Advocacy

Editors Note: This is a guest post on a topic that affects us all in one way or another. I received no compensation for posting this, but simply wanted to share it because I think it’s an important issue in our society.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), and this year’s theme is “A Strong Workforce Is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?” The topic couldn’t be more salient. A job is a precious commodity, but never more so in a slowly recovering economy; and it is up to each of us to insure that the economy we’re reviving is predicated on jobs that are open to all qualified applicants.

NDEAM is a national campaign sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). It originates from a 1945 law declaring the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” and has undergone several permutations since then. The campaign’s current primary aim is to educate and empower the public, employers, and individuals with disabilities in order to celebrate diversity and safeguard equal opportunity to work.

The first step we can all take this month is to acknowledge that the biggest barrier to employment many individuals with disabilities face is not always, in fact, a disability: it’s a stereotype.

Human beings are quick to label, and when a job applicant discloses a disability, the disclosure can often overshadow the applicant. Even conscientious employers may unintentionally focus more on the disclosure—or some of the most pervasive myths about hiring individuals with disabilities—than on the unique skills, knowledge, and other qualifications the applicant may possess.

Individuals with disabilities also face practical obstacles, such as transportation or scheduling issues. They may have had fewer opportunities to cultivate and refine skills essential to their fields, and their resumes may not reflect continuous employment (or the entirety of their professional worth). It is therefore the responsibility of employers and human resource administrators not only to fully adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but also to foster an inclusive professional culture.

This means more than disregarding pervasive myths, such as the idea that people with disabilities have a higher absentee rate than employees without disabilities or the fear that employing people with disabilities will be more expensive than not. In fact, according to a 2008 Rutgers University study, employees with disabilities have a lower absenteeism rate than other employees, and ODEP reported the same year that most large and mid-sized companies report no significant increase in cost with the addition of employees with disabilities.

A truly inclusive professional culture can only be attained when human resources administrators undergo appropriate training and education. Some of the requisite subjects in which human resources administration should be fluent include disability etiquette and “person-first” perspectives; ADA and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance; tax incentives that support the employment of individuals with disabilities; and all relevant ethical and legal perspectives on wages, benefits, and job-evaluation equity.

Human resources administrators can further enrich the workplaces they oversee by exploring the ways in which diversity and accessibility build business. For instance, an inclusive and vibrant workplace leads to greater employee engagement—which leads to greater productivity and fewer turn-overs. That’s because all people, with and without disabilities, flourish in communities that honor diversity, inclusion, and individual recognition. In other words, we all stand to benefit by adopting NDEAM’s mission not just in October, but every day of the year.

About the Author
Dafe Ojaide writes on human resources degree and training programs for University Alliance on behalf of Florida Tech. For more information visit Florida Tech.

Asperger Awareness: A Key To Success For IT And Technical Managers is a great introduction to the benefits and challenges that can arise when managing employees with Asperger’s or Asperger’s traits.

Although directed at those in the IT and technical areas, the information can certainly be applied to varying degrees in other settings (in fact, I think I may pass it on to my boss the next time she is in town!). As one of the reviewers put it, “Diversity once understood and valued can only enhance productivity and knowledge.

Plowright opens the book with a description of what Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is and also references the informal Autism Quotient (AQ) test developed by Simon Baron-Cohen to look for AS tendencies. As he points out, many individuals who gravitate to technical areas of work may have high AQ scores, or AS tendencies, even if not diagnosed with Asperger’s.

The labels aren’t as important as recognizing that people who have these tendencies often bring similar strengths and challenges to the working environment and will perform best when those are taken into account. Some of the strengths may be:

  • Problem-solving ability
  • Perfectionism (yes, this can be a good thing, especially in a technical environment!)
  • Persistence
  • Intelligence
  • Independent thinking and interdisciplinary insights
  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  • Focus and Attention to Detail

Of course, any of these could also be perceived as a weakness, such as when direct honesty comes across as arrogance. The author provides a number of examples of how AS traits could be aggravated by conditions within an office environment, such as extreme focus making it difficult to deal with too many demands or the sudden addition of new tasks, or with perfectionism causing deadlines to be missed.

He continues with a discussion on how to optimize an employee’s ability to work by reducing the stress caused by his or her innate tendencies. “The keys to reducing work related stress,” he says, “are order, clarity, interest, and autonomy.” I couldn’t agree more!

Many individuals who do quite well as part of a technical team face much greater challenges when given a management role. While acknowledging that this may not be a good move for everyone, Plowright offers some suggestions for how to handle a new supervisory role, including using a mentor to give some guidance during the transition period (and beyond, if needed).

I would highly recommend Asperger Awareness to anyone who is in management, especially those in areas that attract a higher number of individual with Asperger’s or AS traits. It could also be helpful to the individuals with AS themselves to assist in identifying their own strengths and challenges and give them some direction on what types of accommodations could improve their working experience and output.

Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book at no charge and with no expectations regarding the content of the review.

I’m finally getting back to my notes from the National Autism Conference. After the great afternoon spent learning about motor planning, I was more than ready to hear this presentation on physical education the following morning.

The speaker was Garth Tymeson, a Professor of Adapted Physical Education in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin – Lacrosse. Initially, the session was advertised as being on adapted physical education, but Dr. Tymeson revised it to the broader topic of “Preparing for an Active and Healthy Lifestyle in the Community.”

Following are some of the notes that I took during his presentation:

Collaboration Between Teachers and Parents

The starting point for any physical education program is the goals, and the goals should reflect the functional skills we want to see them using in the community.

In order to create goals that will mean something for the student after they leave school (for the day or for good), there must be collaboration between teachers and parents. Teachers must find out what parents what their kids to be able to do.

So, what do parents was their kids to do? Parental goals for physical education usually include things such as:
– socialization
– learning basic skills
– acquiring functional physical fitness
– finding things that provide success and enjoyment
– having a positive self-concept, reduced anxiety and frustration

More specifically, parents most often want their kids to learn to:
– ride a bike
– swim
– play individual sports
– know the basics for sports of interest
– understand how to use exercise equipment
– BE SAFE

His main point was that the goals should reflect these things. One of the most useful things a student can learn is how to utilize fitness equipment and set goals and routines for themselves related to ongoing physical fitness. That is far more helpful than knowing how to play dodgeball.

Program/Class Challenges

Another important area to look at is what is preventing a child from achieving in physical education and deriving these benefits. Is it related to social communication difficulties? Physical/motor issues? Staff?

Dr. Tymeson strongly recommended that kids with ASD who are in regular PE classes have an assessment done by an adapted PE teacher to determine what physical skills they need to develop. They may need specially designed instruction, possibly in a smaller group, and/or the regular PE teacher may need ongoing consultation on adapting the class for the student.

Sample Assessment Tools
Test of Gross Motor Development 2 (TGMD-2)
Brockport Physical Fitness Test
Fitnessgram
Peabody Developmental Motor Scales 2 (PDMS-2)
Adapted Physical Education Assessment Scale (APEAS II)

He also pointed out that adapted physical education does not have to be all or nothing. A student may be able to participate in the regular class but need an extra session each week to work on specific skills.

I remember during first grade that we would have the physical education teacher let us know what sport or skill was going to be introduced next. Since the school insisted that they were not able to provide any pre-teaching due to the lack of available time and staff, we could at least find books related to that topic at the library and help our son gain some familiarity with what was coming.

Considerations for Students

In the Adapted PE program at the University of Wisconsin, learning management and instructional techniques is considered to be just as important as the rest of the curriculum. The focus is on how to make things predictable and successful for the students, and they are taught to use things such as:
– picture and communication boards
– lanyards with laminated icons in place of the usual whistle
– schedule boards
– visual aids
– social stories
– smart boards and iPads

For kids at home, he strongly recommends getting them up and moving and playing outside as much as possible. The use of active video games, such as the Xbox Kinect or certain games on the Wii (like Outdoor Challenge, Dance Dance Revolution, or Wii Fit), can also be very helpful in motivating kids to engage in physical activity.

During the break, I asked Dr. Tymeson about my son’s biggest challenge, which is competition. He can make anything into a competition, even an individual sport.

His response was to teach my son that there are other ways besides winning to have success are improvement and accomplishment. Practical suggestions might be giving him a pedometer or heart rate monitor and helping him set a target so that he can focus the competitive aspect on himself.

IDEA requirements for Physical Education

Under IDEA, physical education is a required service, not a related service or therapy. A variety of placements should be available and placement should be made based on an assessment of the unique needs of each student.

Dr. Tymeson’s advice is to “Get it on the IEP and KEEP IT THERE.” I would say this is much easier said than done.

I did ask for an assessment by an adapted PE teacher and was told no because the team feels he does not have gross motor issues and that his problems in PE are related to his autism and could be addressed by the autism consultant. This seems to be a reflexive no on the school’s part, especially since he has not had any formal evaluation of his gross motor skills in well over 4 years, but I chose not to pursue it since the teacher he was assigned for PE this year is one who works very well with him and with the rest of the team.

I would be greatly interested in hearing if any of you have had success with convincing your school district to pay attention to this area of your child’s education, especially with regards to accommodations and specially designed instruction.

Recommended Reading

Physical Education (PE) & Adapted Physical Education (APE) on Wrightslaw.com

Adapted Physical Education and Sport – 5th Edition, Edited by J. Winnick

I haven’t written much about our daily lives lately – there has actually been so much going on that it’s been hard to distill it into a coherent blog post. The other day I woke up early and was thinking about where Michael is with things right now and what I want to focus on in the immediate future.

