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Colorado Quarterly Magazine 

"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"

 

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From Where I Sit: Colorado Collaboration A Needed National Model


By Homer Page

Patricia Haskell and I made a presentation at a conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Rehabilitation Services Administration and George Washington University. The purpose of this conference was to promote better ideas for assisting persons with disabilities to find employment. We were there to share some new program ideas that are developing in Colorado.

Persons with disabilities have found employment to be a struggle. We face negative attitudes about our ability to work from employers, a Social Security system that punishes us if we work, and the need to master adaptive technology. Other barriers such as inaccessible transportation, the lack of flexible personal assistance, and inadequate communications systems often limit our opportunities. Yet in spite of these barriers we want to work. Many of us do find jobs, and many more wish we could.

The primary agency established to assist persons with disabilities to find employment is Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). However, over the last few decades, two other systems have come in to being to assist persons with disabilities. The federal Department of Labor houses the programs defined in the Workforce Investment Act. These programs finally appear at the community level in the Workforce Centers. The second new system serving persons with disabilities is the network of Independent Living Centers that blanket the nation. During the last several years there has been some discussion about VR being moved from the Department of Education to the Department of Labor and combined with the Workforce programs. VR advocates have fiercely opposed this reorganization. They believe that persons with disabilities will lose the focused services that they currently receive if this change is made. They also believe that funding currently mandated for persons with disabilities will be absorbed by general programs.

The Independent Living (IL) Program has, on the other hand, not had an employment focus. There has been a divide between the VR program and IL. VR and IL staff have misunderstood one another. As a result, valuable resources have largely been wasted.

In spite of the existing problems, we believe that it is possible to achieve a high level of cooperation among VR, Workforce Centers, and Centers for Independent Living. Colorado is among the few states that are taking the lead in creating models of collaboration. The Boulder County Center for People with Disabilities has a long history of collaboration with VR and the Department of Labor programs. The Grand Junction Center for Independence is a part of a demonstration project which uses navigators to assist persons with disabilities to work their way through the maze of services and benefits issues connected with employment.

A Rehabilitation Services Act grant to Project WIN funds three sites that use navigators. In addition to the Center for Independence, two navigators are located in the Workforce Center in Colorado Springs, and another project is located in Denver. These projects aim to coordinate services among VR, Workforce Centers, and Independent Living Centers. Now another grant from DOL will expand the navigator program throughout almost all of the state.  VR emphasizes career planning, education and training, and technology. Workforce Centers focus on job placement and skills development. The ILC’s provide independent living skills development, advocacy, peer support, personal assistance services, and transportation and housing services. Unfortunately, these services have not been adequately coordinated. Persons with disabilities will have a much better chance to find satisfying employment if these systems learn to work together.

Colorado is creating a model of collaboration that can be replicated across the nation. But it cannot be done with grants and short-term commitments. There is a need for systems change. The upcoming reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act offers an important opportunity to enact these changes. We recommend four changes that will facilitate the much-needed collaboration. First, employment needs to be added to the list of core services mandated for ILC’s to provide.

Second, funding for providing employment services must be included in the Title VII, Part C Independent Living Center operating funds.

Third, funding for training among the three systems must be provided. Each system must have knowledge and understanding of the strengths and limitations of the others. A philosophy of independence, which can give coherence to the effort, must be learned by staff persons in each program.

Finally, the Vocational Rehabilitation counselor and the consumer need to join with staff from the Centers for Independent Living and the Workforce Centers to develop the individual plans for employment.

Employment is a key dimension of an independent living life style. While not everyone will work, everyone who wants to have a job should have an opportunity. We can do a better job of making employment a reality. What we are doing in Colorado to improve the opportunities for persons with disabilities can have an influence throughout the nation. The Colorado approach allows us to take full advantage of all of the resources that are available.

 

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