Frontline Initiative: Direct Support Professionals Supporting People's Employment
The Man Who Can: Transitioning to Work in His Community
Cameron Olson takes a short break after demolition of an old, defunct staircase. He is working in an area that will become the cellar for an up-and-coming restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota.
I have been in this field for nearly 10 years with work experience in residential programs, in building day support services (Home and Community Based Services (HCBS)), facility-based subminimum wage paid work, and now in community integrated employment (CIE) and meaningful community engagement activities. I recently became certified in customized employment. I have seen a lot of exciting changes in how we support people with disabilities to find and keep jobs. Cameron Olson and I are sharing here about a journey of discovery and exploration from sheltered work to community-integrated employment. I have his permission to share his journey with you, but it is really a transformation story for both of us as we’ve worked together to find him a meaningful job in our community.
Our journey intersected when my work and his support program came together nearly five years ago. I came to know Cameron when I joined his support team to coordinate his day support services.
After graduating from high school, Cameron began attending an in-building program with services to help him advance his skills in community living and employment. He attended this program for 17 years until the program closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic. At that time, Cameron did mail and shredding in a facility-based job where he was paid subminimum wage. Occasionally, he would leave his day support services for the day to do activities around town, but this wasn’t very often; there were constraints, including lack of transportation. He worked for a while at a local company in an enclave—a work experience where you work with a small group of people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities at a location away from the program. Cameron and I got to know each other well by spending time together when I supported him with his day and employment support services. I was able to understand how he communicated. Cameron expresses himself without speaking verbally. He uses gestures, American Sign Language, body language, and an iPad. Together, we were always looking for opportunities to do something meaningful with his days, but most of his week was spent inside our program building.
My journey to being an advocate for community-based programming has not been without challenges. In-building programs provide predictability, routine, and colleagues who can discuss and problem-solve when needed. In many ways, these programs are comfortable. But they often do not invite opportunities to change and grow for people receiving support and for staff. Yet in my work to design and create community-based opportunities over the past two years, I became aware of the power that community experiences have for the people I support, like Cameron.
Growing up, Cameron would do everything his dad and brothers would do. His father told me how Cameron would get on the roof to repair missing roof tiles. That is when I wondered, “is there anything that Cameron can’t do?” My mind started to turn. How could I help Cameron find ways to use his skills?
Cameron Finds a Job
Cameron’s father also helped me rethink my work. He is an advocate for Cameron to try new things. Through him I discovered Cameron’s interest in learning how things work and how to repair them when they are broken. Growing up, he would do everything his dad and brothers would do. Cameron’s father told me how Cameron would get on the roof to repair missing roof tiles. That is when I wondered, “is there anything that Cameron can’t do?” My mind started to turn. How could I help Cameron find ways to use his skills? I wanted to ensure he had meaningful work, a scenario that would respect his sensory needs, and help him to be a valued member of the community. It felt like a tall order. Yet, I realized from my years of working with Cameron that he can do anything he puts his mind to, with the right opportunity and experience. I talked with his support team about different options that would work for Cameron to find a job in the community. Cameron seemed up for the challenge. He is a type of person who doesn’t feel the want of money. He looks for community inclusion, sensory needs, and meaningful work. With that in mind, I looked for an employment opportunity that fit his needs.
During the early parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cameron stayed home most of the time. When he was ready to come back to our program, we started working together on a weekly basis. At first, Cameron was getting used to being out of his home again. We went to some of his favorite places to help him feel comfortable. There were times when he would not get out of the car. But after a few weeks, we started doing some of the activities that we did before, like hiking, going to the beach to skip rocks on the lake, and eating at his favorite breakfast spot. Cameron was getting more comfortable with going out into the world again. My next task was to help him think about employment, and how he could do something worthwhile and contribute to his community. Cameron is a person who is very much “go with the flow.” He will try anything once and if he doesn’t like it, he will communicate that with his iPad, ASL or body language.
Before the pandemic, Cameron worked for a local company doing demolition as a member of an enclave group. Cameron used different tools and equipment to get the job done. He enjoyed the work and did it well. He was an employee in good standing, but he had not worked since November 2019. I approached his previous employer, Easy Living, LLC, to inquire about employment opportunities. Cameron went back to work in April 2022.
Today, Cameron works five days a week, doing property and environmental maintenance. He is a valued team member. He enjoys working and communicates effectively with his employer, co-workers, career coach (DSP) and support team, and family. He does his work well and is appreciated for his contributions. At first, I worked with Cameron while he was getting established at this job. Then I started to train other career coaches who could support Cameron to succeed at work. Many of these coaches had worked with Cameron before the pandemic so there was little time lost in helping them get to know one another.
Cameron’s Story Helped Me Change My Mindset
Working with Cameron has reinforced for me that integrated employment is the preferred and most successful place for people to learn and thrive. With the help of his team and the strong advocacy of his father, Cameron advanced from working in an enclave environment to being successfully employed in community integrated employment. Being in the community helped him advance his employment success more effectively and efficiently.
I am committed to finding opportunities for the people we support to work and be part of our community. My work with Cameron and others in the community has opened doors and possibilities beyond what we thought possible for the people our program supports. I have helped individuals advance to independent work. People have learned to use transportation to work. Another person has become a member of a senior citizen group at the local community center. The community has embraced and facilitated success for people beyond what was thought possible in the past. My work is more exciting than ever, and I am inspired to assist more people to be part of their community.
All of us want to feel valued, to contribute to the world, and to be appreciated. It is rewarding to have supported Cameron to experience this in his community. I have experienced with him the many benefits of integrated employment in his community. He has been able to reach his goals with support. It is a very rewarding journey, where I needed to shift my mindset from all the reasons “why not,” to all the reasons Cameron could. And he did.