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Apr 1, 2024

Today, we're thrilled to have Lynn Frith, Education Consultant from the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services at Connecticut General, in the studio. Discover how CTPIE, fueled by the RSA SWITCIE DIF Grant, is revolutionizing disability employment by shifting individuals from subminimum wage to competitive integrated jobs. With a focus on family input and multi-agency collaboration, CTPIE is at the forefront of innovating employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

 

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Full Transcript:

 

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Lynn:

We ended up branding the SWITCIE Grant here in Connecticut as CTPIE. The Connecticut Pathways to Integrated Employment.

 

Most importantly, individuals and family members, they have a strong voice in every step of the way that we are taking here in Connecticut.

 

I love what I do, and I was very in tune with this population. I care a lot about this population. I have always believed competitive integrated employment is the way to go and individuals have that right to be able to work.

 

Intro Voice: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.

 

Carol: Well welcome to the manager minute. Joining me in the studio today is Lynn Frith, education consultant with the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services in the Aging and Disability Services Department. So for short, that means you're with Connecticut General. So Lynn, how are things going in Connecticut?

 

Lynn: Well, first of all, thank you, Carol, for inviting me to this podcast. I'm really looking forward to our conversation this morning. Connecticut, we're busy, we're jumping, we're moving in grooving.

 

Carol: I love it. Yep. You're working with Dave and Kathy and all those guys. I'm like, you are all small but mighty. I love what's going on there. Lynn, just so our listeners know, I've had the good fortune to meet and work with you through some of our other technical assistance work that I do with Connecticut General. And in fact, for full disclosure to our listeners, Lynn and I were chatting the other day about something completely different and this topic of the DIF came up and you were bubbling over with excitement and I'm like, oh my gosh, we have to do a podcast. So for our listeners, I featured several of the Disability Innovation Fund Career Advancement Project grants, and now I'm switching over because each year there's been a different focus. I'm switching over to talk about the DIF subminimum wage to competitive integrated employment projects, or it's called SWITCIE for short. So I know we love our acronyms. RSA’s focus for this round is they want to increase the opportunity for those SWITCIE program participants, students and youth with disabilities seeking subminimum wage employment and potential VR program applicants or VR eligible individuals with disabilities who are employed or contemplating employment at sub minimum wage to obtain competitive integrated employment. And so to achieve that purpose, the projects that were funded under this grants going to create innovative models, and they're hoping to have folks identify strategies for addressing those challenges associated with access to competitive integrated employment. Things like transportation and supports provide integrated services that support competitive integrated employment, support integration into the community, and identify and coordinate those wraparound services. So this is super exciting. I know Connecticut's always on the cutting edge of cool things. So let's dig into your approach.  Now Lynn, why don’t you start out telling our listeners a little bit about your journey into VR, I know folks are always interested, like, how do people come? And I know you have a cool path as well.

 

Lynn: Well, Carol, It is an interesting story in my opinion. I started dating who is now my current husband back in college, and his parents were both deaf and he refused to interpret any of my conversations with his parents. And he said, you want to date me? You need to learn ASL American Sign Language. So once I graduated with my bachelor's degree, I then took sign language interpreting courses, and I ended up learning the language. I fell in love with the language, and I got my first job at the American School for the Deaf out of college, working in doing placement. And the American School for the Deaf at that time was a vocational community rehabilitation provider for the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services. So once a position at Connecticut, BRS became available for a rehabilitation counselor for the deaf. My co-workers encouraged me to apply. And here we go. 20, almost 24 years later, I've been with Connecticut BRS.

 

Carol: That is so cool. I love this story. Everybody finds their way and just unusual, umm, places. And I think that is awesome. Can you give us a little bit of an overview as well about Connecticut General, like how many staff are in the agency and how many customers do you generally serve?

 

Lynn: So we have around 150 staff currently. Just like many other states, we are struggling with getting staff on board and maintaining staff. So that is a current priority for us. And right now we're serving approximately 5500 consumers each year.

 

Carol: Wow, that sounds good. I know Connecticut too, you know, I was thinking a lot of those East Coast states, you're small, but you are small but mighty and serving a good group of folks with a small group of people. I want to also get a sense of how many people in Connecticut are really kind of covered under that 14C certificate.

 

Lynn: That number is a little bit harder to be able to get an accurate number on. From what we can tell. And how I came to this number is tracking that annual career counseling and information referral. And we have about 850 individuals still receiving subminimum wage in Connecticut.

