Voice and Vision, Inc. is excited to share the Spotlight section from the Independent Monitoring for Quality (IM4Q) January 2023 Announcement featuring one of our longest-tenured employees. This monthly announcement is distributed throughout the Commonwealth to statewide and regional Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) leaders, state IM4Q committees, and IM4Q program directors. We are grateful for Michelle’s decades of service and find pleasure in working alongside her. Michelle’s creativity and advocacy inspire each of us. Enjoy the read!
This month’s segment spotlights Michelle Tessitore, a long-time self-advocate, monitor for Voice and Vision in Bucks County, and Statewide Steering Committee member.
Michelle began working for Voice and Vision, Inc. in 1999. Other than Valerie Melroy, Voice and Vision’s Founder and CEO, she has the longest employment history with the agency —23 years!
Michelle learned of the job through employees of the Office for Vocational Rehabilitation, who also gave her transportation to the interview. As part of her interview, Michelle was asked about and provided a list of previous work experience—at that time it was a list of Michelle’s volunteer work. She had completed high school and some college classes, taking one or two standard liberal arts classes per semester. Michelle remembers she needed to change instructors for Algebra and when she found the right one, she was successful with the class.
Michelle shared her uncertainty of being able to do the job and recalls that Valerie stepped out of the job interview briefly to bring in another coworker to encourage Michelle to “stick around.” “I just wasn’t sure what I was in for,” she shares. But what drove Michelle to take the job was that she liked the idea of showing others that people living with disabilities can work! She began working on the Independent Monitoring for Quality (IM4Q) team, interviewing people in Bucks County living with disabilities who receive service and supports to help them in their daily lives. Part of IM4Q is “reminding people of the people who are there to support them, like a Supports Coordinator. We give a fresh perspective when we ask questions and things come up that staff may not have ever considered—even as simple as going out for a bike ride might really improve that person’s life.”
Michelle took part in one of the first classes of Competence and Confidence: Partners in Policymaking (C2P2), a program of Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities. Participants in C2P2 leadership training attend one weekend a month for nine months and learn about things like how to contact their legislature and first-person language. “One of my legislators actually wrote me back! I shared a poem with the class, and they put it in a magazine by Kathy Snow. [See Michelle’s poem below.]
Soon after, Valerie Melroy suggested Michelle join the IM4Q Steering committee, where, with others, she makes recommendations to the Office of Developmental Programs to make changes or suggestions to the Essential Data Elements questionnaire, the interview tool used for IM4Q. “We discuss any difficulties with the IM4Q process and possible solutions. We talk about the importance of hiring people with disabilities to work in the IM4Q program, and we also help with planning for the statewide training meetings, like possible topics and accommodations for those meetings.” Speakers at the statewide trainings sometimes share about living more independently; Michelle recalls one of her favorite speakers used Assistive and Augmentative Communication (AAC) to present to the audience. She’s happy to have had the opportunity to meet a lot of people through the steering committee. Meetings used to be held in Harrisburg, but they are currently being held over Zoom, which for some committee members is a great convenience.
During the years 2002-2011, Michelle took part in a communication pilot program with Voice and Vision. Through this experience she has become a fierce advocate for people’s communication rights. She recalls she and a coworker making three visits for everyone they were to see: at home, at his/her place of employment or day program, and a community outing. Their role was “to observe communication, ask our questions that were part of the pilot, and observe reactions and gestures.” Also, to ask those closest to the person the same questions. The belief is that everyone communicates in some way, and people’s opinions about their quality of life and satisfaction with their supports can be known even when the person cannot verbalize them. One area of focus was “concerns about nonverbal individuals who may be sick or hurt who could not report if they needed help.” Michelle has encountered many people during interviews who could not communicate using words and recalls the times where she was coding the interview to reflect that. She shares “it’s OK for someone to speak for someone else if they know them well, but for new staff that can be a real challenge. If someone can’t speak for themselves, it’s important that they know them well.”
We had two interviews with someone who could NOT communicate verbally, but her staff at the first visit told us that she could indicate YES by lifting one of her arms. So, we asked the questions by YES and NO.
A few years later her name was on list to be interviewed again. When we arrived, we found out that she had NEW staff. During the interview I remembered that she could communicate but it took me most of the interview to remember how she did it. When I remembered I told the staff about it. The NEW staff was NOT aware of it prior to our visit.
Sometimes people have their own way of communicating, their own “signs”, that makes for a difficult situation. Training new people is important, so they know how that person communicates. Capturing the information in a communication document is important so that it’s not lost as people come and go.
One of the conclusions of the pilot was the need for a lot more communication support in all environments. The percentage of people who have and use communication devices (AAC) is minimal. “We still have work to do to build bridges in communication for people who don’t speak.”
It’s a concern for me how you never know if an emergency is going to happen with a person who doesn’t verbally communicate. It makes me feel better knowing that some first responders have had some training in this. I think it is an area where people need to be more aware and practice what to do in an emergency, just like people practice fire drills.
Michelle also shares that if she could change something with how people get help, she would wish that things moved more quickly to get people the help they need, whether it is a place to live or more hours with staff.
Michelle is grateful for her continued work at Voice and Vision; she’s worked in various roles, doing individual and family interviews, putting materials and resources together for the IM4Q team—she even says she “tried my hand at data entry—but that wasn’t a good fit for me.” Currently she also submits timesheets for her coworkers: “They communicate information to me, or I reach out to get the information I need and report that every two weeks.” Socially, working gives Michelle an opportunity to share work experiences with others.
Most importantly, Michelle is rewarded by the fact that she’s been able to work in the community and contribute and be successful! She comments wisely that she “had to have an opportunity first—I wasn’t sure if I was able to do it, but having the opportunity was very important or I never would have known I could do it!”
SO, WHAT WOULD IT TAKE?
By: Michelle Tessitore
What would it take for you to see
that there is more to us than just our disability?
Everybody has problems – some are easier to see,
but the only thing that matters is a person’s ability.
To do things we all have a right,
but in our case sometimes we have to fight.
This is NOT something that we could plan, but do things – oh yes, we can!
We may have to do them in a different way, but ” so what?” is what I say.
What would it take?
Maybe just a clue that maybe someday this could happen to you.
IM4Q is an information-gathering method the Pennsylvania Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) uses to improve the lives of individuals with an intellectual or developmental disability. https://www.dhs.pa.gov/Services/Disabilities-Aging/Pages/Independent%20Monitoring%20for%20Quality.aspx
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