In the Workplace
By Adrianne Murchison & Devika Rao
Every Friday, Digital Technology Partners holds a lunch-staff meeting where each department shares positive activities that took place throughout the week and benefit the company. Among the employees who give a brief report is Hannah Hibben on how many computers her department dismantled in recent days. Her two co-workers, Arianna White and Mandie Potts, join her. Their duties are a key company task.
Hibben, 24, has Down syndrome and was very shy when she started working at the Conyers office last year. She now shows pride in her work productivity and will boast, “I did 100 hard drives this week,” according to her supervisor Shawn Adkins.
“It’s amazing to see the confidence that Hannah has now in presenting,” said Adkins, a Digital Technology Partners director.
Hibben, White and Potts were hired into the Work 4Eli E-Waste Employment Program, which Digital Technology Partners created to empower people with developmental disabilities in the workplace.
The company provides new computers, software, printers and scanners to dentist offices and disposes of old previously used equipment.
“Jonathan Kendrick, [Digital Technology Partners, chief executive officer], didn’t know what to do with this stuff and said, ‘Why don’t we tear it down?’
[Hannah, Arianna and Mandie] break the items down for us. They gut the whole computer into a shell and separate parts. I have found buyers who purchase used equipment from us, and we put 100% of the proceeds into the program.”
Kendrick’s young son, Eli, has autism.
“He didn’t know what his son would do [later in life] and he wanted to create a work environment to help,” Adkins added. “Hannah was our first employee that we hired in the program.”
She separates computer RAM processors, heat sinks and batteries; and destroys hard drives by running them through a gouging machine to tear out the motherboard. She also assists Adkins with any salvageable parts that can be sold on eBay. The two decide which photographs and descriptions to post.
“She is an incredible employee,” Adkins added.
Digital Technology Partners’ approach to providing a fulfilling environment for employees with disabilities is aligned with best practices described by Doug Crandell, project director for Advancing Employment, a program managed by the Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD) at the University of Georgia. Its Technical Assistance Center and Community of Practice help organization’s strengthen their employment services for people with disabilities.
“Most of my work is training and helping staff at provider agencies [that provide supports for people with developmental disabilities] on how to offer job development that suits someone’s strength, and how to customize employment on behalf of the job seeker,” said Crandell. “In the past, we have not thought about job seekers’ strengths. We just said, ‘These are the jobs that are open.’ Customized jobs, it’s the most empowering thing that I can think of.”
The Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor (ODEP) defines customized employment as: a process that personalizes the relationship between the job seeker and the employer. In addition, there is an established goal to match the job candidate’s interests, strengths and conditions with the business needs of the employer.
In 2015, Crandell co-moderated focus group discussions with employers who had already customized jobs for people with disabilities. Conducted by the ODEP-funded LEAD Center, a collaborative of disability, workforce and economic empowerment organizations, the focus groups aimed to garner the perspective of employers of various sizes, sectors and locations who had hired individuals with disabilities into customized jobs.
Employers emphasized the importance of a reciprocal relationship with supporting provider agencies. They wanted providers to under-stand that their company goals and objectives are as essential as the job seeker’s employment.
Below are additional points for providers to consider when seeking quality employment for job seekers, according to The LEAD Center’s Information Brief of Perspective Employers on Customized Employment:
- Knowing the business, including its products, services and customers. Doing research beforehand and coming to the initial meeting with this information.
- Understanding and addressing the needs of the business (versus the need of the provider to place an individual on the job).
- Listening to the employer more than talking/selling to the employer.
- Knowing the capacity of the job seeker and his/her potential value to the employer.
- Being creative and flexible in how to meet the needs of the employer while effectively utilizing the skills and interests of employee.
- Being passionate about the work of finding employment for individuals with disabilities.
- Being responsive and available to the employer when needs/issues arise.
The focus group members under-scored that company inclusivity improved morale, camaraderie and support among staff, as well as employees understanding of the organization’s mission.
Employment Comes First
Additionally, there are many policies and practices under development, which will further the availability of competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities and employers.
Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Disabilities (DBHDD) Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald recently talked about the work the agency is doing to further the supported employment model. Specifically, Fitzgerald announced the formation of a state-level, interagency leadership team and six regional grassroots leadership teams called Gardens of Change.
Its goal: to triple the number of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) who are engaged in competitive, integrated employment.
Currently, 16.3% of people with I/DD are engaged in competitive integrated employment, and Gardens of Change aims to reach 48.9% by 2025.
Supported employment will be its primary vehicle to help people with significant disabilities obtain real jobs and the chance to build financial independence and security.
Scaffolding this group is the national movement Employment First. According to the ODEP website, Employment First is the approach to, “an overall systems change effort that results in increased community-based, integrated employment opportunities for individuals with significant disabilities.”
A legislative victory for employment for people with disabilities, Georgia created an Employment First Council (EFC) through House Bill 831 in 2018. This represents the state’s first step towards full transformation of the publicly funded system. Georgia’s EFC brings together 14 individuals with ties to the community or roles in state agencies serving people with disabilities with the charge of making recommendations to the legislature.
Chaired by Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency’s (GVRA) Executive Director, currently Shawn Ryan, “the mandate of the Employment First Council is to bring together information and make recommendations to the legislators that will streamline and coordinate efforts towards employment,” said John B. Wells, EFC vice chair and parent advocate.
