Adults with special needs have few opportunities for advancement once they age out of high school. Currently, there is no university program in Texas designed specifically to educate people with intellectual disabilities. The Executive Director of My Possibilities, Michael Thomas, is trying to change that.
My Possibilities is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help further the education for adults with special needs. They are working on expanding and will move into their new location next year.
I met with Michael Thomas at the current My Possibilities location to interview him about his past experience, his passions and his vision for the future of the organization.
Why Do You Work with People with Special Needs?
Question 1: You graduated from SMU with a degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies, but your first job out of college was with Muscular Dystrophy Association. How did you become involved in working with people with special needs? You’re clearly very passionate about workforce inclusion for our clientele population – where does that passion come from?
Michael Volunteered with the Special Olympics in College
“I really started honing in on what I enjoyed doing in college, and I did a lot of social engagement and a lot of fundraising events and… I volunteered as the Special Olympics Tournament – the volleyball tournament was at SMU each year. […]
“That’s a job path that isn’t necessarily one that translates directly from Religious Studies but I went directly out of school right into the MDA. […]”
Michael Become Familiar with IDD at Scottish Rite
“I don’t have anyone in my immediate family with a cognitive disability. I grew up going to Scottish Rite Hospital with my little sister who has a physical disability… When she was five, six, she had a bone condition that was very rare and that sort of opened up the door to Scottish Rite Hospital. […]
“If you’re a kid walking down the hall at Scottish Rite – I mean, everybody’s different. Just, that’s the nature of that hospital, so my very forward-thinking mother just sort of [thought] disabilities didn’t really matter. […]
“Cognitive disability wasn’t necessarily something I was hyper focused on coming out of college, but the concept of helping people – fundraising, raising money for people – early on, always made sense. The MDA was just a really great opportunity.”
How Did You Become the Executive Director of My Possibilities?
Question 2: Before you became the Executive Director of My Possibilities, you worked at Opportunity Village in Las Vegas. How did you hear about My Possibilities? How did you become the Executive Director?
Michael Heard about My Possibilities through a Friend
“So, I was sitting in an office [at Opportunity Village] on a Saturday morning, working, and jumped online and saw a friend of mine that lived locally and I just sort of said, ‘Hey, I’m moving back, and this is what I do now, so if you hear anything, you know, let me know.’
“And her response was, ‘Oh, that sounds exactly like the place where my sister goes to school.’ […]
“I go to the [My Possibilities] website … I submit my email Friday evening, and Saturday morning, Charmaine sent me email like, ‘Hey, I’d love to meet with you.’ […]
My Possibilities Took a Chance on Him
“I think there was something about coming from an organization that, at the time, 55 years old, served 2000 people with disabilities, had these major events, and I actually worked on the development side and on program development so I had a little bit of both, and they [My Possibilities] were young enough that they were willing to take a chance on a pretty young [man who had] never been a director before.
“But they were small enough to go, ‘You know what? He’s seen how they [Opportunity Village] do it. Maybe this [hiring me as Executive Director] makes sense.’ […] There was a staff of four at the time. It was a different world, and it was an opportunity to come in and see how they were doing things and go, ‘OK, maybe we don’t do this anymore. Maybe we do this instead.’”
How Will Expansion Change My Possibilities?
Question 3: My Possibilities is expanding to a larger facility in the Spring of 2018. How will the expansion change the day-to-day happenings at My Possibilities? How will education opportunities increase and broaden for students?
Expansion Means Continuing the My Possibilities Education Model
“We’re just taking a traditional college model and applying it to our population, so the ideal long term is instead of a school of engineering and a liberal arts school, we have a school of vocational training and a school of Life Skills and a health and wellness center. So, in regards to how the opportunities expand, I mean quite literally we’re going to be doing everything on a higher scale both in quality and also in quantity. […]”
My Possibilities Will Be a Vocational School
“[The] second phase [of the expansion] is a vocational school… We’ve got a lot of guys that want to work. It is not enough to just sit around a class room and talk about going to get a job. You have to train. So, the idea is that the vocational school is actually going to have classrooms that are designed to function like those jobs would in the community.
