I have significant expectations of community agencies who represent candidates who have disabilities. These expectations are written into my accessibility policy and unless an agency can demonstrate their ability and effectiveness to follow these 13 expectations we simply don’t do business with them. This is no different to how we would treat any other vendor. In the past however, social service agencies have often operated to a rather low common denominator, this affects outcomes and does little in terms of representing society’s more vulnerable people. The focus from agencies has been one of two approaches, altruism or compliance, and both are guaranteed to lead to failure. ~ Mark Wafer
It is incredibly important that we in the Developmental Services sector (including agencies as well as the Ministry of Community and Social Services that is usually the primary funder of our efforts) pay close attention to what thoughtful, experienced, and inclusive employers like Mr. Wafer have to say about our contributions to supporting employment for people with intellectual disabilities. As you will see below, from the LiveWorkPlay perspective as we read through his baker’s dozen, we have little more to offer than nods of agreement and the occasional fist-pump.
However, just as businesses have certain realities that impact on their practices, so too do the agencies who are typically involved in supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities with their employment goals. We will comment on some of these and also offer brief responses to Mr. Wafer’s list (his list is more comprehensive with full paragraphs and we encourage you to read it in its entirety).
1) Create business champions in your community and let them do the heavy lifting for you.
2) Have increased expectations of your client.
As with Mr. Wafer, we too have learned this time and time again – despite having decades of experience in evaluation – that our members (clients) will likely end up exceeding expectations not only in terms of performance but in terms of how they will grow and take on new roles. However, if the agency presents the candidate to the employer “social service style” emphasizing limits and barriers over abilities and assets, growth becomes unlikely. People (all people) respond to expectations.
3) View the business as your most important client.
This is a challenge to the business model of Developmental Services agencies. For those who agree (and we do) with Mr. Wafer, the challenge is that our existence is dependent upon funders who may not agree with this perspective. While they might agree philosophically, in a practical sense all of the reporting we do (and the reporting mechanisms are what keeps us in business because they determine our funding) is based on a social services model: “How much time did we spend with the supported individual and for how many hours?” is typically the only metric or the most prominent measurement in determining whether or not we receive funding.
To give credit where due, we have received support from MCSS (via the local ODSP office) to pursue employment outcomes such as the development of an employer task force. But these are time-limited project funds, and on a functional basis the connection between great employment outcomes through employer relationships and agency funding mechanisms is simply not there. The funding models are mostly antiquated (having evolved from a medicalized day program model) and do not yet come close to giving agencies the freedom they need to reposition their energies as outwardly-focused.
These efforts tend to get described by the uninspiring “indirect supports” label on reporting forms (having a meeting with a CEO who is ready to change her hiring practices and welcome employees with intellectual disabilities for the first time deserves a more exciting column on the spreadsheet). This is changing through a process known as Transformation and hopefully will shift quickly, but for the present agencies have very little control over this and they cannot easily manufacture resources to engage in activities for which they are not funded.
4) Encourage families and stakeholder groups to speak with children early in life about work. Regardless of the severity of the disability. Work must be an expectation rather than a wish or “hope for”.
We suspect Mr. Wafer has encountered far too many times the very same issue that saddens us on a regular basis: parents or educators or day program staff or other influences who have told a young person with an intellectual disability that they can’t work, or won’t likely be able to work, or some other limiting statement. These are likely well-intentioned and designed to manage “disappointment” but please, just don’t do this. It really is a soul-crushing statement that none of us would want to hear from our closest supporters.
5) The approach to business must be at all times the “business case”.
Sometimes it is actually the business that approaches us for reasons that are not focused on the business case. We mention this only because it is important for agencies to be prepared that the employer might make an approach that is based more on a “charity case” and it’s actually the charity that will need to shift the conversation to one where the potential candidate(s) will be coming into the situation as respected and valued employees (with employee expectations). If the relationships starts off in a different way, such as the employer viewing the hire as a “good deed” then this usually does not bode well for the future. People with intellectual disabilities know very well when they are being respected and valued and they are not going to perform well or grow in their jobs if the job itself is not coming from an authentic perspective. Other employees will know it too, and real or perceived tokenism is a recipe for disaster.
6) Develop relationships with business before approaching them to hire your clients.
Astoundingly, at conferences or gatherings where we meet or are hired to consult with other agencies, they often declare “employers aren’t interested.” Upon further inquiry, it is inevitably revealed that hardly any time was invested in learning anything about the employer or their business, and that the approach was highly inappropriate (charity-based instead of business-based).
7) Apply for jobs where jobs exist. This is an important step because agencies have a habit of creating jobs. Job creation is pointless as it serves only to increase the payroll of a company even if the employee is good at their job. Almost all people with disabilities can and should fill jobs that are advertised. The sole exception to this is those with significant intellectual disabilities who may need a created job but even then it should be carved from other employees responsibilities rather than a pure creation. Employers do not see value in a worker who is an extra burden on the company payroll.
On this one item, we would like to suggest a bit of an alternative viewpoint. We recently ran across this issue with a funder (not MCSS) who was opposed to a partnership we were developing with an employer where the potential positions were not necessarily coming from their standard job postings or hiring process. There are certainly pitfalls to this (related to item 5 above) but there are also some incredible opportunities that would be left on the table without having a more flexible approach.
