Camp counselor positionsin 1970 and 1971introduced Stephen H. Morgan to working with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, and his interest was piqued. He finished college, took a full-time job with the organization that ran the camp and worked his way to the top.
As executive director of The Arc Baltimore, Morgan runs a nonprofitthat teaches daily-living skills, organizes work crews and provides other services. The Arc employs 850 and has an additional 890 "supported employees" — people with disabilities in work programs the group sponsors.
Morgan chatted with The Baltimore Sun about the way things used to be — he started in the field when public schools routinely excluded children with disabilities or limited their access to education — as well as the Arc's newest efforts.
What changes have you seen for people with developmental disabilities since your career began?
They've been pretty incredible. … The right to education act … was enacted in 1975; all children became entitled to what they call free and appropriate public education. All of those kids were absorbed over the course of two years into the city or county school system, depending on where they resided.
Prior to the '60s and '70s, there were hardly any publicly funded programs for children [with developmental disabilities], but also for adults who may or may not have had any formal schooling. … There were a smattering of sheltered workshop programs here and there, but not really a system of employment services and day services. That began to grow, not only here in Baltimore and Maryland, but throughout the country.
[Then] the emphasis began to shift away from sheltered workshops, away from daytime activity centers, though some of those still exist. More and more people were placed in job-training programs or on work crews.
Does the Arc still run sheltered workshops with piece-rate assignments for employees?
We do hardly any of the internal kind of assembly, mailing work that used to be typical of sheltered workshops.
At one time we had a sheltered workshop program, a fairly big one. I think it had as many as 120 or 130 people. … Over the course of a couple of years, we phased out our sheltered workshop program and sold the building.
It was really an incredible experience for all of us because 10 years prior, we would not have thought it would actually be possible to place people in independent jobs or on mobile work crews and close down the workshop — and we were able to do it. There was not a single person who fell in the cracks.
What trends do you see in the job market for people with developmental disabilities? Is it getting easier or harder to find work?
It seems to kind of wax and wane. … There are a number of us in key staff positions that invest a fair amount of our time in different kinds of networking with the business community because we find if we build a partnership before we even approach the subject of placing somebody, that can help lay the groundwork.
For many years, the employment opportunities were limited often to landscaping work, food services work or janitorial work. … Broadening the kind of companies we work with, we've been able to broaden the opportunities. Office work, document management … It's kind of a growing need at all kinds of companies, and a number of our folks have had a fair degree of success with that.
There's been a gradual shift of people into more independent employment and a greater diversity of jobs.
What's new in the Arc's efforts to help people with developmental disabilities find jobs?
Career Catalyst, out in Hunt Valley. … It's for young adults who either want to upgrade their employment or have been in the day center and have not been able to find a job. They get … classroom training, [and] we're in the process of developing internship placements in the Hunt Valley business community. It's off to a great start. We were fortunate to get a couple of key grants to help support that.
During the internship period, the participants are paid a stipend — I believe it's $75 a week. … If they like that kind of work, we would then try to actually place them in a job doing that same type of work. The hope of course is the job may turn out to be at the exact same employer that's providing the internship, although the employer doesn't make that commitment upfront.
The whole notion of an internship, job-tryout experience, in combination with some classroom instruction, seemed to be an effective way to actually get people placed in jobs. The old-fashioned way of having a placement counselor that just scoured the want ads and then tried to take somebody out for an interview didn't produce many results — it produced some, but not to the extent that we wanted. There were not enough job placements happening to really meet the need that's there.
When I finished undergraduate school, I came to the Arc looking for full-time work and began as a teacher. ... It really was the people themselves, I guess, that really captured my interest. I don't know how to describe it other than it was almost kind of an emotional connection.
Obviously, I could play a role as a teacher and a mentor and provide counseling and guidance to people, but I never felt like … I was in a superior position in any way. It was always working on an equal plane.