 

Carol: Wow. It's still a pretty significant number of folks. I know Minnesota, where I'm from, had been working on this for a long time, but I think we still have folks more in the thousands. So I'm really glad you guys are tackling this project. So let's talk about your proposal. Can you give us an overview of that grant proposal you all submitted? And I think you guys have a really cute name.

 

Lynn: So I'll share the name first. Because it tends to get a little bit tongue twisty. We ended up branding the SWITCIE grant here in Connecticut as CTPIE, so that would stand for the Connecticut Pathways to Integrated Employment, and we applied for the SWITCIE grant and were awarded it back in September of 2022. Our planning year began on October 1st of 2022 and we hit the ground running. We developed a partner workgroup, and that workgroup consists of all of our other state agencies who we partner with, as well as the workforce investment boards within the state school systems, community rehabilitation providers. We have some 14C key employers who sit on the partner workgroup, most importantly individuals and family members. They have a strong voice in every step of the way that we are taking here in Connecticut.

 

Carol: So what are you guys hoping to accomplish with your grant?

 

Lynn: As you know, this is a demonstration model grant, and we took that first planning year. And from our partner workgroup we then developed four subgroups. Those four subgroups were the pathways and business partners, individualized supports, messaging and outreach, training and TA. And we asked our partner workgroup members to refer members of their agencies, departments, their staff to be able to work with us on those subgroups and those individuals who served. And we met like twice a month for approximately nine months. So they really were committed to this project. They helped us develop, okay, what services should be looking for and how do we get there? We have strong commitments from employers in the state of Connecticut who recognize that hiring individuals with significant developmental and disabilities is the way they want to go. The messaging and outreach group that led us to, okay, we really need to brand what our SWITCIE grant is. So that's how we came up with CTPIE. We came up with a logo. They helped us develop a website. It helps us in terms of our outreach to individuals, outreach to school systems, and how we go about recruiting individuals for CTPIE. Our goal for CTPIE is, and these are the numbers that we stated in our application for our youth, we're hoping to get 356 individuals enrolled in CTPIE so they can be youth who are still in school, receiving special education services, or have recently exited from special education up to and including their 24th year, and they have to be contemplating Subminimum wage for the very first time. So you'll see that that's our larger bucket of individuals that we're hoping to serve under this grant. Our second population that we're looking at serving is 114 individuals who are adults who are currently earning subminimum wage. And that is a little bit more of a tricky population for us to get enrolled in CTPIE. These are individuals that have been in Subminimum wage for probably some period of time. They have developed friendships there. They love their work. They're used to working at that location. They know what's expected of them. Family members, they're viewing this as my loved one has a safe place to go to 35 hours a week. They have the transportation built in, so that's a higher mountain for us to climb, to be able to encourage those individuals to say, hey, come on over to CTPIE and try out competitive integrated employment.

 

Carol: So how do you address that challenge with the group? And I know that group really well. I used to work in a day training center in Minnesota years ago, and I understand that family deep. They form bonds with the staff and their loved one does, you know, and it's really hard to break through that. So what are you trying to do to kind of help bridge this?

 

Lynn: So we're very fortunate here in the state of Connecticut. We contracted with the University of Maryland, and they are able to assist us with providing training and technical assistance. So one of the ways that we're outreaching to this population is by contacting 14C key employers who are currently in the process of sunsetting their 14C certificate. We felt that we wanted to really reach out to those employers first because they've already made this decision. So now what? Let's help them transform. Let's help those individuals decide, okay, what's next after this subminimum wage closes, what are the opportunities available to me? And honestly, we have determined has been our best approach. So we've spent most of our time right there. We're still early on in the grant to be enrolling individuals. We just started enrolling folks as of October 1st of 2023. Currently, we only have two adults, but we aren't giving up.

 

Carol: Well, you got to start somewhere. You know, you start with one and then the second one. But I think you're smart in your approach, especially with the 14C providers that are looking at sunsetting that. Because that's a hurdle too. You know, you can kind of have a little bit of resistance in the backdrop going on, even though maybe face forward, they seem like they're on board with you. They may not be as much as you think. So that is really good. What other challenges have you faced to date? Because I know every grantee that I've talked to talks about that first year, like there's always a ton of challenges and things going on and I'm sure you guys were no different. What kind of challenges have you guys faced this first year?

