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Category Archives: Reports

Especially for Parents: On Special Abilities and Overcomings

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Especially for Parents: On Special Abilities and Overcomings

– by Vesna N. Rafaty

I recall how in June 2014, at the Art Picturehouse in Cambridge, England, I viewed a  documentary film on the behind-the-scenes of the touring theatrical production of Shakespeare’s play Richard III. The doc is entitled Now – In the Wings on a World Stage.   To prepare for the role, Kevin Spacey, who plays Richard III, donned various heavy contraptions on his body to simulate Richard’s  disabilities which included scoliosis and other complex disabilities.  It was initially thought that Kevin had to simulate 17 disabilities to accurately portray Richard. Eventually, however, Kevin, the consummate actor, acted the role convincingly with minimal external paraphernalia, including a cane, a hunchback and a limp.  To do this Kevin stated that he prepared mentally by imagining how long it would take an individual such as Richard to overcome his disabilities and make them a strength, a man who was called “every name in the book” due to his disabilities, but also one born with very high ambition and a self-perception of royalty. The pivotal moment for Kevin, and collectively for the entire stage company, was the realization that for Richard III, the mere act of standing was in and of itself, and without more, an act of aggression, and an overcoming of disability that gave way to the underlying strength of resolve of the man.  With that insight and empathy, Kevin Spacey was able to masterfully deliver King Richard III to the stage.    
    You must be wondering what in the world the above story, one that includes a complex, villainous king, has to do with special needs youth in transition.  In our parent training entitled Take a Look  Ahead – Empowerment for the Transition, Dylan and I teach the importance of self-discovery for the job-seeking youth – the importance of becoming self-knowing, knowing one’s interests and identifying one’s super-skills.  This self-knowing helps the job seeker to self-advocate better and stand out during the job seeking process, including job interviews.  We invite parents to help identify their son’s or daughter’s special hidden ability/abilities that co-exist(s) with the disability, maybe even because of the disability. Special abilities or strengths, when identified, help to validate the individual in his/her overcoming. Once identified, strengths can be nurtured and developed.  
    Loving parents usually know best the special ability that is present right alongside with their son’s or daughter’s disability.  Parents intimately know their son’s and daughter’s overcomings.  My son Dylan, born with a significant hearing impairment, was also born with an innate self-confidence, aspiration to leadership, desire for inclusion and sincere interest in and love of people. One of Dylan’s daily overcomings is his strength of ‘seeing-hearing’ people, empathizing, engaging and communicating with them, despite the profundity of his hearing impairment and the difficulties of experience associated with it and living with its accommodations. It feels good that Dylan is using and further refining his strengths in his role as entrepreneur at DylanListed and as advocate for job seekers with disabilities.  
    Our vision is that the special abilities, the overcomings of individuals with disabilities, are ones all employers will value and employ in an American workplace becoming transformed by greater utilization of individuals with disabilities who self-identify.  
 Let’s Work Inclusively!℠
PS:  We are requesting permission from the film distributor to post and stream on this site the relevant video clip from the documentary film Now: In the Wings on a World Stage.

Who will teach me? Toward Employer as Educator

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Most hiring managers don’t see their primary role as educators or a role as educator at all. Education – that’s someone else’s job, something a qualified candidate brings to the company, a qualification for a job. And that viewpoint, at least I propose, contributes to the talent gap problem[1], the persistent low labor participation rate by individuals with disabilities[2] and the relatively poor job satisfaction/engagement by workers.[3] My thought, derived in part from my influencers, the writings of educational theorist John Dewey and professor of psychology at Stanford University Dr. Carol Dweck (see below), is that if more companies, including their first-line supervisors, hiring managers and the C-suite, would adopt a mindset of an educator, the American workplace would be transformed in positive ways. The workplace would be better prepared for the engagement-seeking, values-driven, learning Millennials[4] as well as the differently-abled workers. It’s ironic that business experts and others pay lip service to the need for a “learning organization”[5] for a company to compete in the globally-interconnected marketplace and yet there is not a widespread recognition that a learning organization also means a recognition of employer as educator and an essence of employment as education.

