Guest Blog: Innovative Approaches — An Interview with the Owners of Picasso Einstein

Posted by Kim Cordingly on January 27, 2017 under Accommodations, Entrepreneurship / Self Employment, Organizations | Comments are off for this article

JAN is fortunate to be able to use the JAN Blog as a vehicle for interviewing an organization, employer, individual, or business about how their work contributes to the employability of people with disabilities. In this Blog post, we’ve interviewed Boaz and Minerva Santiago – the founders of Picasso Einstein about their efforts to promote and support viable self-employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities.

1. Can you tell us about yourself, your background, and what inspired you and your wife to start Picasso Einstein?

First off, at home, my wife and I are truly like Picasso and Einstein, although that is not how the name of the company came about. My wife, a special needs planning attorney (clearly Einstein) is very analytical; a planner. Whereas, with my psychology background and love for technology, I tend to be more “free-spirited” if you will; or Picasso-like. When my wife and I married, I was doing what I had loved doing for many years, teaching social entrepreneurship to at-risk youth. My wife said to me one day, “you know, the boys (our two boys with autism) are ‘at-risk’ too.” I was in total agreement. She had been witness, by way of her profession, to way too many families whom had adult children with developmental disabilities with no real employment plans for either the immediate or long-term future. My wife, in her infinite wisdom, as she perceived the future of her own children, knew that both boys, due to their autism, would also struggle with traditional employment; particularly our older son, who is mostly non-verbal and experiences seizures. So we asked ourselves, “If they cannot find regular work, what will they be doing when we are gone?” We had to do something about that question and we both knew that self-employment would be a great place to start. Even though we were unsure if they would actually grow up to be self-employed, we were convinced that we could use a small business venture to teach them all of the things they would have to know whether self-employed or traditionally employed, like workmanship, financial literacy, business basics, communication, community (the business kind) and so much more. And even better, we could get started NOW, even though they were only 10 and 12 years old. So we did just that; we got busy doing something about it!

2. Can you talk a bit about the process you underwent starting your company/organization?

During my years teaching social entrepreneurship, I had written a curriculum that I often used as part of the program delivery. So, my wife and I decided to amend the curriculum to be more attuned to the needs of an at-risk youth due to his/her disability. As we began to think about this venture and our two boys, it led us to the name Picasso Einstein. Why? Because they are two incredibly eccentric boys, that despite their obvious limitations, are incredibly brilliant and artistic in their own unique way. Honestly, both of them are what we would consider a perfect balance between brilliance and art.

So we began putting the pieces together for our program, and were immediately invited to pilot our program with the Dan Marino Foundation through a one-day activity with some of their students. That brief pilot eventually led to us designing, developing, authoring and delivering a one-year post-secondary Entrepreneurship Program within the Dan Marino Foundation, with amazing results. Fifteen students with developmental disabilities started off knowing very little about self-employment, and all graduated from that program by delivering a 5-minute business plan PowerPoint presentation. Each one had their own unique challenges (e.g., reading, verbal communication, self-confidence, and many others), but all were overcome on that day as they each passionately delivered a presentation they never thought possible just a year prior. Although the Dan Marino Foundation did not continue the program, we learned a very important lesson within that relationship. We were sending these students home to parents that were not fully supportive of self-employment for many reasons. Some could not at that time see the potential in their children, while others were simply not familiar with self-employment and could not think beyond traditional means of employment. So we realized that any self-employment program, in order for it to be sustainable and successful, needed the full buy-in from the parents/caregivers and support staff. How? We decided to write a new curriculum, 100% focused on parents/caregivers and professionals interested in knowing how to take the lead to assist someone interested in self-employment. This completely revolutionized our educational programs, because we were now, and continue to be, focused on educating parents/caregivers and professionals.

3. On your Website, you feature 2 quotations – one from Pablo Picasso and the other from Albert Einstein – your organization’s namesakes:
“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” – Pablo Picasso
“Science is the refinement of everyday thinking.” – Albert Einstein
Can you talk about how these quotations inform the mission of your organization?

