November 30, 2015

In another working life, I was employed as a Manufacturing Manager for a supplier to the automotive industry.  This was in the early days of “outsourcing,” when entire product lines were sometimes being transferred from an automaker’s internal operations to an outside supplier – and with each product line for which we would take responsibility, a Project Manager was assigned.  In many instances, I was the liaison for these product launches between our company and the Automaker; in one particular case, the Project Manager was an amicable gentleman who had risen through the ranks to his current status, which he enjoyed immensely – but he could also be quite stern on occasion.  He was big on deadlines.  And for every one that I was assigned, I completed it ahead of schedule – except one.  It was a small issue, really; a July deadline for an August launch, and in the grand scheme of things not a significant job.  When I was late, I remember pleading my case that it wasn’t that big a deal, and it would be done in plenty of time.  First, he glared across the table and dispensed a round of virulent criticism to make sure all in the room knew that he was unhappy, and this was a mistake that should not be repeated. Then he smiled at me; and I’ll always remember what he said:

“You’re still late, Todd.  In this business, you do what you say you’re gonna do, when you say you’re gonna do it, or it all falls apart.  Might be a week late when it doesn’t matter, then it turns into a month late when it does matter.  You’re a smart kid, you oughta know that.  Of course it’s only July.  But it’ll be Christmas before you know it.”

I have replayed this scene in my mind countless times – whenever assurance is given or a deadline looms. The lessons taken away have to do with integrity of commitment, and urgency of delivery. And I believe there should be a sense of urgency in our minds just now, in this dynamically shifting regulatory landscape. For those organizations working with state vocational rehabilitation agencies and intermediate school districts, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is a game-changing legislative initiative; implementation has already begun, although the final regulations that will provide more definitive guidance are not due until Spring 2016. WIOA clearly directs the focus of services to competitive, integrated employment outcomes, and restricts the use of special minimum wage certificates. For those organizations providing services funded by Medicaid, a transformation from facility-based to community-based employment is also a clear mandate through the Home and Community Based Services regulations, and Michigan’s Statewide Transition Plan for compliance. Based on existing timelines, this transition will take place over the course of the next few years, culminating in Spring 2019.  Assessments of service settings, and potential remediation of non-compliance, will take place during this transition period – the end of which seems, at first pass, like a long time from now.  But unless we, as an industry, embrace these changes – while still advocating for consumer choice within a person-centered, self-determined service delivery system, we will not be in a position to meet the needs and raised expectations of the people we serve and their families.

This is why MARO wholeheartedly embraced the concept of Employment First nearly 2 years ago – identifying competitive employment in an integrated setting as the optimal outcome for individuals with disabilities.  When Michigan’s Executive Order on Employment First was issued last week, MARO applauded Lt. Governor Calley for establishing a framework recognizing this optimal outcome, as well as honoring the choices and goals of individuals along their path to that optimal outcome. But this provision honoring consumer choice in the Executive Order in no way represents a defensive posture, or protection of the status quo – instead, it places the focus on direction of services squarely where it belongs: the choice of the consumer. MARO fully supports competitive employment in an integrated setting as the optimal outcome for individuals with disabilities receiving employment services in Michigan. We also believe that those receiving services should have choices from a menu of service options in pursuit of this desired goal – inclusive of services in a facility-based setting – in a person-centered, self-determined service delivery system.  In our view, one does not contradict the other, and we can continue to push toward the optimal levels of independence for the individuals we serve – doing all in our power to enable a competitive integrated employment outcome, and still offering choices to each individual on their path toward that outcome.

Now is the time to feel the urgency that arises whenever firm resolve is required to achieve a challenging objective, or whenever a deadline is established – no matter how far off on the horizon.  We must continue to push for the highest level of independence and inclusion for individuals with disabilities – because this delivers on the promise of our mission. And we must remain diligent in that pursuit – because it will be Christmas before you know it.