workforce sectors.

Our third work team, the Value Proposition Group, is working to craft leading edge communication strategies to transform current views about the inclusion of people with disabilities in Minnesota’s economy. A "value proposition" is a business or marketing statement that summarizes the sum total of benefits a customer receives through the use of a product or service. Accordingly, our group’s charge is to build a strong business case for the inclusion of adults with disabilities as real economic assets in Minnesota's workforce.

A core value driving the workscope of all three work groups is maintaining a "demand-side perspective." That is, identifying critical State and regional economic development issues and engaging business leaders in partnerships to address current and future workforce development skills and needs. A second value is the importance of including all available workers from the supply side regardless of age, race, disability, gender, or sexual preference. Said simply, all means all.

I happen to be a member of our third work team–The Value Proposition Group. This team includes a passionate, creative group of individuals who are working together to craft an overarching vision and communication strategy for Minnesota’s workforce and economic development systems. Our charge is huge and the team has not nearly completed its work. However, we recently issued a paper articulating Minnesota’s Value Proposition for its workforce and economic development systems. Although a "work in progress," I am proud to share the team’s value proposition with my readers below.

Minnesota’s Value Proposition-

"We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper."


We start with an assumption: that self-interest is everyone’s primary inducement to act. This is true for individuals, institutions, organizations and businesses alike. It’s a basic economic precept, articulated best by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: an individual pursuing his (her) own self-interest tends to also promote the good of the whole community. If the assumption is true, then the value proposition must reflect that truth. A demand-driven initiative that seeks to enhance competitive employment for people with disabilities should appeal to self-interest, not altruism.

This leads to five additional observations about an environment in which people with disabilities seek employment freely and businesses feel comfortable hiring them. We imagine an environment in which self-interested parties acting individually and together to achieve the goal of increased employment for people with disabilities. In this ideal environment the prevailing characteristics are:

1. Economies (or communities) in which businesses thrive and employees succeed.

2. Workplace flexibility (or customization) that maximizes productivity.

3. Work that transforms lives and economic performance.

4. Work experiences and evolving attitudes that change the workforce.

5. Hiring policies that distinguish but embrace "qualified" workers (who meet specific and rigid job requirements) and "quality" workers (who might not meet rigid qualification tests, but who demonstrate flexibility, skills, strengths, trainability and eagerness to work).

These policies would bring new workers into the workplace rather than erecting barriers that keep them out.

Our final assumption is that demography – an aging workforce, soon to retire in large numbers – will persuade businesses that many of their future employees will come from previously nontraditional populations, including people with disabilities. Demand for workers from populations that are currently under-represented in the workplace will certainly increase over time, and employers will certainly come to realize that it is in their own self-interest to seek out employees from these populations.

But the workforce development system should not simply sit on the sideline and wait for this to happen eventually. We need everyone in the workforce for businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.

This is the organizing principle of our work.

Minnesota’s Value Proposition Work Team includes:

Jeff Bangsberg, Member - Minnesota’s State Rehabilitation Council
Steve Ditschler, Chief Executive Officer, ProAct, Inc.
John Fisher, MN Department of Employment & Economic Development
MaryAlice Mowry, MN Department of Human Services, Director, Pathways to Employment
Don Lavin, Vice President, Rise, Inc. & Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition