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It’s All About Who You Know!

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is an annual opportunity to reflect on the progress we’ve made nationally and locally in promoting employment for people with disabilities – and to reflect on what we’ve learned. My always-rewarding work at the LEAD Center has reinforced what my 35+ years of experience has taught me, which is that people need to build and use their networks when they are seeking employment. People who are successful in work (and life) use the people who know them to open doors to jobs, careers, work experiences and opportunities. Friends, relatives, and people from the different communities to which an individual is connected (e.g., current or former classmates, current or former coworkers, neighbors, members of your faith community, etc.) have seen that person energized and excited by activities they love, know the person’s unique interests and talents, and know the circumstances in which they’re at their best, all of which can suggest jobs or a career path.

LEAD Center has been working with a number of states to introduce Guided Group Discovery and Self-Guided Discovery, both centerpieces of Customized Employment, into workforce centers, in collaboration with one or more of their partners (e.g., vocational rehabilitation, developmental disabilities services, Centers for Independent Living, behavioral health services, community rehabilitation providers, etc.). What makes these Discovery processes successful is that they leverage relationships. They tap into a person’s networks to get insight into the types of activities and settings that would make a job a good fit for that person. Discovery also uses a person’s relationships as “referral sources.” I suspect that everyone reading this blog has gotten at least one job or work experience because of someone they know. In fact, the most effective way to secure employment is through referrals from people we know, since most jobs are never formally advertised. Therefore, if you’re looking to develop skills to make you more employable or to open a door to career advancement, add “networking” to your list. Discovery facilitates the networking process, as it engages the people in an individual’s life to assist in identifying the career paths and opportunities that are likely to be a good fit for that person, and provides opportunities for each person to expand their support network.

For all of us, whether or not we have a disability, maintaining current relationships, reconnecting with past relationships, and expanding our support networks are all critical activities. Just having a network, though, is not enough. We need to use our networks to let people know that we’re seeking employment, for ourselves or someone we know. Ask people in your network for advice. Ask them to make an introduction or connection. In addition to personal contacts, social networking platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) enable us to find people with whom we’ve had relationships in the past, connect with new people who share our interests or friends, and let people know that we’re seeking employment opportunities. We all can help others to expand their networks through introductions as well.

So this October, make a commitment, between now and next October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month, to add 25-50 new people to your personal network, directly or through social networking – and/or to assist someone else in building their network. (That’s only 2-4 people a month.) Get to know some of them well. These will become mutually supportive relationships that can support multiple people in building personal networks and advancing their careers – so that, next year, when we reflect on our nation’s progress in supporting people with disabilities to achieve employment outcomes, we’ll continue to be proud of the progress we collectively are making.

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Rebecca Salon is Project Director for the LEAD Center. Dr. Salon is a recognized national leader in policy and program development with an emphasis on cutting edge demonstrations that promote employment and economic self- sufficiency for individuals with significant disabilities. She has more than twenty years of experience with management of federally funded projects and has over thirty-five years of experience working with people across the spectrum of disabilities. Her doctorate degree is in special education with studies and research geared toward disability policy studies. Salon also is working at the District of Columbia Department on Disability Services (DDS), where she is the lead for DC’s Employment First program initiatives.

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