Dylan and I are co-creating content for an original disability diversity training (that Dylan will deliver) that will form part of NextCareer Consulting’s assimilation training (for employees and employers) as per DylanListed’s partnership with NextCareer.[6] Assimilation training is the ‘soft skills’ training aspect of successfully onboarding and integrating into the company an employee with a disability, with the goal of high productivity and retention. One of our chosen teachable themes in assimilation is that of mindset, more specifically, that a ‘growth’ mindset as essential to successful assimilation: A growth mindset on the part of the incoming employee (a person with a disability) and a growth mindset on the part of the hiring manager, immediate supervisor of the company receiving the employee. For this perspective we borrow ideas from Dr. Carol S. Dweck’s ideas in her book, Mindset   ̶ The New Psychology of Success. On a related note, in Dylan’s memoir/book, Occupy Special Education – Children Should be Seen and Heard, this theme appears although Dylan does not use the term mindset. In the book, touching on Dylan’s experience as a special needs student, there is the following if/then message: If no growth mindset on the part of teachers, then a disengaged student. We suggest the following: If no growth mindset on the part of the immediate supervisor, then a disengaged, less productive worker and lower employee retention rates.

What exactly is a growth mindset? I use the term broadly to mean attitudes and processes that demonstrate (1) a belief in human potential and development and (2) that lead to growth of an individual, namely growth in experience, skills, talents, knowledge, insights, self-control and self-directedness.[7] And it is widely accepted that a growth mindset is fundamental in education. It is important too in the employment context.

Company leaders see themselves as ultimately responsible for ensuring delivery of quality goods and services that customers want at a price that ensures an optimized return to shareholders while preserving the company’s values and culture. I believe that for the average first-line supervisor, such a framing of the role of management is too attenuated and far removed from the workaday challenges of effectively managing employees in diverse work teams. What is needed is a new more accessible framing of the role of management in a company.  I propose that embracing the role of employer as educator may be helpful.

Government-industry-academia partnerships in the area of job-driven education are a relatively recent ‘in’ phenomenon in the US. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)[8] is an example. NextCareer Consulting’s innovative business model is another example. The idea is to educate future workers for a particular, identified job and not merely educate for life or for a hypothetical future employment situation. A driver[9] for such partnerships is the need to ensure a sustainable, ready, skilled talent pool. Such partnerships leverage talents, resources of each party; however, they are not easy to implement and are limited in number because of the increasingly limited available government funding. Because such partnerships are not easy to implement and given the urgency of the talent gap problem, I argue here that the education mindset inherent in such partnerships needs to be adopted inside of the employer company, and carry over into the company, before the trainee/candidate arrives and after the trained/employee is assimilated within the company.

What does a growth mindset look like in practice? There are of course numerous aspects to it.  I’ll propose only one for now to make one point. Imagine a job description that reads something like this: “On this job (in this role, or the like), you will learn to do Activity A (B,C, D…) very well because you will perform it(them) on a frequent or regular basis.” This learning-directed re-framing of job descriptions will attract qualified candidates who want to do those activities, because either they have done them (so they are confident), they like doing them, they want to improve in doing such activities, and/or the activities are part of their desired career. Implicit in this type of job description is that the company culture affords you the conditions to learn and improve.  Do you want more confident, motivated, impassioned workers? Write [essential and preferred] functional skills-based, learning opportunity-focused job descriptions as part of a growth mindset you adopt in your work teams.

Let’s get back to the real world. Job descriptions do not resemble the above, not by a long shot. Instead they are an impressive repository of job requirements, written in the unique vernacular of the employer, formidable even to the most experienced candidate. Why is this? Is there another way to give a candidate an accurate glimpse into the company and the job while attracting the best candidates? It’s worth thinking about this question. I merely suggest here that as a company begins assimilation of employees with disabilities a fresh look at job descriptions (as well as job design) with a growth mindset in mind can make a positive difference (more efficient recruitment, higher productivity, higher retention) for the employee and the company.

