Moving in a New Direction

Written by, Eric Reynolds

Eric ReynoldsI suppose my mid-life crises were different from what many experience. My career path had been that of a businessman and salesman. In 2009 I was wrapped up in a real estate brokerage and watching the real estate world collapse around me. I overheard my wife talking with one of her friends about her husband’s dissatisfaction with his job running a “day program” or “sheltered workshop” for people with disabilities. I had a vague idea of what he did for work and thought to myself, “He doesn’t know how good he has it. The State will always pay their bills and they will never run out of money.” I determined that I should check into his business and he agreed to let me spend three days at his program in South Salt Lake. I left each day with a big grin on my face! I determined I would start a similar business in Utah County.

Through a series of painful and truly incredible events, I ended up as the Executive Director of Ability and Choice Services, Inc., which is owned by Dan Fazzini, Ph.D. out of Tulsa, OK. The company serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities including people with brain injuries. We have three facilities in Utah located in South Salt Lake, Draper and Tooele.

In these facilities we offer a variety of work, educational and activity based opportunities for people with a variety of disabilities. In addition, our company offers supported living and supported employment services. These services help individuals who need one-on-one services to assist them in their home or work environments. Since taking the helm a few years ago, the company has grown rapidly. We now serve over 150 people in various capacities. We provide people with disabilities a safe, clean, and positive environment where they can continue to grow, socialize with others, participate in community events, and even make some money doing simple tasks. However, some national movements and trends are about to change our business quite dramatically.

“In 1999 a case went before the Supreme Court which resulted in a landmark decision for people with disabilities. The court concluded that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act gives people with disabilities the right to receive services in the most integrated setting possible.” Olmstead v. L.C. 527 U.S.581, 607 (1999)

A subsequent lawsuit in Oregon (Lane v. Kitzhaber) argued that the State of Oregon was “unnecessarily segregating the named plaintiffs and members of the plaintiff class in sheltered workshops.” It further argued that individuals with disabilities working with other individuals with disabilities is a segregation and a violation of the ADA and that these individuals with disabilities must have substantial interaction with non-disabled peers outside of a workshop environment.

As an activity and work based day program running in a workshop environment, it is becoming increasingly clear that the rules are quickly changing our business. Under direction of the federal government, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Utah State Division of Services for People with Disabilities (DSPD) is developing a plan to help transition day programs, like ours, to better support individuals with disabilities in an integrated setting. This formal plan is to be released by the end of this year. The execution of this plan is to take up to four years. To get a jump start on this process, we have been interviewing the people we work with to better support them in their employment goals and objectives.

The contract/piece work we have performed in the past has been wonderful, but it is group work and is performed in a segregated environment. This group work in a segregated environment does not reflect the individual desires and interaction with non-disabled peers outside of our centers that the law is now requiring.  I expect this change to be fairly difficult.  A great deal of effort will be expended in promoting new activities in job sampling, job skills development and job placement.

“Customized Employment” in an integrated work setting with people who do not have disabilities is the goal. To find customized employment, we will consider a person’s interests, skill set, and the available opportunities that might work for them. We recognize, probably better than most, this proposition may seem like an impossible task for everyone we work with. I believe we will find successful employment for many individuals. However, we recognize that some individuals may not ever find successful employment in an integrated setting, but giving those people the opportunity to at least try can and should be considered successful. This success, I believe, will result in greater life fulfillment and happiness for those we serve.

What happens to day programs in the end? I’m not completely sure. My best guess is that they become employment training centers. This would be a place where a person with a disability, who is not currently employable, would go to learn new skills and abilities that will help make them more employable in the future. As DSPD introduces their plan in the next month or so, this will all become much clearer.

Working with people with disabilities can be challenging. However, I have found it is also super rewarding emotionally. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be a small part of the lives of those we serve. I’m grateful for those who day-in and day-out are watching over those we love. To those of you in this service, I say: Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for your gentleness. Thank you for your understanding patience. Thank you for being one of life’s true heroes. You are the difference!

Thank you, Eric, for your article. I also add my thanks the the staff at Ability and Choice Services. Mark enjoys their friendship. I appreciate the safe, clean and positive atmosphere there and see daily how hard the staff works to meet each individual’s needs. Since Mark enjoys going there for the work aspect and not the activities, we are disappointed the contract work is coming to an end. With Mark’s seizures and physical limitations, I feel Mark is better supported in a segregated environment where staff is trained to deal with his and those of each individual with special needs. Working is very important to Mark and gives him self-worth. It’s difficult for me to understand how the integrated setting will work and be capable of meeting the special needs of some individuals with disabilities, including Mark. It will be interesting to see how this program evolves. I hope Ability and Choice Services or DSPD will give us an update on the development of this program. I’m keeping a positive attitude about the change—remembering that when one door closes another one opens.

Hope to see you on Tuesday— we’ll have tips on Customized Employment.

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