Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How DId AtWork! Become Innovative?

People with disabilities have been excluded from the work force forever. Society used to put people with disabilities away in institutions and took advantage sometimes of their labor in those institutions to do jobs that nobody else wanted to do. But we never thought they might be able to contribute in the same way as you and I might contribute to business or to our community.

Over time we began to recognize that that wasn’t true. To exclude a whole segment of the population from equal opportunity is not what America is about. This is really the last equal rights movement. We have seen an equal rights movement for people of color, an equal rights movement for women, and now we see an equal rights movement for people with disabilities beginning with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act 20 years ago this past July.

Here in Washington State we’ve had the adoption of the Working Age Adult policy in 2006 which is truly a state of the art cutting edge policy in the nation. That policy really focuses tax payers resources on helping people with disabilities get jobs in the community where they can really be productive, really contribute to the bottom line of a business, earn some decent wages and escape poverty.

AtWork! embarked on a significant and bold journey when we fully embraced the intent of the Working Age Adult Policy in 2006. Board and staff were faced with the task of busting myths and old beliefs. We thought that people with disabilities who have the most complex support needs were best supported in a sheltered environment. We discovered that this isn’t necessarily true. It only makes sense that people who need the most support would benefit from a program that provided 1:1 job coaching and focused on them as a uniquely talented potential employee. We were amazed at the changes in people we serve and in the changes in attitudes of family members, care providers, employers, and the community. People with disabilities who spent 20 or more years working side-by-side with other people with disabilities, thrived when introduced to new environments and new job tasks. Behaviors like spitting, yelling out, and being off-task stopped immediately because people working at “real jobs” don’t do those things. People with intellectual disabilities learn by modeling. We gave them a whole new set of role models and they responded accordingly.

We did a lot of planning, implementing, measuring results, setting targets, and trying new ways of doing things when our first ideas didn’t work. AtWork! employed 3 staff as Employment Consultant/Job Coaches in 2006. Now we employ 18. This is significant growth for a small nonprofit, especially since we were inventing our new way of service delivery at the same time we were growing and developing our infrastructure. We improved our IT infrastructure, as well as added fundraising and marketing expertise to our staff.

posted by AtWork! at


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