For example, at LiveWorkPlay we are also an employer, and quite often we meet potential employees who simply have the type of talent we are looking for, and although they might not match up to a particular job description, we want to find a place for them because we know it would be beneficial to the organization and the people and community we serve. Along these same lines, we need to also consider that people with intellectual disabilities have talents and that it may be of benefit to the employer to acquire those talents and find a place for them in their business. Some of our best employment outcomes have come from this perspective!
8) Avoid wage subsidies at all costs…good employers in serious business do not want subsidies, they want good employees and they are willing to pay fairly.
We agree and we are continually frustrated by investment in disability-specific wage subsidy programs. They simply don’t work, for all the reasons Mr. Wafer states in his original article. We note that there are some unique exceptions worthy of consideration, the most significant being subsidies utilized for summer job placements. With respect to summer jobs, the employer is getting a very limited return on their initial investment of training and supervision of a new worker. By the time they have learned the job and are delivering a business case benefit, the summer job is likely winding down and the employee will be leaving. In saying this however, any wage subsidy program utilized for this purpose should be reflective of subsidy practices as they would apply to any worker, not just for a worker who happens to have a disability.
9) Never take a client on a cold call. This is uncomfortable for the employer and for the client and can show a lack of professionalism.
Yikes! Unfortunately, we know that some agencies do this. It’s almost a guarantee of a bad experience and is an example of agency staff losing perspective on the reality that their presence in the employment equation is an unusual intervention that can’t simply be thrown in the face of an employer, because they will rightly react with “Well, this is weird.” And labelling the employer as “not being inclusive” because of this is inaccurate and unfair.
10) Understand the wants and wishes of your client. Don’t assume everyone with an intellectual disability wants to work at Tim Hortons. Ensure that your intake procedures cover this area. A wrong fit is a guaranteed failure and all of us want to do jobs that we enjoy.
Closely related to item 4. At LiveWorkPlay we have members who work for accounting firms, engineering firms, government departments, financial services, tech companies…virtually every type of employer there is! The mistake of focusing solely on the service industry can be a costly one, and we’ve seen a lot of situations where a person has been labelled as “unemployable” because they “failed” in the service industry. Well, chances are pretty good that a lot of the staff working for agencies failed in a service job at least once in their lives, and chances are also pretty good that they tried at least one job where it just wasn’t the right for them. Don’t limit people with intellectual disabilities to one sector or one type of work. Be open and NEVER say “Nobody in industry X would ever hire a person with a disability.” But also recognize that the service industry can be a great fit for some and show proper respect for all jobs and employers.
11) It is critical that your initial approach to a business be with the company’s owner or if it is a corporation, the CEO.
We agree in principle although in some situations it does make sense (and does not yield negative results) to start with a Director or Human Resources, or really any representative who is willing to help you make the case for inclusive hiring. But the main point Mr. Wafer is making is that you must not just come up with an “arrangement” that is not supported by the top decision-maker(s) with any given business or workplace, and on this we wholeheartedly agree. If you start out with an introduction from an employee who is not at the CEO or ownership level, work with them to ensure that any future decisions do come with full awareness and buy-in from the leadership. This is also better for that particular employment champion, who may be excited to quickly make a difference, and might need help to taking a longer-term perspective.
12) Consider yourself and your agency as a major force in town. Do not as often happens downplay your significance in the community. Agencies often place business and business owners on a pedestal making an approach to them more daunting. there is no business in town more important than your agency.
This is a great message coming from an employer, because employers are the audience that matters most for an agency trying to tackle the 75% unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities. We do take pride in our work and telling our story and when one of our members gets a job there is lots of fist-pumping and celebration, and where agreeable to the employer and employee, we do a lot of outward-facing communication about successful employer partnerships and great job outcomes, and accept recognition and in turn recognize employers.
Within our own Developmental Services sector, some of our peers do take offense at this and we are aware of being labelled “hotshots” or “showoffs” and perhaps some even more derogatory terms. Well, we aren’t in business to reduce the impact of our outcomes on making what you do look less awesome. We are keeping our eyes on the right prize: jobs for the people we are supporting and a more inclusive community for all!
We are trying to support an incredibly important social change and at the same time help our members grow as human beings and earn a living by making an authentic contribution to their employer. So instead of gossiping, take advantage. You can either just borrow from what we are sharing about how we get those outcomes, or you can invite us for coffee because we aren’t selfish about including others in helping make our community a better place for all. We didn’t get to be great at supporting employment without investing a lot of time and energy learning from others, and this work is never done.
13) Dress for success.
Mr. Wafer listed this one in reference to agency staff, and yes, have a spare set of business attire ready to go at all times, because even though you just came from supporting a charity chili cook-off fundraiser, showing up looking like a slob is disrespectful of the employer who is making time for you in their busy day.
But to follow up on this final point, don’t present the candidate to the employer (even if it is a casual interaction) wearing a “social services client uniform.” And don’t count on family members to figure this out. It’s not their job and what they think is acceptable is not the point – you are the supported employment expert who will have observed what the business environment is all about and come up with a thoughtful recommendation about appropriate attire. Make sure they have it and make sure they know how to wear it, and don’t let financial issues stand in the way, that’s what great initiatives like Dress for Success and Suits his Style are all about!