“So, you may have an administrative center where it’s really training on the 20 different things you may need to be an administrative assistant or work at a FedEx office or something like that… and get to where if they’re doing those tasks on a regular basis [and they’ve] mastered them, great. Just go out and get a job.”
“But maybe they’ve done it for a while and they don’t want to work in that industry. Cool. We’ll check that box and move on to the next industry and see if that’s some place you want to work.
“We’ll develop a school that really gives our guys an opportunity to learn about different industries. […]”
My Possibilities Is Also Teaching the Community about What Its Students Can Offer
“[Our society is] finally at a point where companies are talking about, “OK – how do we hire people with IDD? How do we hire people with Asperger’s?” Well, that’s never happened before. […]
“While we’re teaching people with disabilities job skills to get them into the community, we need to be teaching the community how to embrace them and how to keep them engaged and to think about hiring people with disabilities [for] actual jobs, not charity-ing – which is what we’ve always done!
“I mean, the story of little Sally that’s rolled silverware at Chili’s for 20 years – I mean, that’s cool, but if Sally didn’t show up to work? They’re fine. Everything’s fine. Somebody else will roll the silverware. We’ll move on with our lives.
“If they have a job where they’re inside the program somewhere – where they’re doing things that otherwise you would have to do […] – I mean, all the things that keep a business running – if they were responsible for those things and then they didn’t come to work the next day, you would know. […]
“That’s how people need to think about hiring people with disabilities, not ‘What can we carve away? or just stick them up at the front to say ‘hi’ to people.”
What Is the Admission Process Like?
Question 4: According to your press release from May 1st, the new facility for My Possibilities hopes to serve 1600 students, compared to your current enrollment rate of 400. Is there a waiting list for enrollment at My Possibilities? What is the admission process like at My Possibilities? Do you turn any students away?
My Possibilities Will Expand in Phases
“The first phase of construction […] will serve about 700 or so, so we’ll be, in the first phase, which will hopefully be done by 2019, we’ll serve twice as many students as we do today. Then when we build the rest of the facilities on the campus, we have the potential capacity to serve 1600 a week. […]
“Our waiting list is usually around 40 to 50 people… Typically our waiting list turns over fairly quickly. I’d say we see the total 50 people turnover around eight, nine months, but that’s to get the full amount that they need. […]”
The Admission Process Takes Time
“The admission process: people say that it’s a little bit longer than it should be, and we kind of do that on purpose. We want to learn a lot about our guys before they start here… We don’t know what you like, what you don’t like, what’s important to you, what’s like, essential to you.
“We want to craft an experience to where somebody can be happy and be successful. So, the total admissions process starts with a group tour, then it’s an individual family tour, then we do sort of the on-boarding process, and that whole thing can take anywhere between … three to four weeks, and the average is closer to six.”
My Possibilities Cannot Accept Students with Behaviors
“So, when it comes to who gets in and who does not, so to speak: There’s really only two groups right now that we can’t serve and one falls on the behavioral end and one falls on the medical end.
“On the behavioral end: There’s a misnomer that My Possibilities doesn’t have people in the program with behaviors. That’s ridiculous. That means that that person has never been in the building. We deal with behaviors all day, every day. That’s just the nature of our field.
“But when a behavior defaults to a behavioral aggression […] that’s stuff that on the front end, if we catch it, we’re going to say, ‘Hey, we need to work with a behavioral therapist on this.’ […]
“[If we don’t catch the behavior during the admission process,] we have a BCBA on staff, and we do have a component of therapy that’s internal, and we will work with the family to try to develop a plan.
“If the family’s not willing to work on a behavioral plan, then that’s our time where we say, ‘This isn’t going to work long term.’ It’s a close-knit educational setting, and certain behaviors have to be worked out. So that’s one side, behavioral aggression.”
My Possibilities Cannot Serve Students that Need Acute Medical Care
“On the medical side: If somebody needs acute medical care […] this system does not comfortably fund and support the nursing world, so we are looking at creative ways to do that. But at this point, if somebody comes in and says that they need … this shot and this g-tube and … anything that crosses over the line of being administered, as opposed to self-administered, that’s just not something that we can do yet. […]
“The perspective externally right now is: Because we’re moving to a higher education campus, that’s going to narrow the scope of who attends, when ultimately, in the planning side of it, it’s the other way around.