Picasso and Einstein simply seemed so fitting, not only because it describes our children, but also because life requires both approaches. Recently, Dr. Temple Grandin was asked to state one thing that she has learned in her career. She responded: “I used to think that engineering (science) could fix everything. I now realize that creativity (art) is equally as important.” We couldn’t say it any better.

We have a deep respect for the scientists, who feverishly pursue a more in-depth understanding of developmental disabilities. We also have a deep respect and appreciation for those who take more liberal and artistic approaches in their engagement with individuals with developmental disabilities. Both are needed. Both are useful. Both are valued by us, and many. And in the spirit of balance, we would live in a different world if either Picasso or Einstein had never existed. We need both, and they need each other.

4. Can you describe in more detail your program — who you serve, how your services work, and your goals for the future?

With incredible partnerships with organizations such as the University of Miami Center for Autism & Related Disabilities; Olivia’s Angels Foundation; Adonis Autism; United Way of Collier County; and Work For America, as well as a collaboration in the works with the National Down Syndrome Society, Family Care Council of Florida and the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, we have been able to provide direct education to parents/caregivers and professionals on how to create simple, sustainable and most importantly, meaningful jobs by way of a simple self-employment model.

Initially we organized our own classes for parents, but have come to realize that our footprint is so much smaller than those organizations that already serve thousands of families with developmental disabilities. Hence, we have focused more recently on working directly with organizations interested in our model and in providing access to our education for the families they already serve. Smaller organizations can organize groups of parents that are interested in our #JobCreators program online, or at times, like we do with Adonis Autism, we deliver the 12 hour course in person. For larger organizations that have a solid infrastructure and staff, we offer a program in which we train and mentor staff with the goal of integrating our platform into their organization as a long-term service offering.

Our long-term goal is to provide access to our education to any family, any professional, any organization, and any self-advocate in the world. Recently, we launched our online portal SelfEmploy.org with the goal of providing that access. Proudly, we recently educated a family from New Zealand, confirming the global need for self-employment education.

5. In some segments of the disability/employment community, despite policies supporting self-employment and customized self-employment options, there continues to be a reluctance to support it. From your experience, can you talk about why you think this is the case and what steps you believe can help better facilitate this option?

First off, let me state for the record that Picasso Einstein’s mission is not to create entrepreneurs out of every single individual with developmental disabilities. Instead, our main focus is to provide information, tools, and awareness so that self-employment is offered as a viable first option, instead of the last option. All persons with disabilities simply deserve choices like all of us. It is not only their civic right, it is their basic human right.

With that said, here are some very specific items we find to be barriers to self-employment:

Education: Professional and parental/caregiver education is a substantial barrier. Most individuals, whether they are caregivers or individuals providing employment services have never been self-employed themselves. Additionally, agencies and organizations (such as vocational rehabilitation) do not make self-employment training a priority for their counselors, supervisors, etc. It’s pretty simple. It’s hard to expect people to support something they don’t fully understand or don’t feel prepared to take on. That is where our curriculum hopes to address that barrier directly.

Perception: I once had a disability community leader say in front of an audience during one of our presentations, that we (Picasso Einstein) were “overselling self-employment. And then he began to establish his argument by asking, “What about those individuals who don’t even know to run out of the house because the fire alarm is blaring?” Mind you, he described my son in that question, and yet my son is successfully pursuing self-employment. Here is the problem. When someone’s perception of the disability population is overwhelmingly based on the focus of one’s limitations, then quite often, things will seem unachievable. We (Picasso Einstein) live by the words, “Always assume competence.” Why? Because when someone assumes incompetence, like the aforementioned disability community leader, not only does he miss the abilities altogether, but far more tragic, he unknowingly removes countless opportunities for a person to try something new, different, and maybe even challenging. Not only does the person lose out, but so does the entire community depending on such a person to be progressive.

