Maryellen Daston, Ph.D., has a background in biomedical research and technical writing. As a researcher, she specialized in developmental neuroscience. But when she started working for Project SEARCH®, her focus shifted from cells in a dish to the development of the whole person. As part of the Project SEARCH team, Maryellen is responsible for editing and writing content for the Project SEARCH web site, articles for professional journals, grant proposals, and other communications—including the recently published book, High School Transition that Works: Lessons Learned from Project SEARCH (Brookes Publishing Co.).
Erin Riehle, M.S.N., is a recognized authority and national leader in promoting employment opportunities for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. She is a founder and Senior Director of Project SEARCH, an employment and transition program that has received national recognition for innovative practices. When she started Project SEARCH, Erin was a nurse manager at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Her motivation was to offer people with disabilities (who made up a significant portion of the hospital’s patient volume) the same opportunities for training and employment that were available to everyone else. She brought a business perspective to the field of disability education, as well as an ability to bring organizations together for a shared purpose.
Susie Rutkowski, M.Ed., is the Co-Director and Educational Specialist for Project SEARCH. She is a nationally recognized transition expert with specific experience in program development in career technical education and job development for young adults with disabilities. She served as the Manager for Disability Education at Great Oaks Career Campuses for over 12 years. During that tenure she, along with Erin Riehle, cofounded Project SEARCH. Susie has been instrumental in designing the Project SEARCH Training Institute modules and leading replication efforts for new Project SEARCH sites. She speaks and writes on transition-related topics.
“Rachel” was born with Down syndrome. As she approached the transition from high school to adult life, she and her family were faced with many hard questions and difficult decisions about what her next steps should be. Rachel wasn’t able to read, write, or count to 10, so it was not clear to those close to her how she would achieve any level of independence or become a contributing member of her community.
The hope for most typically abled high school graduates is that they will find gainful employment, or go on to college or other post-secondary training that will ultimately lead to a good job. When a young person becomes employed, they get the obvious advantage of improved financial circumstances. But even more importantly, they also benefit from the fulfillment, maturity, and sense of belonging that comes with meaningful work. Unfortunately, young people like Rachel with intellectual and developmental disabilities encounter more than the usual obstacles in getting to this significant milestone. The result is chronically high levels of unemployment for this population throughout their lives. For example, in 2008, the employment rate was 39.1% for people with disabilities and of working age (18–64 years), as compared with 77.7% employment for people within the same age group but without disabilities 1. From year to year, the size of this gap remains roughly the same, regardless of the state of the economy.
If we ever hope to change this bleak employment outlook for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we need to take a closer look at how we approach the period in a young person’s life as he or she leaves high school and moves towards adulthood. As Rachel’s parents knew, this is a critical juncture for establishing lifelong patterns and priorities. As such, it should be a high priority, not just within the field of special education, but for everyone who has a stake in the outcomes for young people with disabilities: the young people themselves and their families, adult disability service agencies, employers, and society in general.
For many years, a typical pathway for someone like Rachel would be to go from high school to a life at home—the “school-to-sofa” path, or to a sheltered workshop or day program, where the pay is minimal and there is little opportunity for personal or professional growth. Indeed, academic literature over the past 20 years clearly documents the persistently low rates of employment experienced by young people with disabilities as they exit high school2,3,4. As part of the federal government’s recognition of this problem, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) now includes a mandate to provide transition assistance for students who are eligible for special education services. However, the quality and accessibility of transition assistance is inconsistent throughout the United States5, and the prospects of young people like Rachel continue to be limited by the low expectations of the people around them.
Transition programing is generally considered to be in the domain of special education, so it is not surprising that these programs are typically designed to fit the structure and priorities of the education system, and rarely take the needs of businesses into account. Daily routines and special events are planned to conform to the school schedule, and the employer is often left out of the discussion until it’s too late for their input to be meaningful. And, although community-based work experiences may be included, most programs offer only limited exposure to actual work environments. As a result, there is often little alignment between the content of the career-technical training that the students get and the skills required for the actual jobs that are available6.
Rachel was fortunate to be among the program participants in the early days of Project SEARCH, a collaborative model of high school transition—developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center—that brings all of the players together in a focused and efficient way to achieve the goal of competitive employment for student participants7,8. Each Project SEARCH program site is implemented through the teamwork of local partners representing the schools, a host business (where the program takes place), Vocational Rehabilitation, community rehabilitation providers, long-term support agencies, and the families of young people with disabilities. The partners make sure that the program is staffed by a special education teacher and enough job coaches to meet the educational and training needs of the students. Students attend the program for a full school year, reporting each day to the host business site. There they learn marketable job skills and explore career options through a series of internships. In addition to internship opportunities, the business provides access to an on-site classroom where students, guided by the teacher, augment the hands-on training experience with an employability-skills curriculum.
Real buy-in from the host business is the factor that allows for total workplace immersion—a critical feature of the Project SEARCH model. Extended exposure to the workplace gives students with significant intellectual disabilities the opportunity to prove that they are capable of mastering complex tasks and succeeding in rewarding jobs, and Rachel’s experience demonstrates what a truly significant difference that can make. Indeed, even though Rachel was among the Project SEARCH pioneers, she still found herself at risk of being limited by false assumptions and low expectations. That is, as a Project SEARCH student, she had a chance at an internship that involved stocking patient rooms with clinical supplies. But because of Rachel’s limited reading and counting skills, the initial response of the program directors was that she would not be able to do the job. Fortunately, the team approach came into play as the Project SEARCH teacher and job coach lobbied for giving her a chance to try. To back up their request, they devised appropriate accommodations—such as counting aids and photo labels—and were successful in training Rachel to do the job by matching items to the photos and using counting beads to get the quantities right. In fact, Rachel did such a good job that she was ultimately hired by the hospital when she graduated from the program. Now, more than 10 years later, she is still employed stocking patient rooms, learning new skills, earning a good income, and happy to be contributing to her community. This is a success story that never could have happened in a traditional transition program with only intermittent exposure to the workplace. Without the prolonged interaction that came with total workplace immersion, combined with the support of her teacher and job coach, Rachel would never have had the chance to prove herself to a potential employer.
In addition to the benefits for students, total immersion creates a significant presence of people with disabilities in the workplace, which sets off a ripple effect with a surprisingly far-reaching impact. The good work and visibility of students—during their internships or as full-fledged employees—change the perceptions of everyone they encounter: friends and family, coworkers, and customers. What’s more, the presence of a Project SEARCH program in a workplace can bring about real changes in business culture, and eliminate skepticism and fear about hiring people with disabilities. And that change in attitude is the first step in breaking down the most significant barrier to employment for young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.