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Employment: The Power of a Paycheck

By: Jordan Silvestri, LMSW

Published in Jewish Press Building Blocks, March 2015  

Close your eyes and think back to the very first time that you held your paycheck for a hard week’s worth of work. Do you recall the thoughts that were running through your mind at the time? Do you remember how you felt? Excitement, pride, maturity – these were some of the emotions that I had felt, holding my first paycheck. These sentiments drove me to take on more responsibilities that challenged my level of maturity and enhanced my abilities.

Our individuals experience these same emotions when they venture into the world of employment. Tzvi is a client I have been working with for close to 7 years. In the past 4 years, he has focused on gaining meaningful employment. He worked in a few places before finally finding the job of his dreams. Tzvi now works at a local lumber yard, pricing, stocking and helping customers who visit the store. I love seeing his face when he comes home from work with a wide smile, eager to tell anyone who will listen about his day. “Jordan, work is so amazing. I love what I do. I am a working man now!” He might say this every day, but I never tire of hearing it. Tzvi was a different person before he started this job. A person who was unable to travel alone, to manage his money, or take responsibility for himself and his appearance.

With the assistance of his residential and employment staff, together with his family, he has grown to become a polished employee whose employers rely on him completely. “Tzvi sets the tone around the lumber yard. His personality has transformed the atmosphere. I can’t think of a day of work without him,” describes Yoeli Rosenberg, Tzvi’s supervisor. Employment doesn’t stop at a paycheck. It teaches travel skills, money management, independent living and socialization, and leads to the improvement of one’s self-worth and self-image. Where does one begin? It is helpful to review the history of employment for those with disabilities to better appreciate the opportunities we are currently afforded.

Employment History : Americans with Disabilities Act
Prior to July 26th, 1990, there was no official legislation providing support and opportunities for individuals with disabilities in the work force. What happened to change that? It began with individuals like ourselves who chose to stand up and challenge the societal barriers and discrimination that they and their children felt from within their communities. Like-minded members of this group came together to organize what is now known as the Disabilities Rights Movement, tasked with challenging the notion of “out of sight, out of mind.” They felt that society had forgotten an integral part of its makeup and that it was their mission to remind them. Prior to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, there was no ban on discrimination on the basis of one’s disability. The prevalent notion of the time was that one’s disability created significant limitations experienced in the realms of employment and education. The fight for rights for individuals with disabilities became a civil rights discussion as individuals with disabilities were seen as a minority class, much like women fighting for the right to vote. Through years of lobbying, demonstrations, and discussions in the Senate and Congress, the movement was able to show how this injustice was harmful, not only to the disabled population, but also to society as a whole. With the official signing of the American with Disabilities Act, businesses were now required to consider and address access for individuals with a disability. It was a momentous and historic event for our country that would alter the landscape of our future.

Societal Change: So we can do this?
The world changed after the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), allowing a significant section of the population to consider opportunities that they had never before thought were within their reach. This not only opened doors for individuals to gain meaningful employment, but allowed them to work on life skills to better integrate into the community around them. There are a multitude of questions running through the minds of individuals with disabilities and their families regarding working outside their home.

For example; How am I going to get to work? Can I learn how to drive? What do I do with the cash in my pocket? Can I gain a college or graduate degree? Can I develop lasting relationships? I met David about 6 years ago. He had recently experienced a loss in his family and became bottled up in his own world as a defense mechanism against his pain. My team and I spent years working with him, attempting to provide opportunities for him to come out of the shell he had created for himself. That turning point came a month after he started his first job. David came home after a full day of work and walked straight into my office. He sat down and expressed his desire to chat. I was taken aback by his direct approach as it usually took multiple prompts to engage him in a conversation. He spent the next 30 minutes discussing his day, what he liked and disliked about his job, and what he saw as goals for himself. I sat there in awe, unable to respond due to sheer amazement of what was unfolding in front of me. Could it be? Who knew that it would be the simple act of getting David a job that would allow him to reinvent himself and find his own voice? This was David’s turning point. He told himself, then us, and ultimately, the world, that he could do this – and he did.

Navigating the Waters: What opportunities are out there for me and my child?
Luckily, there are plenty of employment programs to choose from. The Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and the New York State Education Department have created a number of different programs that provide employment services to individuals across the developmental spectrum. Here is a snapshot of a few programs that OHEL and many similar agencies provide:

ETP: Employment Training Program funded by OPWDD
Eligibility Requirements: Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are currently enrolled in the HBCS Waiver or are eligible to enroll in the HBCS waiver. Many of the individuals who express sincere interest in employment have never been exposed to a competitive employment atmosphere. For these individuals, OPWDD developed a 6-12 month internship program whose goal is to prepare each person for independent employment and ultimately, to get hired by their internship employer. This unique program begins with a 20-65 hour discovery process where we interview the individual and his/ her circle of support, family, residential and day program staff to create a clear and concise picture of one’s interests, skills, and limitations that would assist or hinder him/ her from being gainfully employed. Are you able to travel independently? How well can you manage time and stress in the workplace? What skills have you mastered that will assist you in becoming employed? These are just a few of the areas that this program looks to address through this discovery process. The information collected from the discovery process is used to compile a vocational plan which helps direct the job discovery process. Once an appropriate job placement is found, each individual is paired with a job coach who assists in addressing the areas of need that were determined through the discovery process. After 6 months of employment, the individual’s progress is assessed with the objective that he or she will be fully employed by the internship employer and be placed on their payroll. This allows our individuals to show themselves, their job coaches, and their supervisors how capable and able they are, and to prove to them how much of an asset they are to the job site.

SEMP: Supportive Employment funded by OPWDD
Eligibility Requirements: Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are currently enrolled in the HBCS Waiver or are eligible to enroll in the HBCS waiver. In all of our employment programs, the objective is to help prepare our clients to be able to maintain a job independently. The Supportive Employment is geared to individuals who are fully ready for competitive employment. They should have completed the ETP programs or the ACCESS VR program (as listed below). During this transitional phase, we create plans on how our job coaches can fade the number of on-site job coaching hours and visits that are necessary. Employment Specialists provide ongoing career counseling, job support and intervention, and are available for additional meetings where needed. These specialists look to focus on giving continued support, enhancing job responsibilities, building natural supports and increasing independence at the work site. At this time, SEMP services are not time-based, and can continue throughout one’s employment history.

ACCES-VR: Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation funded by New York State Education Department Eligibility Requirements: Individual with a physical or mental impairment which impedes him/her from gaining employment. ACCES-VR services are open to individuals with all types of disabilities. These services are suited for those who are ready to join competitive employment but are in need of some additional services, such as education, training and limited supportive employment. The clients in this program are expected to be able to travel independently, manage their time effectively, and be self-motivated. Through the eligibility process, a vocational plan would be compiled to determine the most effective manner in which to obtain gainful employment. ACCES-VR supports these goals by providing greater access to education, vocational, and on-site training (on a case-by-case basis) in preparation for a career path or to add to one’s resume. Once employment is procured, a time limited (90 days from the first day of work) supportive employment is offered. This support comes with job coaching to assist the individuals through on-site training, managing challenges during work, job growth and security. Upon the 90th day of employment, individuals automatically graduate the program, and if they have an intellectual or developmental disability, can move in to the SEMP program as described above.

Ongoing Dividends
Choosing the right employment service is easier than ever before with the support of the various social service agencies that can guide you through your search. Whatever path you and your child choose, the power of employment is not just limited to a paycheck. It is a power that transcends finances and reverberates throughout the many spheres of one’s life. It symbolizes pride, ability and accomplishment- and provides the sense of worth and belonging that every one of us deserves.

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