“We’re trying to broaden the scope of who we serve. We’re just going to do it differently.”
Describe Parent Reactions to Student Achievements
Question 5: At ACT, we find that many of the parents are surprised at their children’s achievements – they’re floored to discover that their child can write, create art, sing in front of large groups of people or learn a choreographed dance.
How do the parents react to their childrens’ accomplishments at My Possibilities? Do you find it difficult to convince parents that their children are capable of achieving more or do parents come to you already believing that their children could achieve more?
Some Parents Don’t Know Their Child’s Potential
“I’d love to say every single parent comes to us and just has like, this totally grandiose vision of what their child can do. No. Not at all. We have parents all the time that say, ‘Well, he probably won’t do that, ‘cause this is where we’re at.’
That painting behind you was painted by [a student]. When the mom saw that … she was like, ‘Ah, it’s beautiful!’
“And we were like, ‘Yeah, [your daughter] did that.’ […]
“And she said, ‘Well, who did the drawing of the shape? Of the person?’
“We were like, ‘[Your daughter]… Your daughter did everything that you’re looking at here.’ […]”
Education Unmasks Student Skills
“So, through education, this stuff gets unmasked all the time. So, we’ll tell parents when they come in, ‘Here’s the rotation of classes and here’s where it gets to the job stuff,’ and they’ll just go, ‘Oh, he’s not interested in working.’
“And then like, six weeks in, [the student is] like, ‘I want to work. I want a job. I want to make money.’ […]
“We do have some parents that come in like, “Nuh-uh. He’s going to work. He’s going to live independently, and he’s going to have a job, and he’s going to have a relationship, and we’re right there with him.’
“And then we have others that come in and go, ‘He’s just going to be like this.’ And I’ve found way more often than not that their kids prove them wrong.”
Tell Some My Possibilities Success Stories
Question 6: I watched your performance with TedXPlano, in which you tell the success stories of four of your students, Louisa, Jeffrey, Abby and Mason. Where are these students now?
Louisa, My Possibilities Success Story
“Let’s see: Louisa is here part time, and she volunteers at church now and I don’t know how often, but I know she’s there at least twice a week for different shifts.”
Abby, My Possibilities Success Story
“Abby is the artist… She’s [a student who we discovered through education had] perfect pitch. She’s a savant in a number of ways, and all of these are things that – before she left public school – no one really knew about [her].”
Jeffrey, My Possibilities Success Story
“Jeffrey is only here on Fridays now. That dude has like, three jobs, so I mean … he’s got his whole social life… He is just – he’s fine. Jeffrey is fine. At this point, his biggest long-term goal: He’s got two or three friends that – they are close. They want to live together. They want to have a place together, so residential is their next big goal.”
Mason, My Possibilities Success Story
“Mason works here 25 hours a week and is dangerously close to me hiring him full-time, which is a scary place to be because […] I could be the one responsible for taking him out of the Medicaid/Social Security world completely, which I mean, is a hell of a step.
“And it’s great and it’s exciting, ‘cause he’ll … make full-time money. He’ll have benefits. He’ll have a 401k. All that stuff is cool, but now I feel very personally responsible for the long-term, ‘cause if he loses his job at that point, you don’t just get all your stuff back.
“You’ve proven to the country and the IRS that you can work and live independently, so now you go to unemployment – very different world. So yeah, but that’s his long-term goal… He’ll probably be full-time staff here.”
Help Adults with Special Needs Achieve More
My Possibilities is covering the vocational side of progression for adults with special needs. Achievement Center of Texas is focused on artistic exploration and individual expression.
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About the Author
Amanda Woodard doesn’t have just one passion, but if you must give her a label, “Writer” would be the best fit. What she has learned about disabilities from Achievement Center of Texas has literally changed her life, and she wanted to help spread the word about the center through her blogs and interviews. When she’s not at work, she’s reading mystery novels, practicing self-care and learning new things. For more about Amanda, visit her website.