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Reintegration & Recovery - Back to Work

Back to Work

Oklahoma Program Teaches Consumers How They Can Work While Keeping Benefits

Many individuals with mental illness are apprehensive about working, fearful that they may lose the financial benefits that help them survive. Jack Dan isn't one of them.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1979, the 45-year-old has always wanted to work. While employed as a groundskeeper at a hotel and a janitor at a local mall, among other jobs, Dan earned enough money to pay his bills and have some left over to put in the bank each month. Even though Dan never had to rely on Social Security Insurance (SSI), he now teaches consumers that they can work while maintaining their benefits. He does this as a work incentive coordinator for a pilot program entitled "Working for Wellness."

The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services received a grant from the Social Security Administration (SSA) to demonstrate an effective work incentive education program for individuals with mental illness. The Oklahoma chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), which is under contract from the rehabilitation services, teaches consumers about the value of work in the recovery process and the rules of SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance, according to Steve Buck, executive director of NAMI Oklahoma.

"We invite vendors who have a contract with the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services to talk about their individual programs with their potential clients - the consumers," Buck said. "We do all this during biweekly or weekly workshops for just four to eight people at a time. This will avoid a stressful situation. If attending a workshop is not realistic for a consumer, we will visit them at home. We will also provide rides for them and offer lunch as an incentive for them to attend."

Dan learned of the Work to Wellness program through a contact at the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. As a work incentive coordinator, Dan's job is to notify consumers about the program. He initially telephones consumers and asks them to evaluate what kind of services they want. If he can't reach them by phone, he'll send out letters. If that doesn't work, he'll follow up with postcards. He'll try any way he can to get them into the program and into the workforce. He knows from experience that holding down a job can assist a person in his or her recovery.

"When you have a job, you lose yourself in what you're doing, and your symptoms are manageable," Dan said. "Work lets you know that everything's fine. It makes you feel good that you can be reintegrated into the community and make a difference in the lives of other people."

The purpose of the initial meeting and Work to Wellness program is three-fold" Buck said. "It gives consumers the power to choose their own service provider; it allows providers to be more responsive to consumers' employment needs; and it helps consumers increase their income to remain eligible for benefits."

At the meeting, consumers use a computer to answer a questionnaire about their personal assets, anticipated income and non-cash supports. It evaluates the answers and then shows the individual how much he or she can earn without risking current benefits. Each meeting is attended by an "exemplar," a working consumer who has benefited from rehabilitation services and has been employed consecutively for more than six months. "The consumer's personal story lets those in attendance know about real-life challenges and rewards," Buck said.

A consumer receives a "ticket to work" when he or she is ready for job training and placement. The voucher can be used with any of four employment vendors: three clubhouse-model programs and one supportive-employment agency. A ticket has a value of up to $5,000, depending upon the success of the job placement, Buck said. "The consumer, in essence, is a free agent and is able to use the ticket as if he or she were the direct purchaser of training services," he said. "If a consumer assigns the ticket to one vendor and becomes dissatisfied, he or she can transfer the assignment to a different vendor. The consumer empowerment forces vendors to serve them well."

Oklahoma is the only state in the country that is currently undergoing the Work to Wellness initiative. Since it's a pilot program, not all consumers are eligible; rather, participants are randomly selected. Out of the 252 consumers who have qualified, Dan and his fellow work-incentive coordinators have been able to contact 216 of them.

"I'm ecstatic about the results," Dan said. "We've had about 80 people take a ticket to work, and we've had at least 12 attempt to work. They work at all kinds of jobs: clerical, janitorial, food service."

NAMI Oklahoma's role changes from educator to data collector once the ticket is assigned. Each client who has been employed through the project or is currently in training is interviewed to collect customer-satisfaction data," Buck said. Combined with performance indicators such as average hourly wage, time from placement to employment, and type of employment, the information provides a report card for each vendor. The data will eventually be used in the workshops and home visits to give consumers information for making job-related decisions.

Dan was diagnosed with schizophrenia during his second year at Oklahoma Baptist University. He felt something was wrong after he contracted pneumonia during spring break. After his body recovered, his mind became ill. He wasn't able to eat or sleep for nearly two weeks and isolated himself from others. He was forced to leave school and move home with his parents. Dan's family didn't understand about mental illness and it took some time for him to find a psychiatrist who prescribed the correct medications for his illness. However, relapses kept cropping up in his life.

"I could always find a job, but I couldn't keep it," Dan said. "I had a lot of lost days of work because I couldn't handle the stress. In my last job I was working seven days a week with no days off. I feel more stable now that I have the weekends off and I can take care of my personal business and relax. I'm on new medications now and I'm better able to manage my illness."

Dan, who lives by himself in an apartment, also has time now to do the things he enjoys: going to restaurants, walking around a local mall and going to an occasional movie. He also volunteers at a homeless shelter and conducts church services once a month.

"I really feel fulfilled in my new job because I've been able to touch many lives that I may not have been able to before," he said.

Used with permission, Reintegration Today Magazine.


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