Scott Harrington and the Customized Employment Project

Writing By Timothy Prentiss

They seem like modest goals.

“We look to have the person get paid at least minimum wage, which is competitive employment,” Scott Harrington says of the Customized Employment Project (CEP). Competitive employment refers to jobs that would pay the same amount to a non-disabled worker.

He then adds: “In an integrated setting, so you’re not segregated in a sheltered setting where you have a whole bunch of people with disabilities sitting around a table doing something not very rewarding.”

The alternative sounds a bit Dickensian: People with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities being sequestered in workrooms, performing repetitive menial tasks for slave wages. But this has historically been the state of employment for the disabled in the United States. Segregated settings have been the norm, and due to a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), workers are often paid less than minimum wage.

Dating from 1938, the 14c waiver (named for the section of the FLSA which allows certain exemption from minimum wage requirement) is a relic of the days when the disabled were almost entirely reliant on charity. Though this orientation seems foreign in a time when disability advocacy stresses empowerment and self-determination, such arrangements are still arguably well intentioned—the low wages help improve the abysmally low employment rate for persons with disabilities and ensure that such workers will not risk losing any government benefits that may have strict income caps. Similarly, the sequestered work settings ensure the work the disabled employees are expected to perform is work they can actually do.

But these practices are implicitly based on an attitude that the disabled worker is being done a favor by being allowed to work, and they have increasingly been coming under fire. For instance, in June the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) called for a boycott of Goodwill stores, calling the charitable organization exploitative and hypocritical for their use of 14c waivers. The NFB noted in their press release that Goodwill pays many of its workers as little as $1.44 per hour.

Besides the low, sometimes astonishingly low wages, this approach has the effect of socially isolating a large group of people, and denying them a chance to perform work they actually find rewarding. Though many 14c certified employees work in the community (usually for charitable organizations like Goodwill) many more work in segregated settings—often in workrooms, staffed entirely by disabled workers, dedicated to menial assembly tasks; sometimes piecework is brought to group homes.

One worker who has been placed by the CEP formerly was employed plugging in wiring harnesses for slot machines components. In case that sounds more interesting than it is, that means he plugged in the same handful of wires over and over all day long. For this he was paid $22 per week.

The tide has turned against these employment practices. Nationwide there is a trend towards non-segregated employment in the community. And soon employers will no longer be able to pay less than minimum wage. In 2011, Congress passed the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act (HR 3086) which mandates that 14c waivers be discontinued, phasing out the practice over the course of the next three years.

As director of the Youth Transition Project, a division of the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities, Scott claims his job is to help people with disabilities live the most independent and meaningful lives possible; to help the people he works with have fulfilling social and employment opportunities.

Currently much of Scott’s energies are focused on the Customized Employment Project. Based on a grant he wrote in 2011, the aim of the project is to create employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Rather than trying to place the disabled persons in already existing positions, the program attempts to create new positions, custom built around the skills, interests, and needs of the person.

The program reflects a currently popular vocational counseling paradigm known as person-environment fit theory—a theory that emphasizes the importance of finding consonance between the job’s requirements and environment, and the individual’s skills and needs.

For instance, on the most basic level, (and specifically addressing the disabled employee)—if the employee is in a wheelchair, the work environment must be wheelchair accessible. If an employee doesn’t possess a driver’s license they will need a job that is near their home or accessible by public transportation. On a more complex level, the employee should feel comfortable in the job environment, and the employee should perform work that is actually rewarding to the employee. For their part, the employee must be capable of competently performing the work in question.

All of which is so obvious that it almost goes without saying. Still the fact remains, many disabled people are placed in jobs without any consideration of their skills or interests. In fact they are grouped together without even regard to their particular disability. That is to say, their jobs are determined neither by what they can do, nor by what they can’t do.

The CEP takes a different approach. Instead of simply giving them jobs requiring the barest skill-sets imaginable—a job designed for someone who can do virtually nothing—the CEP creates a new job based around the skills and interests of the person.

Sometimes this is as simple as altering an existing job to give a greater level of specialization toward the workers skills, removing responsibilities the worker doesn’t possess the physical or mental capacity to perform. Scott mentions one program participant who obtained a job folding clothes in a clothing store (but she doesn’t handle sales transactions), another cleans a coffee shop (but doesn’t make drinks). Other times entirely new positions are created. One participant is currently employed in his own small business venture transferring old vinyl records onto CDs and flash drives; another is tagging geese to track their migration (or lack thereof).

The process starts with Sierra Resource Center (SRC) referring a client to the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities (NCED). A job developer interviews the potential worker to determine the person’s skills and interests. Research is performed to discover potential job opportunities. A portfolio is compiled using photos and video. This portfolio is then presented to potential employers. If a position is successfully created, Scott’s team performs reviews, each at 30-day intervals. After the third review the case is closed. Currently there are 52 people in various stages of the process. The CEP is a collaboration between the Nevada Rehabilitation Division at the Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation (DETR), the Sierra Regional Center at Developmental Services, and the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities.

Though Scott wrote the grant in 2011, the ideas that animate the project seem to have been with him for some time, as least as early as 2004 when he wrote his doctoral thesis “Effects of Reinforcement Schedules on Intrinsic Motivation and the Overjustification Effect.” The paper studied the effect of external rewards on children’s play. A group of children were told to find some form of play they enjoyed, they were then paid for performing that play. Scott observed the effect of the payment on the play. In brief, the question he was attempting to answer is: when you’re paid to do something you love, will you do that thing more? Less? The same? (The answer, by the way, at least according to his findings: more.)

The parallels with the CEP seem impossible to ignore. In both projects he essentially told a group of people—find something you enjoy, and we’ll get you paid to do it. Each of these projects was concerned with the possible tension (or synergy) between work-for-payment and work-for-enjoyment.

However, when asked if the CEP grew directly out of his thesis, Scott pauses, then says, “I never made that connection.”

He seems slightly taken aback at the possibility that for nearly a decade he has been working on the same issue without realizing it.

But the two projects were seven years apart. And while in retrospect the similarities between them may seem obvious, there was no straight-line connecting the one to the other. It’s not a grand project he’s been single-mindedly pursuing. Rather, the problem of finding meaningful, enjoyable work is a preoccupation that has repeatedly bubbled up in his own work.

You might say he thinks about it without having to think about it.

“I see a lot of people who hate their jobs,” he says, shaking his head.

But there will be fewer if he has his way.

“We are currently writing a $1.2 M grant to modify the WCSD [Washoe County School District] Transition program to include community-based career exploration activities in all high schools…there are big developments around the corner for this model in Nevada and nation-wide,” he says.

To read about a CEP sucess story, click here.