A quick personal note: Some of you who know our family have reached out with words of reassurance and comfort about the DDA transition we’re going through. I appreciate that. But I write my blog to shine a light on what isn’t working well, and I don’t want anyone to think we believe we or our son are the unfortunate ones. Far from it. Services are mostly going well for him, and because we are in his life we make sure of that. So I hope I never sound like a whiner.
Now, down to business. Or to be more specific, down to – work. Because DC is an Employment First! (http://dds.dc.gov/page/employment-first) jurisdiction, and that means we collectively want to be doing everything in our power to get anyone who wants employment into a job. That’s the headliner, but oh boy, are there problems getting there – and some of those problems are definitely avoidable. Again I’ll draw on our experience as an illustration (not whining!).
I wrote several months ago (“DDS: Intentions Versus Reality,” March 1) that the minute I mentioned a meeting to talk about my son’s potential job interests, his then-service coordinator created roadblocks, insisting he had to fill out a bunch of paperwork and hand things over to RSA before we could even say the word “work.” But that’s just wrong. For one thing, there were plenty of team meetings that included the whole team, RSA included, when a previous service coordinator was on the job. Second, our son receives Individualized Day Services (IDS), and DDA policy on IDS (http://dds.dc.gov/publication/individualized-day-services-final-rulemaking) specifically states that IDS should provide “Highly individualized, structured activities that emphasize social skills development, and/or vocational exploration, and life skills training, within an inclusive community setting.” Still, no matter how much we protested that it wasn’t necessary, both the service coordinator and his IDS provider pushed for a referral to RSA. No harm done, we thought, so we went along with it.
The good side: He got referred to a much more active and engaged vocational specialist than the one he previously had. The bad side, which swamped the good: He has a very specific type of interest, in many ways driven more by characteristics of the job site and comfort with the people he’ll be working with than by the general goal of employment. The process of “helping” him, though, was driven by meeting after meeting, leading our overwhelmed son to become more and more anxious and leading the RSA specialist to come back and say she had to close his case since he was saying no. Not too surprising. In fact, completely predictable.
We had been asking for his slight, budding interest to be encouraged, approached creatively, within the IDS guidelines. It was DDA and the IDS provider who insisted instead on opening the RSA door, and it was premature. He needed to be led along, given an opportunity to explore the type of job site in which he had expressed possible interest – maybe through some volunteering, or through some structured discussion with people at likely workplaces. Instead he got meetings and paperwork, which shut down the glimmer of interest he had expressed and gave him cold feet. This narrow-minded approach isn’t the path to Employment First, and it set him back rather than moving him forward. All he felt was a buildup of pressure and anxiety – the last thing he needed.
I haven’t written that much about RSA because so much of our experience has been on the DDA side. I’ve heard testimony and had conversations with any number of you whose problems with RSA have had more to do with efforts on post-secondary education, but our experience suggests the problems are at least as acute when someone needs to get a toehold on the first rung of competitive employment. Not everyone is suited to RSA’s current “off the shelf” employment options for people with disabilities. Finding the right option, especially for a young person at the cusp of adulthood, requires some real coordination between DDA and RSA, some creativity in developing an interest into a real job option – and the ability to communicate with the person being served not in the way the bureaucracy dictates, but in the way that works for them.