From the viewpoint of the first-line supervisor, ‘work,’ as embodied in the typical job description, is the urgency to daily deliver certain work product through work teams; however, from the viewpoint of the non-managerial employee, ‘work’[10] seen as ‘employment as an education,’ is actually a more natural, accessible and positive framing of the essence of employment. How so? Employees do stuff ̶ they make, assemble, test, package, offer, market, sell, distribute, create, publish, advise, improve, write, sketch, design, innovate, problem-solve, lead. And how do we learn? We learn by doing. So, the essence of employment is learning through practice. If only the immediate supervisor would see it this way too. This learning with practice mindset, which implies a continuous improvement mindset, we believe is a winning, inclusion-promoting mindset that prepares the organization for successful assimilation of qualified differently-abled individuals. That is why Dylan and I chose to talk about mindset in our assimilation training.

And, if, for the moment, you agree that the essence of employment is education, what then is the role of the employer as educator. Here, I borrow ideas directly from John Dewey[11]: The role of the educator is that of protector of conditions (and attitudes) conducive to [an employee’s personal] growth. And what are some of those conditions: valuing each employee, valuing differences, providing necessary tools and resources, giving timely, constructive feedback, having high (performance) expectations, meeting the employee where she is experientially. A closed mindset will never successfully recruit, train, advance and retain a candidate without a disability and most definitely will not do so for a candidate or employee who has a disability. And just as the software giant Microsoft discovered that designing its products for accessibility for 15% of its customer/users benefits 57% of its customer/users[12], we believe that a first-line supervisor assuming the role of educator, at least in part, benefits all employees, not just newly assimilated differently-abled employees.

Dylan and I look forward to starting a conversation on the theme of the importance of a growth mindset inside of American companies assimilating differently-abled employees. We surely will learn a lot along the way.


[1] See the 2013 book entitled The Talent Equation: Big Data Lessons for Navigating the Skills Gap and Building a Competitive Workforce by Matt Ferguson, Lorin Hitt and Prasanna Tambe.

[2] Visit http://www.dol.gov/odep/; http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/disabl.pdf

[3] Visit http://www.gallup.com/poll/165269/worldwide-employees-engaged-work.aspx .

[4] Hear, for example, a global VP at SAP speaking about Millennials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBb4RAD6JaA: 75% of the workforce in 2025 will be values-aware, values-driven, engagement-demanding Millennials (individuals born when technology was already pervasive).

[5] Peter Senge introduced the concept of a learning organization in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization and followed it with an update in his 1999 book  The Dance of Change: The Challenge to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. The idea advanced is that an organization must learn faster than the competition in order to excel in the marketplace today and that creating a learning organization is not easy.

[6] NextCareer℠ Consulting, based in Dallas, Texas, is focused on employability and employment of U.S. veterans and individuals with disabilities, including recruitment, technical training (through NextCareer’s partnership with the University of Texas at Dallas), placement with employers, on-going coaching and support and assimilation training (through partnerships) for employers, job seekers and students.

[7] In explaining the existence of two different mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, Prof. Dweck writes of a person’s fixed abilities and the person’s changeable abilities that can be developed through learning. Mindset refers to a choice in beliefs about one’s or another’s abilities as being fixed or capable of development.

[8] http://blog.dol.gov/2014/07/22/promoting-job-driven-training-and-american-opportunity/

[9] There are other drivers in initiatives to train, recruit individuals with disabilities, including tax incentives for employers and compliance with the laws (e.g., showing good faith efforts in increasing utilization of workers with disabilities per Section 503 law governing federal contractors/subcontractors).

