By Sandy Cyr
What makes for a meaningful day? Most people seeking a productive, meaningful life look to doing worthwhile things with their time. Finding meaning often stems from the work we do: having a career that is fulfilling, feeling that you are contributing to society. When we do not have meaningful work, when we are unemployed or underemployed, our mental health can become compromised. This is no different for people with developmental disabilities. The Regional Center of Orange County is committed to making sure that people with developmental disabilities have a meaningful days, and that they receive proper job training and employment opportunities wherever possible.
The Regional Center of Orange County (RCOC) is one of the 21 private nonprofit organizations serving people with intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism and other conditions in California. Thanks to the Lanterman Act of 1966, every single person in California with developmental disabilities is entitled to care throughout their entire lifespan. The state contracts with the regional centers to provide high quality care at a cost significantly lower than state-led options such as institutionalization. All states in the United States provide services for people with developmental disabilities, and some solely rely on Federal funds, such as Medicaid waivers. California is unique in that it goes far beyond just the Federal dollars with state funding to provide care for every individual in the state who need these services.
“That’s one thing we are fortunate here in California to meet the needs of everyone we serve,” says Larry Landauer, RCOC’s Executive Director. RCOC works with just over 21,000 people with developmental disabilities in Orange County. Roughly half of those are children living with their parents and receiving most of their services through the school system. When they graduate, RCOC works with the individuals, their families, caretakers, and employers to find meaningful work for these adults. Of the 10,000 or so adults living in Orange County with developmental disabilities, roughly 6,000 of them earn wages and pay taxes, and are able to contribute back to the communities that support them.
RCOC works with partners across the county to provide services as well as employment opportunities. The process can be demanding, with job coaches working with individuals up to 30 or 40 hours a week to ensure they secure meaningful employment. RCOC recognizes that “meaningful” has a different definition for each individual they work with, and they take a person-centered approach to identify what the needs of the individual are. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also part of the process, working with the individual to identify both what is important to the individual, and what is important for the individual. Each person brings a different perspective and information to the discussion, getting everyone on the same page.
“Hopefully that is going to give us a pretty good road map of what would be a good job for this person” says Landauer, “and then we go off and try to get that job developed.” Person-centered thinking allows for RCOC and everyone involved to gain a better understanding of how to best accommodate the needs of the individual. All of these needs get tied into a one page description that goes on top of the individual’s person centered plan. That individual can then take the one page description to work; to the doctor; they can leave it for the respite worker. All of the information is in one easily accessible place.
Of course none of this could be successfully accomplished without the tireless work of the direct support professionals RCOC works with. Landauer recognizes the tremendous efforts of these professionals, and the tremendous stress that paying these professionals minimum wage puts on the system. According to Landauer, “there is a crisis across the nation for senior citizens, for mental health, for every facet that you can think of, there is a crisis in one of the most valuable services you and I can think of is taking care of people and helping people and watching over people.”
As with many populations served by social service organizations, a well-trained workforce of direct support professionals is needed for people with developmental disabilities to participate in all aspects of community life. RCOC advocates at the state legislature not only for people with developmental disabilities, but also for the professionals that work with them. The increase in the minimum wage in California has helped, and RCOC is also working to increase appreciation and recognition for direct support work and to improve its professional stature. “Most of us are going to need care at some point, so why don’t we get it right? Why don’t we put the value in the right place for people taking care of people?” Landauer asks.
The Regional Center of Orange County and direct support professionals work closely with people with developmental disabilities in Orange County to give them opportunities to contribute to their communities, and to feel valued and valuable. Larry Landauer is passionate about the people RCOC works with, adding “we have got to remember that providing a meaningful day is just as important as ever. If people with developmental disabilities just go sit in the park or walk around and they are not going to be doing anything, it’s not going to be good. Their mental health, just like yours or mine, is going to start to decline. This is not a life.”
Larry Landauer, MSW, has been the executive director of Regional Center of Orange County for nine years. He has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Social Work and graduated from New Mexico Highlands University. Larry began his career at RCOC in 1988 as a service coordinator. During two decades, he worked at RCOC in various capacities, gaining experience and first-hand knowledge in virtually all aspects of regional center operations, from service coordination, area management and quality assurance, to the full range of community resources and public benefits for people with developmental disabilities and their families.
Regional Center of Orange County is the private, nonprofit organization contracted by the State of California to coordinate life-long services and supports to more than 20,000 Orange County residents with developmental disabilities and their families. Developmental disabilities include intellectual disabilities, autism, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.