Less than a year after a change in federal regulations put about 20 people with disabilities out of jobs at ECHO, the Leesburg disability services nonprofit has unveiled its new training program to get their clients ready for the day and ready for the workforce.
Among other services, ECHO helps people with disabilities find jobs and provides support to them in those jobs, and their clients can be found across Loudoun working at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, delivering mail at Inova Loudoun Hospital, packing boxes at spinal surgery and equipment pioneer K2M, washing dishes at the Oath campus in Sterling, and cleaning buses and limousines at Reston Limousine.
But in May 2018, ECHO closed its long-running mailroom, caught in a change in federal regulations that required clients to be placed in work settings integrated and competitive with non-disabled coworkers to receive federal funding. The mailroom, which employed only people with disabilities, did not meet the Rehabilitation Services Administration’s new interpretation of the rules.
ECHO staff had warned Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) of the threat to their program months before, but despite supportive words from the senator during the tour, no fix ever came.
ECHO has adapted, though. On Friday the nonprofit unveiled the ECHO Academy, where its clients can learn both life skills and job skills.
“Employment support organizations like ECHO have been under a lot of pressure to change their operations,” said CEO Paul Donohue Jr. “I have some reservations and concerns about some of these new policies, however we can all agree on one common goal: helping people with disabilities achieve their optimal level of personal, social and economic success. The ECHO Academy was created to do just that.”
The former mailroom and loading dock have been refitted to help clients learn personal hygiene, computer skills, life and social skills, and even vocational skills.
“The tools and modules that our new academy utilizes will help us discern just what their optimal level looks like,” Donohue said. “What do they like? What are they good at? What types of work will get them excited and fulfilled?”
“While I still strongly believe that group supported employment is needed and the best option and choice for many individuals, I am also very proud that ECHO was able to adapt to the changing regulations,” said Chief Operating Officer Zanelle Nichols.
She said the academy, including the Practical Assessment Exploration System, or PAES, lab, will help people become more independent.
“Knowing and understanding your interests and strengths provides you with a sense of purpose,” Nichols said. “Building on your interests and strengths paves the way for inclusion. Enhancing vocational interests and strengths leads to great employability.”
The unveiling also featured a performance from A Place to Be, a partner organization of ECHO that uses the clinically-based therapeutic benefits of music and arts to support people with disabilities.