 

Lynn: Well, we are having more success with the youth population. We have enrolled 29 youth, and really what we're hoping with that population is to as we move forward, a number of them are already in plan. They're receiving benefits counseling. We're in the process of still developing the specific CTPIE services. We're hoping to develop financial literacy. We're almost ready to go to contract for that.  Family and peer mentoring. Those are the two categories that have presented as our biggest struggles right now, and that is for that youth population as well as the adult population. And we're hoping, right now we're in the process of developing, So all of the individuals who are enrolled in CTPIE, we're going to start reaching out to their family members to get them together, let's get together, What's been successful about CTPIE? We want to develop a grassroots group for them to be able to walk through struggles with other family members. How did you get the funding? What does your DDS budget look like? Here's the VOC rehab and here's what VOC Rehab can do for you. And how can we get these two agencies to be able to work together? We are very fortunate in the state of Connecticut that we have excellent partnerships with our Developmental Disability Services Agency and our state Department of Education, and all three agencies are working very well together to be able to serve this population within this grant.

 

Carol: I think you couldn't do it if you didn't have that relationship with those other agencies, because all of that funding is so intricately interwoven. And so if you're not all kind of hand in glove working together, it will make it so much harder. So you're taking a great approach with that. I know you also are taking a really cool approach with the counselors that you have dedicated to this project. Talk about that training you're all going through. I really was intrigued by this.

 

Lynn: So as you mentioned, Connecticut is small but mighty. We have three regions. So we have our north, south and western regions, and we have one CTPIE counselor in each of the regions who will be working with CTPIE consumers. We also have a project coordinator, myself, who is the director of the grant, and we have a vocational rehabilitation supervisor that supervises the CTPIE counselors. We have all gone through Charting the Life course. We have become ambassadors. This, I felt was very important for all of us to be able to go through this training so that we are speaking the same language as our DDS agency. This language will then translate over to the consumers that we're meeting with and the family members. It's very important for us that they feel that sense of identity in terms of, okay, no matter which agency I'm going to, we're going to be talking about the same things. They're going to recognize me as an individual with a significant disability, and we're going to be working on the same things. And that's going to be to promote competitive integrated employment.

 

Carol: I love that. I think that was super, super smart. And I know we've talked a bit about your, you know, building and leveraging all of these different relationships that you have, which is great. And I think it maybe is almost a little easier in a smaller state as well to build that stronger coalition. How did you build that relationship and get connected with the state special ed directors? Because I know you did some work around that. That has been real helpful to the project. How did you go about that?

 

Lynn: Well, I have been very fortunate in my career here with the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, and I've had different focus areas as a staff person working in central office, and I became pretty good friends with one of the contacts in the state Department of Education. She has my position under the Bureau of Special Education. So her and I, as soon as we got the SWITCIE grant, we started talking about, okay, how can we get this information out to the schools? How can we encourage students and families to enroll in CTPIE? And honestly, she's like, Lynn, whatever you need. I'm here to be able to assist you. One of the approaches that we have is that, and I know sending out letters is not the best way to communicate with folks, but we wanted to make sure that folks were getting at least the basic information of CTPIE. So part of our marketing was to develop using the letterhead and the logo, to be able to send out letters to all of the students who are exiting, who are eligible for DDS, that are exiting in June of 2024. So I made sure that my contact at the state Department of Education had those template letters. We emailed them to all of the special ed directors, so they had a copy of the letters that were being sent to students, and those letters were mailed out at the beginning of September.

So we emailed the information out to the special ed directors the third and fourth week of August. So as they were starting their school year, they would get this information. And our hope was because the special ed teachers are the trusted source for the students and the families, once they got this letter at home, they'd be like, huh, what's this? Who's reaching out to me? So the special education teachers would be able to say, great opportunity. We got this as well. And we strongly encourage you to enroll in CTPIE. We also emailed the link to our website and I'll do a little shameless plug here. It is CTPIE.org, and I encourage all of the listeners to be able to click on our link and look at a little bit more about what we're doing here in the state. We also had the ability to work with our marketing company to do some videos. So we did a video specifically for special educators and family members, and we also had one of our DDS, Self-advocates. He did a video encouraging individuals with IDD and their family members to try out competitive integrated employment.

 

Carol: I liked that I had a chance to go out to your website, so I did watch all the videos and saw how you had structured that site to kind of target different audiences that were going to be impacted by this project. I thought that was really good. So in your work with this marketing team, I know folks nationwide, they're trying different ways. I know you said sending letters, do you have strategies developed, like to use different means of communication technology, whatever. As you're working through this project, what are you guys thinking about?