Awareness: Knowing you are not alone in the journey is important. We are hoping by way of providing exposure to stories of other families from around the world whom have chosen self-employment as their way forward to meaningful employment, that perhaps more parents, advocates, professionals will also feel comfortable exploring it a little further.

6. If you were asked to describe the 3 most important points or “best practices” you believe are most essential to creating successful and sustainable self-employment options for individuals with disabilities, what would they be and why?

Think Sustainability – Ask yourself — How will the employment plans survive long after the parents/caregivers have passed away?
Step one must be gathering a team — one that consists of a balanced group of individuals such as peers, friends, family members, local college students, other entrepreneurs to help come up with better business concepts, have larger discussions as it pertains to community supports, as well as personal supports for the individual. If all of the intricacies of the business live on the shoulders of the parents, then that business goes out of business on the day of their death. Not only is that not sustainable, it’s not fair to the person.

Think simple – Persons who tend to think in terms of job descriptions really struggle with coming up with self-employment business concepts.
This minimalistic approach to entrepreneurship is far more traditional than most know. Most businesses are founded by identifying a simple niche. What can the business do to address a particular problem? In our approach, the focus is on what the person CAN do that is meaningful to that person and can also generate income.

Community Integration – No business survives and much less thrives without having a pulse in the community.
Many individuals believe that self-employment is about locking yourself up in a garage for a year, living on rock-n-roll and pizza until you come up with the final product. We have seen that movie too. But that is not our perspective at all! On the contrary, if you build specific business activities that require community integration into the very business concept, it now becomes the vehicle for community integration. So imagine this — instead of the person integrating into the community simply because we say it’s important, they do so now because they have something to say, to offer to that community. Having a product or service to sell creates intrinsic motivation and desire to integrate into the community. This creates an environment of community integration that is not forced upon the person, but instead is desired by the person, because they now desire it, for a profit.

At the end of the day, we simply desire that individuals with disabilities have the means and platform that creates and injects meaning and purpose into everything they do, including their community engagement.

What Are the JAN Consultants Reading (or Watching)?

Posted by Kim Cordingly on January 26, 2017 under Accommodations, ADAAA, Entrepreneurship / Self Employment, JAN News, Products / Technology | Comments are off for this article

Melanie Whetzel, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team

Just last month, I finished reading Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) — How Seeking a Diagnosis in Adulthood Can Change Your Life by Philip Wylie. What a wealth of information!

As the title suggests, this guidebook focuses on very late diagnosis of autism, what is involved, what has led up to the diagnosis, and how to cope with it.  Included are chapters entitled “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Diagnosis,” “Common Reactions to Very Late Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder,” “The ‘Coming Out’ Process,” and “How to Live Well with Very Late Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Information also encompasses co-existing mental health impairments, available supports, and strategies to help newly diagnosed individuals move forward.

At JAN, we receive inquiries from many older individuals who either suspect that they have autism, or have obtained a recent diagnosis. Sometimes they just aren’t sure what to do. I believe I now have a better understanding of the process people have gone through, what their concerns are certain to be, and how we can best assist them.

The next one on my list is Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder Understanding Life Experiences from Early Childhood to Old Age by Sarah Hendrickx.

Sarah Small, Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team

I recently read an article in Counseling Today titled Reconsidering ADHD by Laurie Meyers. She talks about how historically the stereotype for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has been a young child who cannot sit still or pay attention and often gets in trouble. However, in reality ADHD can affect anyone and manifest at different stages in life. This means that sometimes an individual may not receive an actual diagnosis until they are in adulthood. She states that ADHD can often be hard to diagnose as it can also resemble other mental health impairments.

She goes on to discuss that even though there is still a lot to learn about ADHD, researchers tend to believe it is a cognitive impairment that affects the brain’s executive functioning. This can cause issues with concentration, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and other signature qualities associated with the condition. Laurie breaks down her article by looking at some challenges associated with childhood, high school to college transition, and adulthood. Throughout, she shares information from a variety of counselors and their personal experiences working with clients who have ADHD and some concepts and techniques that can help individuals adapt and cope.

