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Bark’s Bytes #20 | Response to Real Jobs


Jon Alexander is a respected colleague who sometimes challenges my messages. He is also the CEO of Kaposia, a supported employment and day training and habilitation provider, a co-manager of the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI) project, and a founding member of the MN Employment First Coalition. In the interest of full discussions leading to better outcomes, I invited him to share his thoughts on competitive employment through the Bark’s Bytes channel.

From Jon Alexander:

In 2009 and 2010, the MEPI conducted a series of listening sessions across disability groups to gather information focusing on the question, “What will it take to double the competitive employment of people with disabilities?” Over 200 individuals with disabilities, professionals, family members, and advocates participated. A series of policy briefs related to employment for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, autism, physical disabilities, brain injuries, mental illness, deaf-blindness, or hearing loss, as well as youth in transition were presented.These policies briefs were then summarized in a final report. In the reports, the term “real jobs” was used in only one recommendation.

This recommendation pertained to students still attending school and is included below. Participants in the listening sessions used “real jobs for real pay” to clarify that they were recommending jobs similar to those secured by students without disabilities, not the types of “work experiences” available to students with disabilities as part of their school program. “Work experiences” were viewed as being developed by school personnel with the job belonging to the school program, not the individual. Listening session participants felt it was important for students with disabilities to have their own job prior to graduation to better inform their choice of employment upon leaving school.

Recommendation from one of the policy briefs: Ensure students with disabilities have real jobs for real pay while they are still attending school. There is no substitute for having a real job. Research on transition has documented that a positive correlation exists between the number of paid jobs held by youth with disabilities and their future competitive employment outcomes. A job is a powerful learning experience for a young person. It is the best way to learn about work and to start building a resume for future jobs. Students with more significant disabilities often have “work experiences” which are often unpaid, artificially created experiences that take place within the school setting or in groups in the community, rather than having real jobs while they are in school like other teenagers. While there is value in work experiences, they provide a limited opportunity for learning. There is usually no interview or selection process. Expectations are not the same as working directly for an employer for wages. In many work experiences, students are isolated from the paid workforce at the place of business, preventing them from fully experiencing the social aspects of a job. As a result, they do not learn some of the “soft” skills vital to successful employment or the direct connection and rewards of paid employment and work.

In his blog post titled, A Real Job, JWB connects the term “real jobs” with MEPI’s definition of competitive employment. MEPI does define the term “competitive employment” as “work in fully integrated settings, with or without supports, paid at prevailing wages.” We used this term because defining “employment” alone is a daunting task that is probably impossible given the differences of opinion on the issue as noted in a quote from the beginning of JWB’s post. We chose to emphasize “competitive employment” as it is the most consistently defined term and goal in statute and policy at both the state and federal level. We also typically include self-employment as part of our definition, though the quote used did not include this option.

So what’s my point?

I agree the term “real job” is one which can create at best, confusion and at worst, hard feelings. This term is used by many critics of our system who would like to see people move from low paying jobs where they work on a limited number of tasks and are paid directly by a provider into ones that are more typical of the general population, namely competitive employment. The MEPI reports however did not intend to use the term “real jobs” in the way JWB describes. In fact, the MEPI team worked hard to communicate its findings and recommendations in ways that attracted not repelled potential collaborators to its long range goal—increasing the number of Minnesotans who participate in the community workforce.

If JWB had asked whether or not MEPI established a preference of “competitive employment” to other types of employment, the answer is “yes.” We view employment that focuses on individual skills, offers market rate pay and benefits, encourages higher levels of integration, and offers capacities for employers to supervise and support their employee naturally as a preferred option to traditional practices. But valuing naturally supported competitive employment over center-based employment or other community employment like work crews or enclaves, does not equate to saying those options are not “real.”

Finally, I would like to add that there is a great deal of tension between differing sides in the on-going debate about how to improve the outcomes realized by the individuals who receive services from organizations like Merrick or Kaposia. Both sides need to do a better job of listening and communicating without the use of terms that create more rigidity in our positions. JWB and I met and discussed how we might do this on a personal level in the hopes that we can be role models to our colleagues on both sides of this debate. I’d like to thank him for this opportunity to respond to his latest editorial. ~ Jon Alexander