[10] For the moment, I don’t dwell on the fact that the ‘gainful’ in gainful employment is an important aspect of work, employment. But studies consistently have shown that money is not a powerful, sustainable performance motivator after a candidate is hired. For that type of sustainable motivation, the work has to offer additional intrinsic factors.

[11] See ideas espoused in John Dewey’s 1938 classic, Experience & Education. John Dewey was a notable educational thinker and reformer. He suggests the idea that education is maximized if seen as “an intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinary experience…[this is part of his Principle of the Continuity of Experience…which I translate here to refer to “meeting the employee where she is…”].

[12] Mr. Hubbell shared this in a speech he delivered at a disability conference I attended.

“A Mom’s Voice”

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Last week was a changing week for me as Dylan’s mom and business partner. Below is the chain of events.

I moved to Florida a few months ago. Dylan stayed in Dallas. This meant Dylan finally had freedom to be Dylan, without my constant physical presence in our home. With me out of Dallas, Dylan rose to the challenge he set for himself in the business: He wanted to make quick impact in Dallas with job seekers and with employers. He initiated a flurry of impactful outreach to the community with a renewed vigor, something he was doing a long time before I moved to Miami. He shared some of that recent activity on social networks. Some were false starts, but, as can happen in entrepreneurship, the false start turned into new opportunity.

Meanwhile, reveling in the cultural diversity of Miami, in my spare time I undertook to volunteer tutor young foreign-born students in their study of French and English. To preserve his anonymity, I will name one of the students of English Adam. I observed Adam’s grandmother place his in-the-ear ear hearing aids just before he entered my classroom. In class, I quickly found Adam’s articulation to be quite poor, his intelligence sharp. I was taken aback that Adam does not wear hearing aids all of the time. I am certain that is contributing to the slowness in his speech development and English language skills. I discussed this issue with Adam’s family. I recalled how Dylan tolerated the over the ear hearing aids, even in the Dallas summers. He complained sometime, but generally tolerated them well. I recalled too how at ARDs the speech pathologist often reiterated how Dylan’s level of speech articulation is shocking given the level of his hearing loss. Tutoring Adam took me on an emotional deja-vu.

Then at a café I randomly engaged in a conversation with a man who is a hiring manager at a large enterprise. Over the years I have treated my random conversations with people at cafes as serious research, including research into issues that relate to the DylanListed Community. What I learned from that hiring manager however pained me. He runs an IT department and when asked if he hires IWDs, he matter-of-factly said no, not really. He added that his management does not ask him to do that and anyway his group requires highly specialized skills. He uses the LinkedIn channel for the hiring and it’s working for him. So he has no incentive to look into another channel for talent for his team. If it’s working why fix it? The problem of course is that it is not working for all. And his company is not tapping into talent that could potentially transform its development teams and approaches to IT solution development.

Later in the week I told Dylan I decided to fly to Dallas this week. I said I miss him and named agenda items for the business, things we might accomplish better in person than remotely over Skype. Dylan’s first reaction was a vehement: “NO. You focus on Miami. I am making progress here in Dallas.” Seeing me tear up at his reaction, what followed is magic, and irony and has taken us to another level in our mother-son and business relationships. Dylan told me that the DylanListed Community wants to hear my voice, the voice of a Mom. He said maybe being apart from him I might develop that voice faster, in Miami. He said being apart from me helped him to enjoy some freedom and strengthen his voice. And he also added that I was too busy being COO, I forgot to be a Mom (because I seemed to focus on the business-related impetus for the trip to Dallas). Impassioned he continued that the more he is in the community, the more he finds out that the community wants to hear my voice. DylanListed, he said, has at least two firm voices: his and mine, and “both matter.” And humbly he asserted that his voice is just not enough. Here is Dylan, who not long ago had no voice in special education classes, teaching me and defining my role in the company. Now that’s an empowered entrepreneur.

