A round the U.S. organizations are creating and implementing employment programs for youth with disabilities that focus not only on job readiness and skills training, but also on transitional skills necessary for students moving from school to the workplace. Many of these programs include credentialing processes or practices, such as resume development, interview skills training, and mentorship-based learning. These effective employment and vocational programs are successfully helping youth with disabilities gain competitive, long-term employment in the technology, food, hospitality, healthcare, and financial industries – among others. However, the fact remains: The labor-force participation rate for Americans without disabilities is more than twice that of the population with disabilities – the largest minority population in the nation. Though you may think a disparity status of such immensity would alone prompt federal and state governments, employers, grant- and policy-makers to actively work to reduce the national inequity, historically, it has not. Despite extensive debates in social work and special education, particularly those in health care and rehabilitation systems, and changes in managerial practices resultant of the discrimination suits subsequent the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), full integration of individuals with disabilities in the workplace has not yet occurred.
That is why it is a fundamental responsibility of society – caretakers, parents, educators, legislators, grant and policy-makers, and all the influential constituents in between – to prepare adolescents and young adults with disabilities to lead prosperous lives as adults. But to do this means equipping them with a broad base of foundational skills in literacy, communications, problem-solving, numeracy, and career management. For this group, social and economic mobility is not promised, which means these critical skills must be promoted in early adulthood through targeted transitional and vocational training programs.
Though there remains a global need to create more pathways to competitive employment, there are a considerable amount of private and public organizations and governmental agencies who are improving opportunities for employment among youth with disabilities through strategic funding efforts. One such organization is Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability and a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility and longterm outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord.
A telling report showed that approximately 40 percent of students with disabilities in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County leave high school without any employment or post-secondary educa tion training. Recognizing the need, Kessler Foundation awarded a $378,300 Signature Employment Grant to the University of Washington Autism Center (UWAC) to expand their pilot program, 21 and Able – a joint initiative with supermarket chain Giant Eagle that builds the capacity of businesses to employ and retain young people with disabilities. With the Foundation's funding, the project scaled up to include the University of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Since the Grant, the collaborative project has resulted in 161 youth with disabilities job placements paying an average of $25 an hour, and an estimated economic impact of $1.1 million in salaries and benefits (in 2016). In aiding the transition of partnerships between a single institution and employer, to more extensive, regional organizations/institutions, 21 and Able has been able to impact a much larger group of job seekers and employers. In fact, the program has recently partnered with The City of Pittsburgh and FedEx Ground, proving that strategic initiatives like this can be replicated and expanded to address the needs of all employers.
H igh schools for students with disabilities are also developing effective career pathway programs. Every year, as part of National Disability Mentoring Day (DMD), Kessler Foundation hosts a group of students with disabilities from Horizon High School, a comprehensive, New Jersey based special needs school, to take part in various educational lab projects. The students participate in spinal cord and traumatic brain injury, stroke, neuroscience and bio-engineering lab activities. While DMD continues to be recognized the third Wednesday of each October during National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), the Foundation has expanded its efforts from one-day to year-round, offering simi
lar on-site mentoring programs to students from institutes such as New Jersey Institute of Technology's (NJIT) Center for Pre College Programs. For more than a decade, Kessler Foundation has hosted 30 to 50 post-8th grade students attending NJIT's Center for Pre College Programs, Biomedical Engineering Program (BIO-MED). Deemed the program's most popular field trip, students learn how Foundation scientists apply robotics to help people with disabilities while gaining interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). An exemplar among the Program's former participants is Kaitlyn Gross, whose experiences motivated her to return as a counselor for the Program, and pursue a career in medicine. Gross is currently studying Kinesiology – the study of human mobility – at Temple University, with the end-goal of becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon.
Another successful high school employment initiative is Bridge to Employment – an innovative, early intervention career program developed by JEVS Human Services and funded by Kessler Foundation that helps high school students with disabilities transition successfully into employment. Students work with a career navigator who begins by assessing the students' personalities, aptitudes, interests, and values. Next the students are assisted in creating resumes that describe their unique strengths and interests, and placed in relative internships. Upon graduating, the career navigators then help students convert the knowledge and e x p e r i enc e obtained during their internships to land a job. One student of the Bridge to Employment program, who for the purpose of this article will only be addressed by her first-name, began with an internship at a preschool that initially only involved plating food, wiping tables, and vacuuming last fall. That soon changed. Lauren worked with the career navigator to identify her current and potential abilities to expand her day-to-day tasks. By the end of the school year, Lauren was preparing fruit cups in the kitchen and reading to the children. Showing their appreciation, the children made Lauren a poster containing each of their pictures and the message, "Thank You La La" – a nickname they had given to Lauren. Today, Lauren is flourishing – her communication skills have greatly improved, she is increasingly more independent, and is scheduled to graduate in June of 2018. Lauren looks forward to securing full-time employment by the spring. While these employment initiatives have and continue to produce life changing results for youth with disabilities, such as full-time employment and internship opportunities, there is still much to be done on the global scale. Systemic change can be fulfilled through continuous strategic partnerships between nonprofit and for-profit businesses, but this requires significant planning, resources, and commitment. Through the mentioned programs, the Foundation seeks to demonstrate that initiatives that promote the employment of youth with disabilities are both feasible and practical for all, and that wide-spread change can be achieved one story at a time.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Viglione, M.S. is a Communications Specialist with Kessler Foundation
While these employment initiatives have and continue to produce life changing results for youth with disabilities, there is still much to be done on the global scale.