CEO: People with Disabilities Need More, Not Fewer, Employment Opportunities

Olmstead Plan Response from Achieve Services, Inc.

Achieve CEO Tom Weaver offers his response to potential legislation included in Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan:

At Achieve Services, we recognize the abilities that every one of our clients brings to work every day.  The range of talent and ability is deep and wide, and we’re always looking for new and creative ways to unlock our clients’ potential.  Sometimes that happens quickly, and sometimes it takes a bit more time.  And when it comes to employment, we need as many employment options as possible to match the skills and abilities of our wonderfully diverse client base.

We currently serve 180 adults with a broad range of developmental disabilities.  Our first priority is to place our clients in community jobs.  When that’s not possible or desirable, we provide work in our center-base production area.   About 59% of our clients are working in the community, while 36% are working in our on-site facility.  The remaining 5% receive a variety of job training, life skills, and therapy services, and engage in community integration activities – like volunteering at Feed My Starving Children and Meals on Wheels.

There seems to be a growing movement among some advocates to provide more community-based employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  The U.S. Department of Labor describes this “Employment First” concept as one facilitating the full inclusion of people with the most significant disabilities in the workplace and community. Under the Employment First approach, community-based, integrated employment should be the first option for employment services for youth and adults with significant disabilities.

On its face, the Employment First concept is well-intentioned and laudable.  We certainly should, and do, provide integrated, competitive, community-based employment options.  But some are taking the concept too far, advocating that it should be the exclusive option – and that we should shutter our center-base workshop programs.  At Achieve, we believe we need more options for our clients, certainly not fewer.

It is important to understand what Achieve’s center-based program is, and what it is not.  It most certainly is not the only option.  It is not boring or institutional.  It is not a place where anyone is taken advantage of, or meaningless tasks are performed.

It is a safe environment where clients have the opportunity to perform real work for real customers.  It is a place where clients get paid fairly, based on their productivity, and in accordance with standards strictly regulated by the U.S. Department of Labor.  It is a place where they develop employment skills, along with self-esteem and a sense of self-worth.  And our clients are there because they and/or their guardians made an informed choice to be there.  It is a lively, high-energy place with lots of activity where clients are happy for the opportunity to contribute and earn a paycheck.    It is one option.

To those who oppose center-based programs, the obvious question is what would happen to those clients when the doors closed?   In a perfect world, all those workers with disabilities would then find jobs in the community.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  The reality is, jobs for people with disabilities are hard to find.  In fact, the unemployment rate among workers with disabilities is roughly double what it is for non-disabled workers, and only 21% of those with disabilities are participating in the labor force at all.  So most of the people who are now happy and productive working in center-based programs would suddenly be unemployed, and for most –  spending their days in residential settings with more limited opportunities for community engagement and integration, and no opportunity to earn a paycheck.  What would that do to their self-esteem and sense of self-worth?  Would that enhance their quality of life?  Of course not!

Our mission at Achieve is to “create innovative opportunities that inspire people with disabilities, enabling every participant to lead a meaningful and self-determined life.”  That means finding the right program for each individual client.  That means creating more options, not fewer.  That means we will strive for community-based employment whenever possible, and we will continue offering center-based programs whenever appropriate.

Read more about the Olmstead Plan and how it might affect programs like Achieve.