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Everyday, millions of conversations take place across the country. Employers ask, teachers tell, and friends talk. Communication, it is said, is the key to success. For many people with developmental disabilities who cannot speak, the lack of basic communication is an ever present barrier in developing relationships, finding a job, being hired, or performing a job optimally. Other than a few exceptions, people who cannot talk do not work. An inability to effectively communicate with peers, employers and support staff most often leads to stereotyping, social rejection and failure in the workplace. Frustration caused by an inability to express basic needs becomes a “behavior problem” to be fixed, rather than recognized as a signal that someone has something important to say but cannot.
Over the past decade, an emphasis on community involvement and independence has led to increased integration of individuals with and without disabilities in daily activities, but service organizations have not been equipped to build employment opportunities for people with disabilities who are non verbal. Recognizing technological advances in assistive communication and the growing need for community training, InAlliance constructed the Communicate to Work program in partnership with the Communication Technology Education Center (CTEC).
Since 1952, InAlliance has been on the cutting edge of programs and technologies for adults with developmental disabilities. Originally founded by parents of children with disabilities, InAlliance was incorporated in 1968 and currently serves over 400 adults with developmental disabilities in Sacramento and surrounding counties annually. The InAlliance mission supports the belief that people with developmental disabilities have an absolute right and responsibility to participate fully and equally in society and to maximize their quality of life. InAlliance is committed to providing services that contribute to the independence of people with developmental disabilities through job placement, employment training and the facilitation of supports necessary for integrated employment and community living.
CTEC provides services in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) in the Sacramento region. AAC is any method that helps a person communicate and participate more fully in community life. It may use either electronic or non-electronic devices such as communication books, boards or voicing devices, IPADS, IPODS, and computers using words, symbols or letters. CTEC provides assessments, training, workshops and “techsploration”- an opportunity to try out communication devices.
The Communicate to Work Program is an effort to increase integrated employment options by enhancing the communicative abilities of adults with developmental disabilities in the Sacramento region. Of special interest are transitioning age youth with autism who are entering into employment for the first time. In January of 2010, the program offered the first of 30 training sessions for organizations who serve people with developmental disabilities, adults who have communication deficits, and members of social and employment networks who live and work with people with developmental disabilities. In addition to the year-long training sessions, the program includes two state of the art conferences, custom designed consultations, and ongoing mentorship opportunities.
A few of the discoveries that drove InAlliance towards the development of the Communicate to Work project included:
• An assessment completed by the California Department of Rehabilitation indicating a considerable need for services for individuals with communication deficits in the Sacramento region.
• Service providers noting that people with communication deficits are “stuck at their functioning level because no one has knowledge about technology that could work with people’s strengths.”
• Family members observing that “a mobile communication device would greatly improve access to communication outside of the home and in the workplace.”
• And most importantly, the opinions of the people in need of assistance who explain, “Life these days is hard anyway, but so much more when you don’t have a voice to communicate your needs.”
Communicate to Work speaks to the goals of maximizing employment and the independence of Californian’s with developmental disabilities. With increased training of local organizations that provide employment placement and training, InAlliance expects to achieve an increase in the quantity and quality of positive employment outcomes. According to Diana DeRodeff, Executive Director of InAlliance, “This project will build the capacity of local agencies to serve a more diverse population. They will not only have increased awareness of the technology available to participants with communication deficits, but will have the skills to provide better job matching, job placement and coaching services to the population, using this technology.”
To date, 400 individuals from 11 organizations have participated in the Communicate to Work program. This training and consultation has resulted in increased opportunities for integrated employment for adults with developmental disabilities with limited capacity to functionally communicate. The outcomes have been achieved through increased awareness and communication capacity on the part of the person with the disability, their social network with whom they can better connect, and their service provider, who assists them in job placement and training.
“To have as our focus the remediation of the behavioral problems of people who have developmental disabilities has been short sighted at best,” says DeRodeff who continues, “Providing an individually designed communication system that opens someone’s ‘voice’ so that they can be heard, so that their wishes can be respected, so that their dreams can be acknowledged and encouraged, is the best possible outcome one could ever imagine. These new communicators are connecting with their families and coworkers, many for the first time, in a thrilling way. The lesson for everyone involved in this project has been that there is no reason to abandon the voices of people with disabilities. We should never contribute to the challenges faced by people with disabilities by limiting their voice.”
Disclosure: Jessica Bean is the public relations coordinator for InAlliance