What “Employment First” Means to Me

From Dr. SueAnn Morrow, PhD

I’ve been in the field of disability for over 45 years, if you count my years of teaching, and employment has always been a critical piece of the puzzle. As a teacher, consultant, principal and finally as a Director of Special Education ensuring that students transitioned from secondary education to decent jobs in the community or post-secondary opportunities was paramount. Then, later as an adult service provider, employment was my main focus.  So, living long enough for “Employment First” to arrive, is like Christmas to a 4 or 5 year old.

“Employment First” means struggle, heartache, failure and disappointment.  I sometimes think about the individuals I served and am disappointed that I couldn’t help them reach their dreams; I didn’t help them be fully included in the community with good paying jobs; I didn’t get them out of the segregated settings they were stuck in soon enough.  I let them down.

“Employment First” also means victories, celebrations, a few” I-told-you so’s” and great success stories.  While I don’t want to dwell on the “I-told-you-so’s”, I have to admit, some of them were pretty sweet! It’s better to focus on the celebrations—the first paycheck, the first having your own money to spend, the first “he/she did a great job today”, or the first “feel” of your own cash in your wallet.

Employment First also means new partners and systems. Here in Iowa, we have been a leader in working together to make “Employment First” happen.  Service definitions changed, systems aligned and priorities transformed. These happened as state leaders reached across the silos and began to envision something new—maybe there was a better way of doing things. While it is still a work in process, these system changes have resulted in monumental positive changes for individuals the systems are to serve.

 “Employment First” represents the belief that all individuals with disabilities can work when given the right supports, regardless of the impact of disability.  To hold this belief, to truly let it drive our work, required a fundamental change. We had to let go of the notion that people needed “to-be-ready-to-work”, that they needed certain skills prior to being referred for employment services, and that some were just “too disabled to work”.  For some, these fundamental changes in beliefs are an on-going challenge. I understand that. I get it. It’s tough work. It tests our creativity.  It tests our problem- solving skills.  It tests our relationship-building skills.  All the things we thought we knew about our profession, suddenly didn’t make sense. It was like the foundation of our knowledge abruptly disappeared.  But, trust me, that is a good thing.

“Employment First” also represents hope. Hope for the future of our field, hope for the individuals we serve, hope for their families and hope for the employers who need dedicated employees. We now are service provider staff who don’t have the history that I have.  They don’t understand why anyone would think that individuals they serve can’t work.  They don’t understand the concept of “readiness”. These staff are the future of “Employment First”.

So, what does Employment First” mean to me? If you have read this far, you probably have a good idea.  But I think that what I would like to leave you with is the hope. The hope that we, as a field, continue to evolve, continue to learn new things, continue to push back with someone or something says “it can’t be done” or “he/she can’t do that”, and continue to develop new methods and strategies to ensure that ALL individuals with disabilities work in the community in the job of their choice.

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