Mandates for the EFC as outlined in HB 831 are:
- Developing an Employment First training plan for providers;
- Coordinating and conducting educational activities with other agencies to increase awareness of Employment First;
- Evaluating the funding mechanism for inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) programs in the state; and
- Reviewing and making recommendations in a biannual report to the Governor and the General Assembly
Currently, the EFC is formalizing and submitting a report to legislators as a “path of implementation” for Employment First. Being a fairly new council, the work is underway, and the goals are setting a direction for clear, concise communication between agencies and the community.
“Our goal is to bring agencies together into one space and have better communication, so the option of employment is easier for parents or the individual with a disability,” said Wells. “There is a tremendous hurdle, and we want to improve this on the client side.”
The bigger goal is to accumulate all the data of various agencies. Currently, on the EFC, there is a representative from the Technical College System of Georgia, Department of Education and similar stakeholder agencies. By bringing together all of this data, the EFC will be able to create a central clearinghouse that will provide information to parents, individuals, employers and other community stakeholders.
Additionally, it will allow the EFC to provide clear recommendations for rural parts of Georgia or smaller cities, where the needs and resources differ from metropolitan areas.
Changing the System
One of the key changes seen in states that successfully adopt an Employment First approach is the shift of resources from sheltered workshop environments to competitive, integrated employment services. Sheltered workshops are a relic of an old system. They require people with developmental disabilities to provide labor for mere pennies on the dollar, and individuals who attend can often find this unfulfilling and unfair.
However, it’s important to note that neither the EFC or GCDD are suggesting that sheltered workshops all immediately shutter, leaving people out in the proverbial cold. These settings often provide people with developmental disabilities and their families peace of mind and engagement with others that they might not find anywhere else in the system.
What Employment First is looking to do is change this system.
“As we learn and grow, our understanding about people with I/DD also evolves. This means that things that were once considered out of reach, like employment, are now becoming achievable. Employment First aims to make competitive, integrated employment the first option for people with developmental disabilities,” said Eric Jacobson, executive director of GCDD and member of the EFC.
What this means is that true employment is becoming the first thing they consider after high school and/or college. By expanding the options and adding a pathway to employment, Employment First means that agencies, leader and community stakeholders are working towards creating a system that considers employment for people with I/DD as a realistic goal.
It is important to note that, “The goal is lofty, and the timeline is long. Systems change doesn’t happen overnight,” added Jacobson. “As we work toward adding employment as an option for people with I/DD, we continue to learn from the individuals themselves and the communities that surround them and remain committed to removing the barriers to them living the lives they want.”
The Power of Advocacy
In recent years, parents have been increasingly firm in ensuring the confidence and self-esteem of their children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the workplace, according to Crandell.
“Younger folks with I/DD leaving school are more accustomed to being heard,” he said, adding that this translates to the workplace. “Some of this has to do with younger parents who pushed to make sure they were heard in the classroom. I think that’s a generational change as we try to improve transitional services to make sure people have real relationships and can be heard, not only for their opinions but for feedback.”
Brandt White, a self-advocate from Augusta, GA, understands the importance of advocating all too well. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 13, White and his parents advocated on his behalf until he was 25.
He graduated from Augusta Technical College with a diploma in business administration with a concentration in medical office administration, securing a job he loved. Through his advocacy and work in the community, he was then appointed to Georgia’s EFC and is on the communications subcommittee for the EFC.
“As a self-advocate, it is important to never give up,” said White, now 35. “There are a lot of resources and I always encourage people to ask questions. Everyone’s situation is different and what works for someone may not be for someone else.” Formerly a nurse’s aide, White is currently interviewing for a new job with Camp Winshape.
What Change Looks Like
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. Almost 30 years later, many disability advocates will state that the employment numbers are still dismal for people with disabilities.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018 report, 79.2% of people who identified with having a disability are currently unemployed.
And, Kathie Snow, a parent advocate and founder of Disability Is Natural!, is focused on outcomes.
“There is a natural assumption that people without disabilities will go to college or work after high school, and they are taught skills that can help them get there,” said Snow. “But the same isn’t true for people with disabilities. An outcome to me, for example, is teaching someone with disabilities how to get a job on their own.”
Snow is also the keynote speaker at this year’s Georgia’s Association of People Supporting Employment First Conference being held at the University of Georgia from October 28-30, 2019. Her keynote, “It’s Not Rocket Science,” will focus on inclusion for people with disabilities, what will it take to make it happen and what adjustments are needed in attitude, determination and dedication.
The right attitude does make all of the difference, and one that Digital Technology Partners is embracing because it is making a positive difference for the entire team.
Adkins noticed, early on in Hibben’s employment that the more he treated her in the same manner that he would an adult without a disability, the more she would come out of her shyness.
“When we are out and about getting lunch, Hannah talks to everyone and gives them high fives,” said Adkins. “She has just blossomed.”
Defining Employment Terminology
DBHDD provides supported employment services as ongoing supports to assist individuals with disabilities in locating and maintaining meaningful employment in their communities. Supports are designed to capture the individual’s strengths, needs and interests.
Customized employment is defined by WIOA as, “competitive integrated employment, for an individual with a significant disability, that is based on an individualized determination of the strengths, needs, and interests of the individual with a significant disability, designed to meet the specific abilities of the individual with a significant disability and the business needs of the employer, and carried out through flexible strategies.”
Competitive, Integrated Employment:
Competitive, integrated employment means full or part-time work at minimum wage or higher, with wages and benefits similar to those without disabilities performing the same work, and fully integrated with co-workers without disabilities.
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