It's Not Just a Job ... It's a Career: The Arc of Northern Virginia's Co-Executive Director Program Serves as a National Model for "Creative Supported Employment"

Article excerpt

It started as an "experiment" three years ago, designed to answer the question: can a person with an intellectual disability (ID) or developmental disability (DD), with the right supports in place, take on a highly visible leadership position as Co-Executive Director of a major nonprofit organization?

The "experiment" of job-sharing the role of Executive Director of The Arc of Northern Virginia has turned into a fulltime career for both Nancy Mercer and Jill Egle'. The two women--one with an intellectual disability, and one without--have developed a unique position that encompasses running a mission-driven organization, fund-raising, advocacy, and education. With the support of a committed staff, board of directors, volunteers, and community, these two women are changing the way that people throughout Virginia and the U.S. view the human potential of individuals with ID.

Nancy describes how she first came up with the idea. "I was driving in the car and was listening to the radio news, and in frustration I thought: 'I should be President.' Then I thought: there is no way I could be President ... I don't know what a President needs to know, like foreign affairs, defense, and so on ... but then I had an epiphany. I realized that I could be President if I would simply surround myself with an entourage of people who do know these things! And that's when it hit me: that Jill Egle', my lead advocate, who has so many skills similar to mine and then some, could be an Executive Director of our organization--because we have a team of really smart people who make me look good ... and this same team of people can help develop Jill's leadership capacity as well."

Why did Jill and Nancy feel it was necessary to take on this challenge? The answer encompasses both Jill's personal history and Virginia's historical role in building community supports for people with disabilities. It also encompasses the role that The Arc of Northern Virginia has played in working to build "A Life Like Yours" for people and families living with disabilities.

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Jill Egle', now 33 years old, grew up as IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and its earlier versions) was being implemented in the public school system. As a student with an intellectual disability, she was taught in segregated settings, but was encouraged by her family and teachers to reach for her dreams. When Jill graduated high school at age 22, career choices with the right supports were limited. She floated from job to job, often experiencing rejections, low pay, boredom, and failure along the way. Employment in a position with a competitive salary seemed as elusive as her initial dreams of becoming a gymnast or an actress. Jill found fulfillment by doing volunteer work at the YWCA and The Arc of Northern Virginia, where her considerable skills were utilized - yet she was not compensated for her work. And what she was doing with her life was working at a series of jobs, not developing a career.

Jill's situation was not uncommon. Throughout the U.S., adults with disabilities remain significantly unemployed or underemployed. According to 2000 U.S. Census data, only 30 percent of Virginians with disabilities are in the workforce, compared with 82 percent of people without disabilities. The Commonwealth of Virginia currently lacks a coordinated system and infrastructure designed to integrate employment services for individuals with disabilities in a manner which is consumer-directed and user-friendly and which offers meaningful choice and exploration of creative, non-traditional employment options. (Virginia Board for People with Disabilities State Plan 2007-2011.)

The idea of creative "supported employment" opportunities is not a new concept in Virginia. Prior to the implementation of the Medicaid Waiver program in the early 1990's, Virginia was viewed as a leader in "supported employment" opportunities for people with ID. …