Why Social Service Agencies Have Failed to Find Employment for Adults with Different Abilities

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As a former Army Noncommissioned Officer, I have been trained to analyze a problem prior to determining a solution. Albert Einstein once said, "If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend fifty five minutes defining the problem."

The employment rate for adults with different abilities has remained around twenty percent for many years. As I see it, there are two major obstacles that stand in the way of significantly reducing the number of unemployed and underemployed in this people group. First and foremost are employer fears and second is the labeling of adults with different abilities as "disabled."

In a recent presentation, I flashed a picture of a tarantula up on the screen and began talking about its docile demeanor, mentioning that it would rarely attack a larger predator and how harmless its bite was. I then pulled from behind the podium a cardboard container, which my audience believed contained a tarantula. I continued to talk and work my way around the audience, holding the container while requesting volunteers to assist me. When I came near someone, they typically slid to the far side of their chair and looked at me with horror in their eyes, shaking their head "No." As I returned to the podium, I revealed to them that the box contained only my business cards and that there was never a tarantula. None of the facts or information that I provided them changed the way they felt or thought when they believed that there was a tarantula in the container.

For many years we have attempted to use this same approach in convincing employers to hire adults with different abilities. There have been extensive studies done by 3M, DuPont and most recently, Walgreens, which show adults with different abilities are great employees. However, according to a recent poll, 54 percent of employers stated that they fear that an "adult with a disability" would not be able to perform the job. Since Webster’s Dictionary defines disability as "inability to pursue an occupation because of a physical or mental impairment," it is only natural that employers would assume that someone with a "disability" can’t do the job. There is a recent initiative entitled, "Look Beyond the Label." I propose that, except for those that have a valid need to know, we must remove the label all together.

I would label that which has occurred over the last 20 years or more as "insanity," since continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result is just that. We must begin to look at new and different methods for finding meaningful and fulfilling employment for Americans with different abilities. A relatively new approach called "The Employer Provider Model" has emerged and been very successful in placing employees in competitive employment. With this model, the agency actually employs the individual. The individual remains an employee of the agency on a contract-to-hire basis with a prospective employer. Once the employee proves that he or she can consistently perform the job to standard, she can be hired with no temp-to-hire fee. This model allows the employer to experience working with an individual at no risk prior to hiring him or her.

It is time for America to take a new direction; the status quo is no longer acceptable. Many social service agencies would no longer be operating today if they were to continue based only on their own merit and successes. It is time to take a business approach to this growing problem and stop doing what has always been done. It is time to start doing what will effectively find employment for adults with different abilities, and give these individuals a chance to experience the American dream.