I was intrigued by this article because as a member of the cognitive/neurological team here at JAN I frequently receive calls regarding ADHD and accommodations. We typically see the condition and how it affects adults at work, so it was interesting to read some perspectives on how it also affects individuals during childhood and school years. It was a good reminder that no diagnosis has a cookie cutter effect.

Matthew McCord, Consultant – Mobility Team

I recently watched a video on Youtube video by Extra Credits titled, Because Games Matter – A Better Vision.

In this video, the Extra Credits team details the story of a young woman named Sara Winters who was born with ocular albinism. This rare vision disorder caused her to have a visual acuity of 20/200, making her legally blind. However, her ophthalmologist made the suggestion that she play video games as a form of therapy to help her eye sight improve. I found this video interesting not only as someone who considers himself a gamer, but also because it illustrates the importance of keeping an open mind to unconventional solutions to problems. For Sara, game therapy helped her brain understand the limited information her eyes could gather and her visional acuity improved to 20/100. Sara’s testimony illustrates that even unorthodox options can be effective, and when it comes to reasonable accommodation options, being effective is what really matters.

Tracie DeFreitas, Lead Consultant — ADA Specialist

As a self-proclaimed ADA geek, I gravitate toward literature and on-line resources that analyze timely and complex ADA and FMLA issues. I know, that sounds riveting, right? But, it can be. New workplace challenges develop every day with each unique disability employment related situation. Reading about recent employment cases and perspectives on enforcement agency guidances and activities satisfies my inner nerd, and also enables me to offer JAN customers useful information to support their ADA and FMLA compliance efforts. There are a number of go-to resources for ADA and FMLA information, including Bloomberg BNA’s Labor & Employment Law Resource Center and the National Employment Law Institute’s publication, Resolving ADA Workplace Questions, but for weekly content, I’ve been reading a couple of trusted legal blogs. For example, I subscribe to the Disability, Leave & Health Management blog published by the law firm, Jackson Lewis. This blog addresses some of the more difficult legal and practical issues employers face when managing disability, attendance, and leave, among other issues. Another favorite blog is FMLA Insights authored by Jeff Nowak, co-chair of Franczek Radelet’s Labor and Employment Practice. FMLA Insights provides insight and analysis on the FMLA, ADA, and similar employment legislation and was selected as one of the Top 100 Legal Blogs of 2016 by the ABA Journal. Both blogs are excellent resources for practical compliance advice on ADA and FMLA issues.

Kim Cordingly, Lead Consultant – Self-Employment Team

My academic background is in economic geography, so I’m currently reading a book by Maureen Molloy and Wendy Larner entitled Fashioning Globalisation: New Zealand Design, Working Women, and the Cultural Economy. At first glance, this book may appear to have little to do with individuals with disabilities starting small businesses. However, I’ve been thinking about how their theoretical framework and research can help us better understand the experiences of women entrepreneurs with disabilities in a U.S. context. Malloy and Larner describe their project in this way: “The book is an attempt to rethink the relationship between changes in the global cultural economy over the past 20 years and changes in middle-class women’s working lives through the exemplary case of the New Zealand designer fashion industry.” At JAN, we are often contacted by individuals with disabilities who fit into the category of “independent artisans,” participating in their creative and local economy. Organizations such as the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN) in New Hampshire are an example of how entrepreneurial networks can promote and support local women owned businesses that fit into this category. All areas of the U.S. are undergoing distinct economic shifts that affect women’s livelihoods in varied ways. For women with disabilities who pursue self-employment or starting businesses, they are deeply affected by these changes — in terms of the type of businesses they choose to start, what types of networks can support these businesses, and how they think of themselves in their role as a business owner. Work in geography addresses these intersections and how place, space and scale help us better understand women’s experiences in this evolving economic landscape.

