Even when there isn’t a global pandemic happening, there’s a lot of cause for celebration when the people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) that Penn-Mar’s Customized Employment Teams support land a job or achieve an employment-related goal.
Many of us have experienced the excitement of nailing a job interview or getting a promotion at work. It’s a great feeling! But for people with IDD, it represents an especially significant accomplishment, as the unemployment rate for those with a disability is twice as high as that of the neurotypical population, usually hovering around 80%.
While that statistic can be daunting, it doesn’t deter anyone at Penn-Mar – from self-advocates to our employment teams. They have too many success stories to share: employers who reluctantly hired a person with IDD, had a great experience, and have now become our most passionate advocates; a gentleman with a disability whose overjoyed reaction upon receiving his first paycheck is the reason why we do this work; the woman who, with the support her team, achieved her lifelong dream of running her own business.
So, when COVID-19 upended all our lives and forced us to stay at home, Penn-Mar Human Services’ Westminster location took it all in stride. Their Customized Employment team immediately implemented remote employment supports – and it’s yielded incredible results.
“Of course, it was challenging at first,” said Tori Davidson, Employment Coordinator. “There is always anxiety when learning new technology. Even if people are comfortable with it, it can be intimidating.” Seemingly overnight, the Customized Employment team and those they support had to convert to virtual supports. While that alone is complicated, there were accessibility struggles, too. “A lot of the people we support are really comfortable with FaceTime, but very few of our team members have an iPhone. So that’s not compatible,” Tori noted.
“Plus, Carroll County Internet connections are terrible,” chimed in Jenn Tilman, Employment Coordinator. “And it’s been hard to find a program that would work for everyone for face-to-face meetings, but one of the people I support just met with me via Google Hangouts and it was really fun once we got it going,” Tori elaborated.
“Our main goal has been not to lose momentum,” Jenn mentioned. “We’ve been able to be more individualized in their lives – their whole lives have changed, but we’re now talking about more than just employment, talking about other goals like healthy eating, budgets, and things they can work on at home.”
Tonya Stonesifer, Employment Coordinator, has been thrilled with the positive results she’s seen so far. “Lots of the people we support may struggle being social in-person, so virtual meetings are sometimes easier for them. It’s helped some of the people I support become more confident.” Tonya’s also seen a big improvement in building relationships with families, “Somehow, seeing people face-to-face is so much better than email! While the virtual meetings were really out of my comfort zone at first, it’s been a game-changer.”
Thankfully, the Employment Team and the people they support have been adapting together. “One of the things we’ve been doing is asking people, ‘what technology do you like?’ and then finding what works best for them. They teach us a lot about technology, too,” said Tonya. “One of the people I support, Jordan, can’t read much, so that can be hard. But he’ll send me voice memos, and I can reply ‘call me,’ and then we’ll have a chat.” Recently, Jordan had a meeting that involved several other organizations. He and Tonya worked together remotely to get him logged into the meeting. It was challenging to navigate because the log in process involved a lot of numbers and letters. Tonya was able to convey to Jordan what a pound sign was by calling it a “hashtag” and they eventually logged in successfully. Everyone on the call cheered for Jordan once he got through.
Once they tackled the accessibility issues, Westminster’s Employment Team got to work. Employment Coordinator, Kristin Moyes, has gotten incredibly creative with stay-at-home restrictions. “I’ve been trying to utilize items that are already in someone’s home. If they’re interested in gardening, then we use what they have in their yard. If they think they may want to work in the food service industry, then we’re finding recipes and virtually cooking together.”
Tori and her client Jeanne met over Google Hangouts and Jeanne caught Tori up on some artwork she’s been creating. Jeanne sells her artwork at local events and is using the “downtime” to develop new pieces. Another client, Nick, worked with Tori through Microsoft Teams. With the support of his dad and Tori, Nick completed an online application to PetSmart. “This was such a big win for us, because usually Nick would lose interest quickly. But he stayed engaged the whole time,” Tori gushed.
“The people we support definitely appreciate staying connected to people outside of their homes. I work with a gentleman named Derek on video chat three days a week. We’ve been doing interactive videos together and sharing our screens to discuss. We just did a self-evaluation activity, and then created a list of ideal jobs,” Tonya shared. Some of the other people I support are actually still working, because they have essential jobs in grocery stores or other places. So I’m in touch with them daily, trying to be there if they have anxiety. I text their supervisors to check in.”
The frequent check-ins, job skill building, and resume and application work are just the tip of the remote employment supports iceberg. Jenn’s leveraged technology to help her find area businesses she didn’t know existed. “I just started working with Sarah. We were supposed to meet in-person but had to start with a virtual meeting instead. Together we did some Neighborhood Mapping via Google Maps. We found all kinds of hidden businesses we wouldn’t have found otherwise. She took me on a virtual tour of her home so I could see what she likes to do and what she’s like as a person. We’ve also done a bunch of discovery activities to see what her skills and interests are. She’s a writer, so I got to read some of her work. And she loves animals, so right now she’s trying to teach her dog some new tricks.”
The Future of Employment Supports
The Employment Team is grateful for all the support they’ve received, too. Holly Augustine, Employment Manager, noted that DORS has been incredibly flexible, allowing her team to deliver services in this non-traditional way. A Disconnected Youth Grant has also provided funding for virtual services. The team has created a best-practices document, meticulously chronicling what’s working and what’s not, because they believe that employment services will never be the same.
“We need to be progressive in using technology. It helps with individualization and personalization,” Jenn extolled. “If we can FaceTime someone instead of job coaching onsite, that’s critical for independence. It opens up avenues for people who don’t have 1:1 funding for job coaching. This way they can still have supports. Technology has the potential to change the face of job-coaching in general. It’s often stigmatizing to have a job coach onsite. If we can give people tools for independence, and be available remotely, they may not need onsite support.”
“We’re definitely hopeful that our learnings will result in some system change,” Holly said. “We’d like to continue applying some of these strategies even after we get back to normal. Of course, that comes with other barriers, like funding. There’s a lot of great technology out there, but we need devices, Internet, data plans, and other equipment. All of that takes money.”
Thankfully, that’s a challenge for another day. For now, this incredible team has its hands full developing even more new and exciting virtual employment supports.