Michele Burney a woman with brown hair and flower top.
Michele Burney, research associate, currently serves as a project director and primary investigator at the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities in Minot, North Dakota. A North Carolina native, she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology from North Carolina State University. Michele is passionate about socioeconomic equity for all; and has seen firsthand how equitable employment for people experiencing I/DD builds community and a whole life. When she is not working, Michele enjoys traveling, reading, exercising, and spending as much time as possible with family and friends.

Customized Employment is not a new concept nationally, however, rural North Dakota (ND) struggles with completing the process because of a lack of knowledge, resources, and true efficacy. As a result, ND initiated a three-year pilot project training Community Rehabilitation Providers (CRPs) to explore and implement innovative strategies. This increased knowledge provided CRPs with additional skills to create integrated employment opportunities for people currently receiving day supports and/or employment in non-inclusive environments. The three-year project modeled a flexible process, which helped CRP’s to build relationships between job seekers and employers in a way that meets the needs of both. This project has since evolved into a statewide customized employment initiative.

Our process emphasizes not what an employee has to offer, but rather what the person has to offer. Through the discovery process, project staff taught CRPs the importance of beginning with the person and identifying the person’s skills and employment interests, instead of quickly finding jobs that were simply available. We know that when the interests of the person with a disability are matched to the business needs of an employer, the likelihood of job satisfaction increases. As a result of this training, CRPs learned more about the individuals they serve and job seekers increased their opportunity for gainful and meaningful employment, despite their disability.

Image of Agatha Gietzen. White woman in wheel chair blue shit and black pants smiling in front of shoe aisle.
Agatha Gietzen
at shoe store.

One such success story from the pilot project is that of job seeker Agatha Gietzen who previously had been part of a production crew since 2008. Although change can bring about fear and anxiety, this did not stop Agatha from taking a chance and moving forward with gaining competitive integrated employment. In January of 2016, Agatha gained employment at a local retailer. She went from earning $2.39 an hour to $9.00 an hour. Initially, Agatha was employed to be a greeter and prepare shoes for shipment, but after consistently carrying out these two assignments successfully she was introduced to sales. She remembers being told that she would never be able to do the things that she wanted because of her disability, but since then she has grown and has become an active part of her community! Agatha now serves on the Board of Directors of an organization that she is passionate about, she has been asked to be in TV commercials, and is supporting another project on Disability Awareness. Agatha has made great progress from the beginning of this project and now has the mindset that anything is possible so long as she tries. In August of this 2019 Agatha transitioned to a new position serving as a cashier in the cafeteria of a local university. She earns $10.00 an hour and works between 20-24 hours a week. Being able to go to college has been a long-time goal and now with this employment opportunity that is a real possibility.

Many of the CRPs reported that through this process, they are now better able to place their most “difficult” clients, because they are for the first time realizing where their client’s true wants and needs lie. The graphic below details the results of the three-year pilot project.

Image of NDCPD 3 year infographic on customized employment program. More information found: http://www.ndcpd.org/statewide.html
Chart from NDCPD on their 3 year phase
of customized employment program.

The Disability Statistics Compendium shows the national employment rate for individuals with disabilities to be at 37.6% whereas ND’s rate is 56.5%. We attribute ND’s success of employing people with disabilities to both a robust economy and the availability of this training for employment specialists. The knowledge that was gained improved the expertise of employment specialists to develop and negotiate carved positions for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).

From humble beginnings to a newly implemented ND Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Customized Employment policy, ND has made substantial progress. This progress, in part, can be attributed to successful collaboration between the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Community Rehabilitation Providers throughout the state. We encourage you to highlight your state’s success stories and seek out champions to explore creative employment opportunities.

To learn more about the ND Customized Employment, you can check out North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities (NDCPD) website https://www.ndcpd.org/ and navigating to Funded Projects. You may contact NDCPD at https://www.ndcpd.org/contact.html and Michele Burney, Project Director, can be reached at Michele.Burney@MinotStateU.edu