Feature Issue on Engaging Communities Underrepresented in Disability Research
Providing Employment Supports in a Diverse Community
Silver Spring, Maryland is often referred to as one of the most diverse communities in the United States. A visit to a local restaurant or showing up at a local high school football game is all it takes to recognize that the assets of this community come from its diversity. While cultural, socio-economic, religious, and household diversity can be found across the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, nowhere is it more noticeable than in Silver Spring. SEEC’s stakeholders, including staff, people supported, and employer partners, reflect that diversity.
SEEC (Seeking Employment, Equality, and Community for people with developmental disabilities) is a progressive, nonprofit agency providing a wide range of services that help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to live lives of their choosing. Our goal is to become a community of excellence that honors, respects, and assists people with IDD as they direct their lives towards work, relationships, recreation, and personal development. Our role is to create supports for people to identify their hopes and dreams, and access the resources needed to achieve them.
Robert Gitterman, right, at his job as an usher at the Kennedy Center, with Zakia Alexander, Gitterman’s former job coach. Alexander was recently promoted to a new role and Gitterman’s support services are being reduced as he takes on more job responsibilities.
Integrating our diverse assets into SEEC’s work is paramount to the success of the organization. One of the specific ways SEEC explores and acknowledges diversity is in the employment supports process. SEEC staff members take into consideration job seekers’ contributions, assets, and lived experience in their employment journey. We begin with the discovery process, then move into job development, then initial placement, and finally to long-term support. Opportunities to consider a person’s unique background are present at each of the four steps.
SEEC’s discovery strategy starts with getting to know a person in the place they feel most comfortable, which is most often their home. Traditional employment practices are deficit based, relying heavily on reviewing the job seeker’s disability files, such as a high school Individual Education Plan or an adult services Individual Service Plan. These plans traditionally focus on what the person can’t do, and their assistance needs. To work through the discovery process means to discover the person’s contributions, assets, and unique characteristics, which include their family culture. This means asking questions differently and observing people in the place they are the most independent and comfortable; places where we can learn the most about their lived experiences. Starting with a visit to their home offers a glimpse into family traditions and resources, and helps form a relationship and an understanding of the job seeker within their family’s culture.
The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) Customized Employment Competency Components document provides the best guidance for employment professionals seeking to serve a diverse group of job seekers. Specifically, three of the ODEP competencies stand out as critical: Respecting and relating to others; collecting, interpreting, and using information; and having a positive and open approach. While none of these competencies speaks specifically to having cultural competency or being trained in a specific cultural background, these three overall competencies lend themselves to learning about the uniqueness of each job seeker.
Some of the experiences of SEEC’s employment professionals demonstrate how the competencies are used. One staff member shared details of a home visit, when the job-seeker’s mother had cooked a full meal of delicious Indian dishes. While they shared the meal, the family was open to talking about their son, their traditions, and their expectations. They also shared their connections with people from their temple, which eventually led to a job for the young man seeking work.
Another example is a young woman who was born in the Middle East. Staff members recognized the need for this young woman, who is Muslim, to be supported by a woman in the job-seeking process. The relationship established between the job seeker and her staff member was the critical component that led the family to trust the process and allow their daughter to work outside the home. The employment professional she was paired with, who was also Muslim, understood the family’s needs and was able to support their daughter in her transition to work within a county office where she has now worked for seven years. In another instance, a job seeker was living in a multi-generational home with 10 family members all sharing three bedrooms. The home visit revealed that in this home, because of the cost of the water bill and the number of people using the resources, the job seeker was only able to wash his uniform and shower once a week. His employment staff worked to find him a position in a hotel where he could shower each day and wash his uniform after each shift, leaving him prepared for work the next day.
Each of these stories exemplifies how critical it is to understand the lived experience of every job seeker. Employment professionals must develop a trusting relationship with the family, as well as the job seeker. In our work at SEEC, we’ve experienced situations where family members have asked that any interactions happen away from the home, as parents felt the home neighborhood was not safe enough for the staff to visit. Respecting the wishes of the family and finding an alternative place to meet and develop a relationship was critical to creating a working partnership with the job seeker, staff, and the family.
Considering family history, culture, living situation, and expectations is critical to a successful employment opportunity. Empowering our employment professionals with the skills to develop relationships, respect diversity, and communicate high expectations is the key to overcoming the disparities in workforce participation for people of different cultures.