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Employing People With Disabilities: a Critical Mission

I’m a big fan of Star Trek. One of the things I find most attractive about the fictional futuristic setting of all the series is how everyone within the starships’ and space station’s crews gets to use her or his unique skills and talents to further every mission as well as, at least once, save the rest of the crew from certain disaster. This includes not only the Humans and the more agreeable aliens such as the Vulcans, but those aliens that might be more on the margins of traditional society, such as the Klingons, the Ferengi, a Talaxian, a Changeling and a Borg drone that managed to be removed from the Collective. Our future descendants, it seems, are expected to have conquered not only disease, poverty and hunger but also unemployment.

Last week, I attended the graduation from Project SEARCH, involving the son of a friend of mine. As with any such ceremony, there were a number of heart-warming moments, including a “thank you” video of several minutes that was directed to the retiring special education district member who brought the Project to the district. But the most impressive aspect of the proceedings was the “HIRED” stamp, imposed across the photo of every participant, and near the end of the individual video in which they also thanked the members of their internship site. All but two of the 12 interns had already started paid, competitive work before the ceremony date; and the remaining ones were interviewing with good prospects.

There are more than a few articles that circulate from major news outlets that insist that the country’s economic strength, like the proverbial rising tide, is lifting even the boats of workers with disabilities. At the same time, though, other articles are conceding that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than twice that of the general population. This statistic very probably underrepresents the severity of the situation, since the barriers that people with disabilities face—everything from employer perception to transportation to the limited accessibility of buildings and technology—means they are less likely to seek employment and/or more likely to give up seeking early, even when the labor market is strong.

Most of us have experienced the paradox of entering the workforce for the first time. Almost every employer wants a worker with at least some experience, but one employer per worker has to be the one that hires that worker without experience for that very first competitive job. This paradox presents a challenge for most fresh-out-of-school young people, but even more of a challenge for an unproven young person with a disability.

However, Project SEARCH provides cohorts of youth with disabilities some serious, real-life work experience through a rigorous internship program. Most participants take the program as an alternative to their final year of the extended high-school term called “transition”, provided to youth in special education. However, seeing the immense popularity of the program, some Project SEARCH chapters have been adapted to accommodate youth, who have already aged out or otherwise exited the school system. You can find out everything you want to know about Project SEARCH here (, but below are some of the highlights.

For starters, the very first line of the very first paragraph under the “Program” > “Transition to Work” drop-down tab states: The goal for each program participant is competitive employment. It then provides this succinct explanation of the “how”:

To reach that goal, the program provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent-living skills to help young people with significant disabilities make successful transitions to productive adult life. The Project SEARCH model involves an extensive period of skills training and career exploration, innovative adaptations, long-term job coaching, and continuous feedback from teachers, skills trainers, and employers. As a result, at the completion of the training program, students with significant intellectual disabilities are employed in nontraditional, complex and rewarding jobs.

Most Project SEARCH chapters involve collaboration among the school district (or special education cooperative) a sufficiently sized local business, the state’s department or vocational rehabilitation, and one or more providers of adult disability services. For example, in my home base in the near-southwestern suburbs of Chicago, the La Grange Area Department of Special Education (LADSE) partners with the AMITA Health Center, and the Brookfield Zoo as the business participants and Helping Hand as the adult disability service provider. There are at least a dozen Project SEARCHsites across the state of Illinois and many more across the United States, including one in Hawaii and four in Alaska as you can see here. Each site accepts around a dozen participants.

The first two weeks of the Project SEARCH program comprise orientation, where students learn about the sponsoring businesses and then develop a career plan. Through the full course of the program, students spend several hours a week in a classroom setting, learning the needed functional skills to increase not only their employability, but their ability in general to live independently as adults. Such skills include self-advocacy, financial literacy, and health and wellness in addition to the topics that are more closely related to employment such as workplace safety and team-building. The students spend most of each day of the five-day per week curriculum, working as interns at the sponsoring business. Students are immersed in the actual workplace with diverse co-workers and learn the skills necessary to be considered for an entry-level competitive position. Students generally rotate through three departments at the sponsoring company. In addition to department and industry-specific skills, the interns also learn problem-solving, communications and other transferable skills.

Towards the end of the program, the emphasis turns to individualized job development and brings in more participation from vocational rehabilitation. If they complete the program with 95% attendance, a good attitude, and successful skills acquisition, the interns leave the program with a portfolio that typically includes a resume, letters of recommendation and attestation to their various competencies. Project SEARCH is selective, based not so much on intellectual or academic capacity but rather the student’s desire for and intention to work. Within that context, the program has a remarkable success rate with more than 70% of participants achieving year-round, competitive employment of at least 16 hours/week at the prevailing local wage for that type of work. More outcome data is available here.

Project SEARCH is not the only internship opportunity. Some high school special-education programs support robust off-campus work experiences. There are an increasing number of post-secondary programs for youth with disabilities. In the Chicago metro area, Elmhurst College’s Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy, ELSA, offers students with disabilities a two-year program that includes academics and independent-living skills training as well as on- and off-campus internships. National Louis University offers its Path to Academics, Community and Employment, PACE, which is a three-year program that includes functional academics, social and independent living skills, and employment preparation, built around three internships. A number of community colleges, for example the College of DuPage (COD), also offer programs, designed to help youth with disabilities become employed. One Summer Chicago brings together government institutions, including the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and other entities such as Chicago Public Schools and the City Colleges of Chicago to provide internship experience for the disadvantaged youth including youth with disabilities. Finally, the Department of Labor website features an extensive guide to inclusive internships.

In the way distant future, transporters may solve the headaches of jammed highways, and replicators may make 24-hour grocery stores and overnight shipping obsolete. But we need a realistic and workable way to address the unacceptably high unemployment among people with disabilities much sooner, especially our youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Internships are not the fail-safe only answer, but they are a good start. If you are a young person with a disability or the parent, sibling or friend of one, check out whether Project SEARCH or another such program operates in your area. It may be what the special person with a disability whom you know really needs to explore the new world of competitive work, to seek out new work skills and new colleagues and to boldly go where their careers have not gone before.

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