By Gregory Miller
President/CEO Penn-Mar Human Services
In October, the country is celebrating individuals with disabilities and their contributions and achievements to the American workforce. Known as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), the theme of this year’s observance is “Inclusion Drives Innovation.”
I personally love the word “inclusion” and prefer it over the more commonly used term “integration.” With “inclusion,” a person with a disability doesn’t just have a job, but rather he or she is part of a business day-to-day and contributes to its success.
Penn-Mar recognized many years ago that parents’ expectations and changes in federal law were making employment in the community a much higher priority for the individuals we support.
As a result, we changed our system away from facility-based work long before it became popular or mandatory. Today our organization has some 90 people working competitively. But our desire for wanting our services to be focused in the community transcends employment.
Five years ago when we created Penn-Mar’s 2020 Vision, we as an organization had 25% of our services in the community and 75 % facility-based. By the year 2020, our goal is to literally flip that statistic.
And three years ago Penn-Mar made the decision that we as an employer would no longer pay the individuals we support sub-minimum wages and that has completely transformed our services.
Using our innovative Exploration and Discovery program, we are finding out the interest and skills of each person who wants to work, evaluating what they can do, what they want to do and securing a place of employment for them where they add value and perform skills that are worth at least a minimum wage.
This approach is designed to be good for both parties, just like any employee relationship. We are not asking for charity or expecting the individuals we support to be treated differently.
For employers that are reticent to hire an individual with a disability, it’s often not that they worry the person can’t do the job. The supervisor or support person’s fear is more about, “what am I supposed to do, how do I treat them?” We spend a lot of time managing this hesitation on the front end, giving employers a realistic expectation of how the engagement should work.
We are not asking employers to move mountains and recreate their image or workforce. They should fully expect a Penn-Mar hire to skillfully do the tasks they are assigned.
We have seen much success with employers who are willing to employ individuals with disabilities and many employers have become great advocates for us as they see the partnership unfold. And because the individuals we support are so delighted to have the opportunity to work, they often change the character of the workforce around them.
Here’s a small sampling of the accolades we receive from employers:
“Nathan brings true joy to all of us every day.” (Suzy Gill-Boucher/Mt. Carmel Hospital)
“Lesha is a hard worker and very thorough.”(Kathy Becker/Gastroenterology Assoc. of York)
“Jimmy is capable of doing more than I expected. He catches on quickly and is doing very well.” (Gordie/Brothers Services)
“Michael has been a God send for us. My staff is happy knowing that Michael’s help in the kitchen allows them to focus on their work and save them time.” (Chris Rhoades/Normandie Ridge)
Nothing is more satisfying for an individual with disabilities than to get everything out of work that you and I do: the social network, work parties, being invited over to someone’s house, and appreciation for a job well done.
It’s about so much more than the paycheck. It’s being able to develop the life and career of their choosing, not simply what others have chosen for them.