My first “professional job” was as a job coach. A job coach, or an employment specialist (my official job title) is the front line worker in the field of supported employment. Supported employment is a way of supporting people with disabilities in work situations.
The main work situation for a job coach to support is an individual with a job in the regular workforce. I helped the person find a job and get training that worked for them. Our team usually worked with developmentally disabled people, but supported employment is also helpful to people with physical disability and mental illness.
The assumption behind all of this is that most people with disabilities can work if companies, job coaches, and the individuals are doing their part. I love this assumption. I love the idea of having this goal that all three parts of that job equation have to keep working towards. Because it’s true, most people can work. And it’s good for everyone if they do.
I’m not talking about people who have taken disability for some reason after having been in the work force—I don’t know much about that. I’m talking about people who have gone through their lives watching other people take jobs for granted. There is a whole largely untapped pool of potential employees.
Some of the benefits to employers are employees who are less likely to job hop, tax benefits, improved co-worker moral and company image. And if a company looks at its positions and processes to see how they could be modified to hire someone with a disability, work flow can be improved.
I was not a very good job coach.
Looking back, it would have been so much better if I had learned more about task analysis so that I could recommend better job modifications and accommodations. I had some training on that, but I couldn’t imagine asserting myself as the expert to the companies I was trying to convince to hire my consumers. That’s business analyst stuff. Now it sounds fun; then, it was overwhelming.
It would have been so much better if I had had the outgoing, energetic oomph of one of my co-workers. She couldn’t help but network, and she was always on the beat, zooming in and out of the office in a whirl of interviews and first days on the job. Her sunny, hard-working attitude reflected well on the potential employees she represented. Hiring managers were helpless before it.
Job coaches generally spend a lot of time with the new employee during their first weeks on the job, providing extended one-on-one training that would be expensive for the employer to provide. It was intuitive, rewarding work for me. I like the problem-solving, and responding to what the person needed in order to do well. Sometimes it was a job aid, or an extra break, or retraining on a skill. But, often it was something more elusive. My inexperience frustrated me.
Still, I learned a ton. Here’s a short list:
1.Redirection isn’t just for kids.
I learn redirection when I was trained as a daycare teacher and used it throughout my job coaching experience–instead of scolding, redirect misbehaving kids to other activities without acknowledging the bad behavior. I constantly learn new ways to apply this. Change the subject. Stop talking about what someone shouldn’t do and talk about what they should do or what they are doing well.
This even seems to work for solving a thorny problem, like improving a process or making headway on an overwhelming project. If I spend just a little time enjoying the part of the task that is going well, it usually helps me think of a way to fix the problem area.
2.It matters what I do.
I worked with one woman to get a job at a daycare center. She ended up reporting two other workers who were using excessive force with the kids. If she and I hadn’t persevered to find a daycare that could see her worth, it might have taken longer to help those kids.
That same woman later ran away from her sister’s home with an older man who was probably taking advantage of her disability. Her sister thought that if I could talk to the woman, she might listen to me. Maybe she would have and maybe not—there wasn’t a way for me to get ahold of her. But it struck me what a responsibility I had.
Now I write instructions for medical devices and programs that influence patient safety. It makes me think twice when people say no one uses the help. Of course I want them to, but it’s a big responsibility. And as soon as it doesn’t matter what I do, I’ll go do something else.
3.People need to feel capable.
I worked with a lot of people who bagged groceries and washed dishes—and those jobs transformed them. Absolutely everyone benefits when that happens.
I’m going to draw a line here between that and our software users. What’s user error? Isn’t it usually our failure to structure the information (job) so that the user can be successful? I think this also applies to teams. How can a team get more capable if management is afraid to let them make mistakes?
4.There are types of intelligence, and a spectrum of intelligence per type.
Contrary to popular snark, there isn’t an invisible line with smart people on one side and dumb people on the other. People can have all kinds of combinations of intelligences, all kinds of strengths and weaknesses.
There is a medical definition–an IQ cutoff–for mental retardation. There’s an IQ cutoff for genius, too. But people have IQs all up and down that scale. The same is true for the types intelligence that don’t have such well-known scales, such as emotional intelligence.
My customer at the day care center was a whiz at punctuality and remembering details. I, ahem, was not. I’ve gotten much better, but there it is.
5.Everyone needs an accommodation.
I’m probably not surprising any managers here, but even your best performers may have some area where you might cut them some slack or compensate for their inability somehow. People should work on their weaknesses, but sometimes a person is only going to get so much better at something. You might be surprised by how much the person can help you gauge that if you talk to them about it.
What accommodations do our audiences need? Is the manual locked in the supervisor’s office during the night shift? Is this device commonly used by people who are on medication that clouds their vision? How will we know if we don’t research?
6.Accessibility and inclusiveness benefit everyone.
In tech comm we are getting familiar with the idea that web sites and documents that are structured well, with large print and good contrast, are easier for everyone to use, not just people with disabilities. The same is true of a workplace that is inclusive.