So, please take this as a reflection of my thoughts about our personal situation at the moment and not an editorial on how anyone else should think or act with regard to their own child.

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Third grade so far has been a highly positive experience for all of us. Michael’s teacher is extremely good, and the whole team seems to be working together quite well towards the goal of encouraging Michael towards more independence in his organizational skills as well as self-regulation.

Of course, there is always the tendency to move too fast towards lowering the level of reinforcement and support. When people see success, they seem to want to breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Okay, that’s taken care of.” But I see it as a much more gradual process. I think the first sigh of relief should be that we have found a level of support that is appropriate for him right now and that we should continue at that level until he is clearly showing that he doesn’t need it so much.

When anyone on Michael’s team mentions pulling back in any way, I tend to panic and react negatively to the suggestion, not because I don’t have the same desires as they do for his independence, but because I instinctively sense that he needs an extremely gradual transition towards a different kind of support than he is currently getting.

(Ironically, the day after I wrote this the Learning Support Teacher was talking about lengthening the interval at which Michael earns checkmarks toward his rewards. For now, we are just going from 3 minutes to 5 minutes, so that should be a negligible change for him.)

Notice that I say “different kind of support.” He will still need support from other people – we all need that in our lives.

One reason for this is because of his maturity level, especially in terms of emotional and social functioning. Another is that he is not at the point where he can always identify when he needs additional help or ask for it if he does realize it. That skill is one of the most important ones I can think of for him to learn, actually.

As I am writing this, I am thinking that another thing I need to emphasize more with him is that everyone needs help and support from other people, to varying degrees based on what is happening in their lives. Pointing out to Michael when others are asking for help or making mistakes or struggling to learn a new skill helps him see that everyone has difficulties at times and that it is actually a sign of maturity to know when to ask for help.

I think a lot of his “self-regulation” issues come down to this perception that he should be able to do everything right and win all the time and understand everything immediately, and that when things don’t go the way he expected, he has trouble identifying what is happening and then either communicating it to someone or figuring out what to do about it.

So (and pardon me as I use my writing to think through the issue), perhaps my focus should be more on helping him to notice and understand what is going on around him so that he can engage in more communication and interactions that are meaningful for him.

This may sound sort of touchy-feely, so let me say that I definitely think it is critical to provide clear instruction on “expected behaviors” and related topics, and that using tangible reinforcements for motivation on non-preferred tasks meets his needs at the moment. And these strategies are incredibly useful to get through the school day, and for structured events in the home and community.

Sometimes I wonder if I am being hypocritical by advocating for such a high level of support at school, while tending towards a more natural interaction at home. But ultimately I don’t think I am, for several reasons:
1. School is by its very nature a more structured environment, with many people who all need to work together in a safe and responsible manner to accomplish specific goals.
2. There is less time and opportunity to provide the in-depth explanations and time to process situations within the constraints of the school day.
3. A teacher with a class full of students cannot possibly attend to all of the signals that Michael may not be paying full attention or understanding the dynamics of what is going on or even that something is upsetting to him. (His current teacher is by far the best at this that I have seen, but it’s a completely different situation than him being with just me or with a therapist one-on-one.)

Recognizing these things has helped me gain a better perspective for myself on what I advocate for school supports. At home, I may not need to provide such a high level of reinforcement*, simply because I am able to focus more intently on his needs at that moment, whether it be adjusting the environment or having an in-depth conversation about perception versus reality.

At school or in a more structured community setting, he needs the higher level of reinforcement to motivate him to accept what is happening around him or what he is being asked to do as necessary, even if he doesn’t like or understand it completely. And learning that different situations and environments have different rules and expectations is a good thing too.

:)

Edited to add: *Re-reading this, I think I should say I don’t need to provide as much tangible reinforcement such as physical rewards or a token economy, but can rely more on social and emotional reinforcers.

“Back to School” are words that often strike terror (or at least high levels of anxiety) into my life. We have had so many ups and downs with school, especially at the beginning of the year, that I dread re-entering the limbo period of school hours where I work and run errands and such not knowing whether the end of the day will find me in heaven or in hell.

And yet, every year I somehow find a bit of hope – hope that this teacher will get him and be patient with his needs while also seeing the ways in which he could excel.

We went for a classroom visit on Friday and was pleased to find that his desk was ready, almost all of the visual supports were in place, and the teacher was familiar with the IEP. Such a relief, especially compared to some previous years. By all accounts, she runs a highly-structured class without yelling at the kids (as some others have been reported to do).

I was also impressed that Michael’s break spot is actually the same spot that she has used for years with the entire class. Any student can request a break, and she has even used break cards for students who seemed to need the visual/physical cue for it.

All that remains is to get him there on Monday morning and hand him over once again.