I was the Program Coordinator for an initiative that supported individuals with developmental disabilities to secure gainful, meaningful employment. Not "work experience". Not volunteering. Paid positions, in areas that best suited their abilities and talents and more importantly, their life goals & dreams. This was not an "easy" job.
Society has long devalued many populations and people with developmental disabilities have been marginalize in the employment sector for as long as I can remember. Employers and the community at large often see these individuals as "incapable" of being contributing members of the workforce. I couldn't disagree more. Many employers tend to offer "work experiences" read, volunteer, instead of paid employment and this equates to "free labor", something that is against the law. Some might argue that it's far better for people to be a part of their community, even if they "work for free" at for-profit companies, than to sit at home and do nothing. I would argue this, only because if we continue to allow this to happen then we are giving the message that people with developmental disabilities do not deserve the same monetary compensation as everyone else and therefore they are "less of" an employee...in fact they are not an employee at all, they are a volunteer.
To make my point, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote several years back for a publication that is circulated to staff throughout Alberta, Canada who support individuals with developmental disabilities in gaining employment. It was submitted at the height of my frustration surrounding ways in which staff were trying to "secure" employment for others.
With good intentions, the problem with the marginalization of individuals with developmental disabilities has often lied in the hands of the very people who want to help them succeed...
“Work Experience” IS NOT Employment
(As published in 2007)
Picture this, if you will, you’re heading out for your very first job (Definition of Job: the principal activity in your life that you do to earn money) or maybe it’s not even your first job. Maybe it’s your second, third or fourth. The point being, you are heading out to find a position that you will work in and earn money. You approach your local grocery store, office, retail store, a small business or where ever it is you may have a desire to work. You present your resume and talk about your skills and experiences, you express how interested you are to become a part of their staff team, to be a contributing member, an asset to their company. You have full confidence in yourself and your abilities and you know the employer is about to offer you a position AND THEN they say “We think you have all the qualities we are looking for and we would love to offer you a “Work Experience” for a trial period of maybe 2-3 weeks, just to see if you would be a good fit and then we can discuss hiring you as a paid employee. If nothing else, it will be a good “experience” for you to gain some skills”.
What would your reaction be? Would you go and “volunteer” for 2-3 weeks or even for 1 hour or for 1 second at a “for-profit” company? Would you ever consider working alongside coworkers, doing the same job, and knowing that they are bringing home a paycheck every week while you are participating in a “Work Experience” in an attempt to prove that you are just as worthy to be a paid employee? I know that I wouldn't...would YOU?
Yet, I am running into this very same situation with so many employers when I am advocating and supporting my students and graduates in finding PAID EMPLOYMENT? Why do I even have to say “Paid Employment”? For interest sake, I looked up the definition of employment and this is what I found; The term "employment" means service performed for wages under a contract of hire, written or oral, expressed or implied, including service in commerce." I asked myself, why do I have to constantly explain and justify to employers that “Work Experiences” are not a best practice Employment Specialists, Job Coaches or ANY staff supporting individuals with disabilities should be advocating or even tolerating when seeking employment. Given Alberta’s booming economy and needed demand within the workforce, it is absurd that we as Employment Specialists are bending to the idea of even suggesting that the individuals we support volunteer at company’s that are in so direr need of employees.
In my experiences, adults who have disabilities have likely already had MANY “Work Experiences” through their High School years or perhaps, with other supported employment agencies. Why would we, as professional Employment Specialists, need or even want to advocate or support yet another “Work Experience”? Because it’s easier? To the contrary. It often makes it much more difficult to have an employer hire an employee with a disability if they believe or have even been told that it is the “norm” that they participate in a “Work Experience” first. It is essential that this type of misinformation not be given to employers as it degrades an individuals self worth and only emphasis the barriers and preconceived notions that they work so hard at dispelling.
Now, if by some unlikely chance the individual we support hasn’t had any “Work Experiences” then there are other ways for them to gain valuable skills and develop strong work ethics…they can volunteer.
Volunteering is defined as “an activity which always takes place through not-for-profit organizations and projects and is: Of benefit to the community and the volunteer; Undertaken of the volunteer’s own free will and without coercion; For no financial payment;” There are hundreds of not-for-profit organizations that rely heavily on community volunteerism and there are many different types of positions within these organizations that are sure to help an individual gain the skills and knowledge to assist them in building a strong resume to obtain employment. I also want to emphasis that volunteering, while important within our community, should never be used as an alternative to employment but rather as a short term resume building opportunity or as a compliment to ones career. That having been said, it is still my strong opinion that an individual could learn job skills as an employee, with support from Employment Facilitators. And, if for some reason, the job is not well suited for the individual then they could resign. After all, that’s what I would do as a job seeker.
Many people have the privilege of securing gainful employment through their personal networks; fiends, family, professors, etc. Unfortunately, many individuals with disabilities are not afforded that same convenience. Perhaps because of their limited social networks or sadly, because those that are closest to them often can not see their potential or abilities. Therefore, as Employment Specialists it is our obligation to ensure that we know the individuals we support so that when we are supporting them in obtaining employment we can professionally and confidently assist them with matching their skills and interests to positions and careers. It is because of our expertise, experience and our strong belief in community inclusion that we need to stand together, on a united front and not advocate for “work experiences”.
I challenge myself professionally on a daily basis, questioning almost everything I say and do as an Employment Specialist. It makes me be more accountable to my students and graduates and to maintain the integrity of community inclusion. It ensures that I am continuously building upon my skills and doing the very best job that I can, thereby providing the best support to the individuals I work for.
I would like to encourage everyone to take a look at their employment supports and ensure that they can ethically and with good conscience stand behind their practices. This job is not easy but it’s almost impossible when we don’t work together under the same guiding principles. Everyone loses, especially the individuals we support if we must battle the employment market with some colleagues that are advocating for volunteering positions with corporate, “for-profit” companies, which, by the way, is against the law. This is another topic…another issue.
If you have 5 more minutes you can CLICK HERE to see just how SUCCESSFUL Employment has been for some individuals...
Happy First Monday of 2012 Everyone!