 

Lynn: So after we sent the letters to the special educators, we actually did get a number of emails back saying, hey, we want to know more, which was absolutely fabulous. The state of Connecticut, they also do a back to school event in September, and we were invited to set up a table at that event. And when they did their opening remarks, they also did a slide on the PowerPoint to all of the educators in the room about CTPIE with just some bullet points, explaining who we are, what we do, and the fact that we had a table outside. So we had a lot of foot traffic from the schools that attended the back to school event. And so a lot of questions were raised. We were able to take time to be able to walk special educators through who we are and what we do. We also get lists from the Department of Developmental Services for all the students who are exiting each school year, and those lists., it contains the information about where these students attend school. So we're able to reach out to those schools and say, hey, I'm the CTPIE counselor, and I would love to be able to get together with you to speak more about CTPIE. We would love to be able to do an individual and parent night if that would work for your students. So it was a lot easier getting that connection to our schools, the special educators.

 

Carol: That is good. I was going to ask about that. If the CTPIE counselors were going out to the schools, because I know that boots on the ground is always super important, if you can get at the local teachers and really get them excited and get the administration in all of that on board, you have an easier time to get something set up like a parent night and student night type of thing. That is really awesome.

 

Lynn: The other huge benefit that we had for our student youth population is for Pre-ETS. In the state of Connecticut, we have branded that Level Up. So our Level Up staff met with our CTPIE counselors and was able to do that introduction to those special education teachers out in the schools. So we really leveraged our Level Up connections. We work with wonderful schools here in the state of Connecticut. We have great relationships with our Level Up staff and that really, really assisted us. And, you know, being able to make that entry into the schools specifically for CTPIE, we also encourage our Level Up students who have that diagnosis of IDD to enroll in CTPIE. And then if we have a student who's coming to us to enroll in CTPIE, if they're not enrolled in Level Up, then we make that introduction to our Level Up staff so they can access our Pre-ETS services.

 

Carol: That's really cool. I like how that's all coordinating together. I still firmly believe that Pre-ETS is kind of the gift that keeps on giving. I know it really threw the country for a loop when we're switching from our primary focus on adults to these young people. But I think, oh my gosh, this investment in students younger is going to make such a difference in the whole trajectory of what happens in VR. And I think we're getting to a point where we're going to be able to start doing some of those longitudinal studies. So the investments that VR has made with staff and time and efforts in getting. All of that training and exposure and connectedness with the schools. Look at like how you can leverage here. That is perfect. That is really cool. So what advice Lynn would you give, you know, other people, I'm sure a new DIF will come up this year. Again, I know money was returned and there's excess funds sitting there, and I'm sure RSA is working on that as we speak. And we get calls a lot at the TA center. You know, people will be like, oh, I don't know, should I apply for a DIF or not or what? What advice do you have for folks that are maybe on the fence or thinking about, should I do it or not, what would you tell them?

 

Lynn: I love what I do and I had the opportunity of really working on section 511, so I was very in tune with this population. I care a lot about this population. I have always believed competitive, integrated employment is the way to go and individuals have that right to be able to work. So when this DIF came and it was announced, I was definitely interested in it. I work with a great bunch of staff here in Connecticut that share the same vision, have the same passion as I do, and I think that's the key. That's been the key for me at least. I also have a very, very supportive management team behind me. You know, Dave Doukus, Kathy Marchione, I report directly to both of them and they have been fabulous. They are very supportive for the things that maybe I haven't had that much experience within my role as a consultant with the Bureau working on contracts, probably not my most favorite thing, but I have a team behind me that's able to assist me and teach me. So it's a lot of patience having staff that are passionate about the project and just being able to have that infrastructure, those are the things that I would recommend and if anybody has, you know, if you're thinking about it, questions or concerns. Want to know a little bit more about my experience in Connecticut? Please don't hesitate. Reach out. Give me a call.

 

Carol: Excellent. Could you give our listeners your email address? Would you mind?

 

Lynn: Sure. My last name is a little bit of a tongue twister, so I'll go slow here. It's Lynn l y n n dot Frith F as in Frank, r i t h at ct.gov.

 

Carol: Excellent. Well, I'm really excited about what you're doing there, and I'm looking forward to following up with you later on down the road as you're starting to get, you know, more experience and more people are in and having those really good outcomes happening. But good for you guys. Thanks for taking time today. I really appreciate it, Lynn. Hope you have a great day.

 

Lynn: Thanks, Carol, for having me. I hope you have a great day as well.

 

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