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Job Initiative Expands Options for Adults with Disabilities

By: Suri Greenberg

Published in Building Blocks, June 2011

Eliezer has severe communication deficits, and reads lips to accommodate for hearing loss. When Eliezer becomes upset, he starts screaming, often without warning. These traits, at first glance, would not seem conducive for successful employment. Yet Eliezer also has many things he is very good at doing. One of those things is cleaning. Eliezer absolutely loves to clean. Cleaning relaxes him and makes him feel productive. One year ago, Eliezer started working in a store, and since then, both he and his employer have been very happy with performance. His job? Cleaning, sweeping and organizing deliveries, which are some of the things that he most enjoys, and which he does very well.

Eliezer’s story of hope restored and possibilities realized has been successfully repeated over the past two years. Eliezer is part of a new dimension in the spectrum of opportunities for people with developmental disabilities known as: Maximizing potential, creating possibilities. No longer is a Day Habilitation program the only option for many young adults with disabilities upon graduating from a school-age program. They are now being offered much more diverse and attractive employment opportunities through the New York State Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD-formerly known as OMRDD).

EMPLOYMENT FIRST

Approximately two years ago, OPWDD unveiled a new employment initiative designed for individuals with developmental disabilities. Individuals who require more support than is available through Access-VR (formerly VESID) or Supported Employment services, now may receive enhanced support to maintain regular employment. The Employment First initiative has been a marked success. While many individuals with disabilities continue to find that a Day Hab program is their best alternatives, for many others, the Employment First initiative will make their lifelong dream of successfully holding a regular paying job come true.

WHAT DOES SUPPORTED EMPLOYMENT ACCOMPLISH?

The job of a Supported Employment agency is to teach individuals with disabilities the skills they need for successful employment. Some of these skills are basic. They include: appropriate interaction with co-workers and supervisors; maintaining a neat appearance; timely task completion; and if necessary, coping with frustration in an appropriate way. More advanced skills include; the specific job tasks required by the individual’s position; understanding the job’s paycheck procedures; and budgeting their income wisely. But it is one thing to learn a skill in a classroom, and quite another to apply that skill successfully in the workplace. The task of the Job Coach is to help participating individuals put the skills they learned in the classroom into practice. First, the Job Coach interacts with the employer to determine how the participating individual can best fit into the worksite. The Job Coach then demonstrates the job tasks to the individual, and works with them so that they can eventual l y complete those tasks unassisted. At that point, the Job Coach step back, and allows the individual work at their new job independently, while checking-in occasionally to make sure that both the individual and their employer are satisfied with the way the job is working out, and to help with any necessary adjustments.

Eliezer’s job coach assists him in managing his time so that he completes his job tasks in a timely manner. The job coach also helps Eliezer identify appropriate alternative ways for him to express his feelings when frustrated, so that he does not need to resort to screaming in the workplace. In these ways, the job coach has ensured that Eliezer has the tools he needs to be successful on the job.

Because individuals enrolled in the Employment First Initiative have a variety of interests, the Job Developer works extensively with a wide range of community-based businesses to develop an equal variety of job placement opportunities. Individuals requiring enhanced support have found successful employment in offices, supermarkets, pet stores, pharmacies, child-care settings and other retail outlets. Another benefit to these positions is that they enable the friends, neighbors and families of the individuals to see them at work as productive and contributing members of their community. At every step, job coaches and other professionals provide them with the training, guidance and encouragement they need to facilitate their growth and independence. Once the individuals have mastered the basic skills required on the job, the level of supervision and support is gradually decreased. Program participants are then either determined to be fully independent or are provided with additional services as needed through ACCESS or regular Supported Employment (SEMP) programs.

JUST LIKE US: BENEFITS TO THE INDIVIDUAL

Yaakov has always wanted to have a job like his brothers, who work in the corporate world. He is communicative, able to complete tasks, and knows how to read and write, but his poor social skills made it difficult for him to get a job. He often approaches strangers and asks them personal questions, says the first thing that comes into his head or shows inappropriate emotions in reaction to what is going on at the moment. However, Yaakov likes to put things together, and has shown a great talent for it. Almost two years ago, Yaakov was placed at a job that allowed him to do what he enjoyed: putting boxes together. The sense of accomplishment that Yaakov gets from this job has motivated him to work with his job coach on improving his social skills, enabling him to better succeed in his workplace.

For many of us, getting a first job and collecting our first paycheck is a natural progression in the life we always envisioned forourselves. For an individual with a disability, it is a sign of normalcy and acceptance. It is proof that they, too, can have a job-- just like their parents, siblings, neighbors and other members of the general community-- just like us. This is a sampling of the joyful responses of those individuals when they receive their very first paycheck: “Now My Life Begins.” “I can’t believe it, I have to tell the world.” “This is the best day.” “I am the King of the World.” Their feelings of accomplishment go on and on. Each one of us has life goals and dreams, and individuals with disabilities are no different. The heightened feelings of accomplishment that each of these individual experiences when they begin to earn a paycheck motivates them, inspires them to interact with others more appropriately and to grow. Our experience with the Employment First Initiative has been that, when you give individuals a chance to succeed, they will surpass your expectations. Abe is sociable and loves working with people. Through the training and assistance of his Supported Employment program, Abe works at a pet store showing people around the displays. Sarah, who is unable to speak, enjoys doing puzzles. She now is happy at her job where she puts together boxes for a wholesale distributor. People with developmental disabilities can be productive members of the workforce. The trick is finding the kind of job that fits their natural skills, and then helping them to succeed at it. Every individual has the desire to become independent. In our society, independence is determined by our vocation. We choose our vocation based on our skills and interests. This is the same for individuals with developmental disabilities. Fortunately, in New York State, there are resources available to help these individuals to grow, cultivate their interests and maximize their potential for independence. There are many challenges in helping these individuals to achieve their goals, but experience has shown that these efforts can succeed. The approach of the Employment First Initiative is perhaps best summed up by the words of Helen Keller: “I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something that I can do”.

Suri Greenberg, LMSW, is an Area Coordinator at Ohel Bais Ezra.

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