Employment First: Focusing on Strengths

By D'Arcy Robb

159171378 2She needs to work on appropriate workplace social skills."
"He needs substantial training before paid employment
can be considered."
"It is highly unlikely that she will ever hold a job."
"He is unemployable."

All too often, individuals with disabilities find attention focused on their perceived deficits instead of their strengths. Particularly when it comes to the world of work, that approach is self-defeating and backwards. How many people do you know start their job search by making a list of tasks they struggle with and activities that they hate to do? Yet for many individuals with disabilities, a traditional job evaluation can feel like exactly that. In such an environment, it's no wonder that some employers, parents and people with disabilities struggle to envision each individual with a disability as a fulfilled, valuable member of the workforce.

Job discovery is a way out of that tired old loop of "can't, can't, can't" by providing a fresh and exciting way to see people build their careers. Job discovery starts with a relationship between a job developer and a job seeker. The team gets to know one another as the job developer spends time with the individual and the people who are most important in his or her life by having both casual conversations and targeted interviews. They both interact in a variety of environments, and participate in activities that are both familiar and unfamiliar to the job seeker. The last thing a job developer does is to review files or paperwork about the job seeker.

Why is that the last step? Because the job developer doesn't want to be influenced by the perceptions (and misperceptions and negative outlook) of others about the individual. If the job developer wants to check on any possible issues, he or she can call the job seeker's referral source and simply say, "Is there anything I should know?"

The idea behind job discovery is to get to know and appreciate a person – to see them in their most beautiful light. Once the job developer truly sees the job seeker, it's time to write the profile.

A profile accurately and positively describes the job seeker, and translates the essence of who that person is into the ways he or she could contribute to the world of employment. "Accurately and positively" means that everything in the profile is true, absent of judgment and written to focus on possibilities. A profile will not say, "He slowly made his way across the room, hugging every person he saw. He does not have workplace social skills and can't appropriately interact with co-workers." A profile will say, "He crossed the thirty-foot room in two minutes and twelve seconds, hugging ten people as he went. Adam hugs people the first time he sees them each day. He will benefit from an environment where he interacts with a limited number of co-workers."

A profile focuses on a job seeker's interests, contributions and conditions. Interests, of course, are the topics and pursuits that naturally attract a person, often indicated by the things they do with no prompting. Contributions are the ways in which a job seeker can contribute to a work environment, including tasks that the job developer reasonably expects the job seeker could be taught to do. And conditions are the circumstances that must be met in order for the job seeker to succeed. A condition could refer to a physical accommodation, the need for a particular type of schedule or just about anything a person needs in order to make a job work for them. And of course, we all have interests, contributions and conditions – these elements are not unique to the discovery process, although they provide an excellent way of fleshing them out.

The best way for a job developer to know if he or she "got it right" in the profile is to have the job seeker review it. Asking the job seeker to be the profile reviewer shows that the relationship between the job developer and the job seeker should not be hierarchical, or characterized by one person trying to "help" another. Discovery works best when it is done between equals – a job seeker and a job developer going on an exciting journey together.

Once the profile is ready, it's time to find and negotiate the job. That is the goal of discovery – to lead to employment after the writing of the profile. The job developer reviews a list of potential employers, asking to meet with them to discuss possibilities for this particular job seeker. When a job developer meets with employers, he or she is looking to build a relationship while identifying unmet needs.

Every business and every community has needs that are unmet. As a job developer, they identify those unmet needs, figure out a match between the need and a job seeker and negotiate a job based upon that. A customized job should be a win-win situation that benefits both the job seeker and the employer. The amount of job coaching and subsequent support will depend on the needs of each individual.

Not every discovery process leads to a traditional employer. Self-employment and resource ownership are two hugely promising avenues of employment for people with disabilities that I will be covering in future columns. Nor is discovery only for people with disabilities. Anyone who needs a non-traditional entrance to the workforce can benefit from discovery, including persons with mental illness or individuals transitioning off welfare benefits.
As a friend of mine who is struggling in her job recently said, "Anyone could benefit from this!"

D'Arcy Robb is the co-coordinator of Employment First Georgia.

I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Marc Gold & Associates Discovery retreat last fall in Ocean Springs, MS, and owe a tremendous thanks to Norciva Shumpert, Michael Callahan and my fellow participants for so generously sharing of their knowledge. I highly recommend the MG&A materials to anyone interested in learning more about Discovery: http://www.marcgold.com

For information on Employment First Georgia, visit www.employmentfirstgeorgia.org

Tags: Making a Difference, employment first