For young adults with disabilities, finding and keeping a job is a meaningful milestone towards independence and a unique type of achievement that, for many, marks a fulfilling life. However, finding the right job training and school-to-work transition training has proven to be a huge roadblock for most special education students seeking employment. So how can we address this problem?
Real Training for the Real World
Experience is crucial for special education students: “this means getting genuine employment experience in community-based locations where they can earn competitive wages” reports Christina Samuels from EducationWeek. However, this type of employment can be difficult to attain—it requires making phone calls to employers, sending out resumes, visiting locations, and finding creative ways to promote each individual’s skill level. The problem is that even in transition facilities and agencies devoted to supporting youths with disabilities, staff members are often uncomfortable helping with the tireless job search required. With this struggle, families often turn to the schools for guidance, but it can’t be left entirely up to the educators alone.
“You would think we would have a handle on how to do this the right way, but we’re asking educators who are not trained in employment to be job developers,” said Laura A. Owens, the president of TransCen, a Rockville, Md., nonprofit that provides career and workforce development for people with disabilities.
Teachers can’t do it all: come up with the lessons, provide the plans, teach transition skills, bridge the school-to-work process and find/provide jobs for their students. To make up for this lack of training, community organizations, parents, workplaces and teachers have to work together work together to help students with special needs to prepare for what happens after graduation. This includes providing experiences that in some way translate into real-world work and sometimes additional training in hands-on technical or vocational skills. The best transition training also focuses on other workplace must-haves such as effective ways to communicate, etiquette on the job, having a positive attitude, being confident, problem-solving, and working on a team.
Across the country, several initiatives are being put in place to help bolster the availability of resources for special education students hoping to enter the workforce. The newly enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act aims to build a link between schools and the community. Through provisions that require vocational-rehabilitation agencies to offer students with disabilities transition services, communities can now become part of workforce readiness. This allows individuals in school-to-work transition to take advantage of the training and guidance that is necessary to land a real job – and not only employment that is open to people with disabilities.
Steering Away from Segregation
Unfortunately for many students with disabilities, job training often includes working alongside other individuals with disabilities at segregated jobs that don’t promote the soft skills (interpersonal communication, social etiquette) and social/life skills that are essential in the working world.
All too often, these young adults are steered into specialized programs that segregate them from the general working population. These ‘workshop’ type environments don’t allow people with disabilities to build real-world skills that carry on into genuine employment in the community. Why? Because these jobs typically don’t require any specialized knowledge, soft skills or even independent living skills.
For example, at one such workshop that was located in Rhode Island, young people with disabilities spent their time on menial tasks like assembling jewelry, without experiencing genuine employment and competitive wages. In 2014, Rhode Island signed a first-of-its-kind consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to bolster its supports for students and adults with developmental disabilities. Today, Rhode Island serves as a “national leader in the movement to bring people with disabilities out of segregated work settings and into typical jobs in the community at competitive pay,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, in a statement.
Programs that seek to transition students into mainstream jobs offer the opportunities to build and use these valuable work skills and social skills. By stressing real-world experience-building, teachers, parents and employers who are part of the student’s transition can help prepare him or her for a meaningful future that includes a fulfilling job.
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The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.