Beth Loy, Principal Consultant

Q&A with Damian Sian, Senior Web Accessibility Advisor for Princeton University

Recently I read an article by Damian Sian, who works as the Senior Web Accessibility Advisor for Princeton University. Sian talked about how he got into the accessibility field and the experience he brought from his marketing and test development background. He mentioned two interesting points in his interview that we also find important and challenging at the Job Accommodation Network. First, he discussed the difficulty of making mathematical representations of data accessible. Second, he talked about the importance of collaboration. This article reminds us that the field of accessibility will make great strides if organizations work together to solve accessibility challenges.

Teresa Goddard, Lead Consultant – Sensory Team

A key part of a JAN consultant’s job is finding new and easier ways to do the simple ordinary tasks that most of us take for granted. One of my very first calls here at the Job Accommodation Network involved a question about an intern with limited use of one hand, who was having trouble tying off garbage bags. While it was a small part of the job, the intern wanted to be able to do it independently. A therapist who was working with the young woman called me, a brand-new consultant, looking for a device designed to close garbage bags with one hand. I couldn’t find anything like that in the JAN database. I asked if I could call her back and made my way down the hall to talk to the most knowledgeable product guru I could find, an experienced consultant named Eddie.  He listened to the whole story with a quizzical expression, raised his eyebrows and said one simple word, “tape.”  He went on to explain how to precut and preset pieces of tape for ease of use with one hand.

Eddie’s lesson in looking for simple easy solutions has led me to look at everyday objects in a new way. Although I now take primarily sensory related calls here at JAN, I still like to look at the pencils, tape, and stacks of books on my desk with an eye to how they can be used as an accommodation. I like to read about new uses for household items as well. This has led to a fascination with how-to books. I recently picked up a second hand copy of Reader’s Digest Practical Problem Solver, which has a lengthy section called “Common Things with Uncommon Uses.” This consists of an alphabetized list of ordinary things like scarves, socks, and shower curtains that can be used in unexpected ways to simplify your life. There are 17 uses for tape listed. It may not be a lofty book, but it is jam-packed with ideas that I had never even considered.  Did you know that wearing rubber gloves over your gardening gloves can keep your hands extra warm and dry on cold damp mornings?  It is a simple idea that I will be passing on to my callers with temperature sensitivity. Do you have how-to books collecting dust on your bookshelf? Pick one up!

Linda Batiste, Principal Consultant

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has been cranking out a lot of information in past few months, including some very important ADA-related documents. We use EEOC guidance every day in our work at JAN so I made time to read everything the EEOC published. For employers, the information provided in these documents can be extremely useful.

One of the most important documents is EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues, which explains the EEOC’s interpretation of what constitutes retaliation. According to the EEOC, retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination so this should be a must-read for employers. In addition to retaliation, there’s something called interference under the ADA, which can occur with just one careless sentence from a supervisor. The EEOC’s publication provides the following example:

An employee requests an accommodation. In response, her supervisor tells her that she must try taking medication first or her request will not be considered. This is interference with the employee’s exercise of her rights in violation of the ADA.

Toward the end of the document, the EEOC provides promising practices for employers who want to reduce the likelihood of a retaliation or interference claim against them. The document is pretty long, but there are also a couple shorter, summary documents if you’re not inclined to read the larger document: Questions and Answers: Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues and Small Business Fact Sheet.

In addition to the retaliation document, the other documents the EEOC recently published include:

Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment, which is another serious problem for employers. If you want to review this document and comment on it, you have until Feb. 9, 2017.

For federal agencies, there are new regulations related to their affirmative action obligations for employees with disabilities, along with a shorter question and answer document.

The EEOC also publishes information for individuals with disabilities. The most recent document is called Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.

If you haven’t reviewed any of these documents, you might want to take a look at them – it’s a good way to pass the time on a cold winter day – or if you need information related to any of these topics, you can always give JAN a call!