Job help from the California Dept. of Rehabilitation: Part 3
My two earlier posts about the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) mostly covered things like applying, being found eligible, and the types of services provided. In those posts, which you can access here and here, it was noted that DOR provides assistance that is tailored to the needs of the individual.
Our family has experienced this first-hand, as both of our sons have been DOR clients and have received very different types of services.
Here’s the story of what happened with our older son Nathan.
To recap what I shared earlier: a DOR counselor (Ms E) met Nathan when she was invited to his last IEP meeting in high school by the transition specialist. Before rendering a decision on Nathan’s eligibility for DOR services, Ms E wanted input from his psychiatrist. (Remember, DOR avoids taking on clients who are pretty high-functioning, or who are too severely disabled to benefit from their services, or who don’t really want to work.) After I was finally able to get the psychiatrist to complete his statement that Nathan could benefit from the program, Ms E scheduled an appointment with Nathan. I was allowed to come to the appointment also.
Ms E explained that she could help Nathan find work, but he would have to cooperate. He would have to tell her what kinds of jobs he thought he could tolerate, and he’d have to put in some effort with training, talking to potential employers, etc.
“So Nathan,” she said, “before we start setting up a plan for you, I need to know: do you really want a job?”
Nathan, who was slumped in his chair and avoiding eye contact, let out a sigh. “Yes, I guess I do,” he said at last, without much conviction. “Or at least, you know, it’s probably worth a try.” He sighed again.
In the days leading up to the appointment I had tried to convince Nathan that employment meant more independence from the unpleasant demands of parents, more money to spend on things he likes, and gaining feelings of accomplishment, maturity, and being needed. Clearly, he had not been fully persuaded! – but at least he wasn’t taking this opportunity to shut the door entirely.
Ms E studied him for several seconds. “All right,” she decided, “we’ll give it a try. We’ll start by having you go to a workshop, where you’ll be evaluated on how well you follow directions and deal with a supervisor. Depending on how that goes, we’ll decide about looking for a job out in the community.”
It turns out that the Dept. of Rehabilitation contracts with independent service providers that help evaluate, train, and place people with disabilities. I had first learned about such places a few years prior at a transition vendors’ fair. Now Ms. E was going to call one of the providers, or “community rehabilitation programs” (CRPs), to see if they had an opening for Nathan in the near future.
Probably the majority of CRPs are geared toward people with intellectual disabilities. Ms E wanted to place Nathan with a specific vendor that had expertise with people with autism. This would be a better match to Nathan’s level of functioning. Alas, she called me a few weeks after the appointment to tell me that the service provider she wanted to use had gone out of business. She would have to place him with a CRP that primarily served people with Down’s Syndrome and the like. She admitted it wasn’t ideal, but it still should work out.
Nathan would be going to the “external situational assessment” for a total of 30 days, (six weeks), from the hours of 9 am to 3 pm. He would be getting paid for the hours he put in. We assumed the rate would be minimum wage.
With that assumption, we pointed out that over six weeks he’d earn several hundred dollars – more than enough to buy the new handheld gaming device he wanted! Yes, he countered, but going to this thing day after day was going to be so difficult for him, he needed an upfront perk to make it tolerable. We reluctantly came to an agreement to buy him the device beforehand, and he would immediately pay us back with his earnings. His track record on keeping his promises was really pretty good, so we weren’t at much risk for losing out. Anything to get him on his way to being employed….
The CRP facility was several miles from Nathan’s apartment but accessible by city bus. DOR provided Nathan with a bus pass, and we reviewed the bus schedule with him. We talked about doing a dry run with him before his first day, but he said he didn’t need it. And he was right! It was a new experience for him, but he managed to take the bus coming and going without a problem (except for one day when he was delayed leaving the program and had to wait for the next bus.) We were proud of him.
At the workshop, Nathan was tasked with light assembly and I think some packaging. He was neutral to negative about the experience, and didn’t want to talk much to us about what it was like. We encouraged him to keep going, and waited for the day he would get his first paycheck. When that day came, we were all in for a shock. For two weeks of working 4 to 6 hours a day, he was paid …$58!
It turns out minimum wage does not apply at places like this (there’s an understatment!) I asked for and later obtained some documentation about how his paycheck was calculated. I’ve looked at the spreadsheet several times and still don’t fully comprehend what goes on, but one handwritten note says “New clients are started off at $1.50/hr, which they will increase or decrease, based on each individual’s production.” In other words, if you assemble more thingys per hour than the baseline, you’ll earn more than $1.50; if you assemble less per hour, you’ll earn less than $1.50, with an apparent floor of fifty cents an hour. (This was several years ago; I don’t know if the wages have been adjusted since then.) The spreadsheet indicates Nathan earned $1.25/hr, so he was operating a little under baseline.
For a depressed and disturbed but intelligent guy doing boring work with people he couldn’t relate to, the meager paycheck took away what little motivation he had. We reminded him of his promise to stick it out to the end, and pointed out that he already had his gaming device – we were the ones who were going to get burned by not getting fully reimbursed. It didn’t matter; Nathan’s mood spiraled ever darker.
Around the middle of the fourth week, Nathan finally had some kind of meltdown or emotional outburst at the workshop. If I remember correctly, the supervisor told him to go home early and take the next day off as well. When Nathan did go back, he was clearly miserable and unproductive. His “external situational assessment” was over, several days earlier than scheduled.
Again, my memory is hazy on exactly what happened next, but apparently Nathan had a conversation with the supervisor at the workshop and/or with Ms E, and the question arose again: Do you really want to work? This time, Nathan answered “No.”
A few weeks later, he received a Closure Report from DOR. The statement reads in part,
[Y]our case with the Department of Rehabilitation is being closed at this time. As you know, an evaluation was provided to assess your ability to work and benefit from employment services. The evaluation showed that you have the physical ability to work, however you have decided that you do not want to participate in work activities. Because the Department of Rehabilitation is a work program and you have indicated no desire to work, your case will be closed.
The notice states that he could request a reevaluation if he felt his situation had changed sufficiently (like, now he was motivated to work). We didn’t pursue challenging the decision because, honestly, his miniscule “desire to work” had vanished. It would be a therapist’s job, not the DOR’s, to shift Nathan’s perspective about being employed.
The outcome of this episode might have been more positive if Nathan had been placed with a CRP facility that fit his mental challenges better. (I am aware of a vendor in the next county that regularly deals with clients on the autism spectrum….) Also, I wish we’d had clarity before his evaluation started about the small amount he’d be earning, so his paycheck wouldn’t have been as big of a letdown. Then again, given Nathan’s mental state at that time, maybe nothing could have sparked Nathan’s desire to work.
Years have gone by. Nathan receives SSI payments and earns a little money by doing chores. We became resigned to that status quo. But not long ago, he surprised us by saying (out of the blue) that he MIGHT be ready to get a part-time job several months from now, and would need our help to figure that out. Whether it’s due to therapy, maturity, or the passage of time, we are glad he is showing a tiny spark now! If he holds on to this intention, we’ll sound out the DOR when he’s ready – really ready – to see if they can point him towards employment he could tolerate.