People with Disabilities Help Minnesota's Human Services Department Clear Paper Jam and Prepare for Moving Day
"I like the whole program, I enjoy it," says Jeff Shaffer, of North Branch, Minn., commenting about his work as part of a major document imaging project at the Minnesota Department of Human Services in St. Paul. "I'm going to stay with the team."
His team is one of four work groups of people with developmental disabilities involved in an innovative project to transfer paper records to computer files.
The Department of Human Services is scheduled to move many of its operating units into the new Elmer L. Andersen Human Services Building in the fall of 2005, but traditional paper files will give way to electronic files for storage and retrieval. A key goal of the Department is to reduce its paper storage needs by 50 percent prior to the move.
To get the job done, and to expand work opportunities for people with disabilities, participants from four of the Department's day training and habilitation services are being given the chance to gain real work experience and earn income while meeting DHS needs.
Heidi Forbes, a placement coordinator with Minnesota State Operated Community Services (MSOCS), which operates the services, says, "everyone really wants to be here. They've chosen to be here."
Saying the scanning project is huge, Forbes notes that most of the people have never worked on a computer and that they are gaining new work and life skills. "For many of the individuals, transportation issues are the biggest concern," she said.
Ben Dahl, the supervisor of the document conversion area, with 15 years service in Human Services, says, "Heidi has chosen really good people." Dahl and Forbes work as a team, with Dahl interacting with the units within DHS that need services, while Forbes oversees the people who are doing the work. There are job coaches available to provide support as needed for the employees.
The employee teams all have names: the Vikings, who work from 8 a.m. to 12 noon; the Early Birds, starting at 7 a.m. and going to 11 a.m.; and the Stars and the Wild, who work from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Trina Lewis is a member of the Wild and much of her time is spent removing staples from documents so that they can be run through a scanner. "It's a job," she said, adding that she sees this as a step toward moving on to another office job in the future.
"I was scared and nervous at first, but now I'm used to it," said Patrick Ferrick, who does data entry for the project. He says he now feels more comfortable using the keyboard, and even went to his first office party last December.
Kim Gabel is able to live a more independent life and has worked in office settings previously. She was with a Goodwill/Easter Seals community rehabilitation program. Employed on the DHS program since October 2004, Gabel says she wants to stay as long as possible. "I love to be here, after being out of work for two-and-a-half years," she said. Gabel wants to learn more about computers and is in the process of getting her GED.
The supervisor of vocational support services for MSOCS, Susan Carlson, says she believes that the teams of workers from the day training and habilitation services in Isanti, Bloomington, Vadnais Heights and Fridley have succeeded in the mission of providing valuable support to DHS, while building self esteem among the individuals involved and increasing their repertoire of work skills. "High quality standards have to be met," she said, noting that much of the activity involves private or sensitive information and that confidentiality must be maintained.
"We have to be a good resource for employers," said Carlson, explaining that she is pleased that the project of converting stored paper documents to electronic images may be lengthened to an 18-to-24 month period. "Overall, I'm really glad how well it has gone."
This innovative project has brought benefits to all concerned. The project's employees, all with developmental and other disabilities, earn minimum wage, strengthen their work skills and have the opportunity to learn the culture of a work environment. These workers enjoy most of the same amenities as regular DHS employees, such as the employee cafeteria, name badges, and the like. They also learn new skills that may prepare them for other job opportunities in the future.
"My hope is that there could be a continuing role for people with disabilities in this area in records management and doing the document imaging work," said Forbes. "It is good for the department and helps provide important job opportunities for these people.
Supervisor Carlson of MSOCS thinks the type of work involved so readily lends itself to use in other settings, both in the public and private sectors. "The potential is awesome," said Carlson, "when you think of the opportunities for this across the state."
The executive director of the Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities, Colleen Wieck, Ph.D., said she believes the area of electronic document imaging has great potential for expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities. "There are a great many organizations in the state with a need for such work, including government agencies, nonprofits and private companies, and I would hope that they would consider employing people with developmental disabilities in these document imaging activities."
The Council has prepared materials detailing how such projects may be undertaken. Those interested in receiving additional information are urged to go to the Council's website, www.mncdd.org, or call the Council at 651-296-4018, or toll free, 877-348-0505.