In the conversation with Dylan I owned that I had not spoken my mom’s voice yet in our DylanListed journey. While I was present all of the time, I was relatively silent. My style, incompatible with Dylan’s charismatic style of a socially network-plugged post-Millennial, is much more cautious and reserved: Recognizing and awed by the nuanced complexity of the disability issues as they relate to employment, I incessantly read, researched, reflected, re-read, wrote notes, started articles, and only when really ready, spoke. I was getting ready for more effective encounters with employers to speak their language when I pitch DylanListed.com. Dylan told me that my studied, careful style does not work for him and does not work in this business. There is urgency, he said. The DylanListed Community has too many needs and too few real opportunities and especially when it comes to employment. Shocked into recognition of the depth of Dylan’s feelings, I decided to write this piece now, not later, as my, a mom’s voice-in-progress. I need all of the moms and dads who read this to help me refine it in better service of the entire DylanListed Community.

I gave some thought to what would be my first message especially for parents of youth in special needs classes. It is this: Let your son or daughter find his/her voice. Ask questions, then listen. Learn to communicate with your son or daughter. Learn sign language if that’s what’s needed to engage with your son or daughter. Help them to find their interests, then nurture those interests. Give them experiences that will build and reinforce their functional skills. Step aside sometime. Step aside more often. Practice this while your son or daughter is still in school. Every time I did that with Dylan, I was astounded at the results. When Dylan and I attend youth job fairs and events, we try to engage with the youth, but the parents sometimes get in the way and speak for their son or daughter. For Dylan this was very frustrating. For me, it was flashback. I saw myself in those parents. I recalled the fatigue, the slow progress, joy in some milestones, my busy, working mom’s attitude of both hopefulness and lethargy at ARDs of Dylan’s school years. I too was an involved parent, meaning well, but was probably not very effective. And I surely spoke for Dylan often. But once you empower your son or daughter, as did my husband and I with Dylan, magic happens. And when you do that, get ready for that moment when your son or daughter is building YOU up and you step back in awe. It is coming. And, importantly, your son or daughter in the American workplace will transform the American workplace. You will see it and we believe in it.

But, for now, let’s get real about job-seeking. The pace of business is hyper fast today. Competitive pressures abound in the digital age that has democratized access to information and software that transforms business processes while globalization off-shored US manufacturing jobs. Employers want to hire the best, fast and then they want to retain the best. All job seekers, including job seekers with disabilities, must develop a series of experiences, including education, training and all kinds of work-type experiences, that make them a qualified candidate for a job. Yet, a qualified job seeker with a disability may not be the successful candidate, meaning there is simply no guarantee he/she will be hired. This is because US employers have no mandate to hire qualified individuals with disabilities. Sure, federal contractors and subcontractors are required to show affirmative action plans that demonstrate continuous improvement in the hiring and retention of IWDs and the new Section 503 law is causing a positive change1 in promotion of disability diversity in those types of businesses. But the new law is not a mandate. It is instead a management process with a clearly stated goal. Other businesses, inspired by internal champions, may adopt employer-driven initiatives for the hiring of IWDs. They exist, we found them, applaud them, seek them, but they are limited in number today. Dylan and I are committed to growing their numbers.
Our vision is that every serious job seeker with a disability, including SpEd students in high school, has access to training options that are job-linked and linked to actual job opportunities and incorporating an assimilation component (for job seeker/students and employers). That is the model that our newest partner in the training domain, NextCareer LLC, is pursuing and we delight in it and will actively participate with NextCareer. We are working to identify similar job-driven educational and training programs across the country and showcase them on the Universal Calendar feature of our application. You may need to travel to those locations if the training experience you seek is not available today in your area. The bottom line is this: Serious job seekers today need a job-seeking strategy and the will and ability to act on that strategy. Job seekers: Continue to get ready for the work situation of your dreams and help us to serve you better.

1 See for example Kessler Foundation video reporting on 2015 Employment and Disability Survey and a panelist referencing “nut beginning to crack” when it comes to recruitment of IWDs thanks to Section 503. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnOHlQm9suQ