Helping students with disabilities enter the workforce

Helping students with disabilities enter the workforce

October marked National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This designation was first declared by Congress in 1945. Disability Employment Awareness Month recognizes the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities.

Students throughout Ohio and the United States with physical and cognitive disabilities face some of the same barriers to employment others faced in 1945. However, since then there have been more laws put in place to help protect workers with a documented disability such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by Title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Every student I work with has the potential to become employed, volunteer or be involved in their community in one way or another. Students with disabilities face many barriers when getting ready to enter the workforce.

Barriers to employment include unrealistic employment goals, not able to obtain a driver’s license or reliable transportation, unable to work a full work shift, social communication skills and long-term on-the-job supportive services.

When I work with students and families, I always explain that employment for a student with a disability is a community effort. It starts at home, building work skills and a strong work ethic by giving their student the opportunity to do chores, pack their lunch with assistance and learn money management. Then schools build the academic piece to help the students prepare for their future.

Lastly community agencies such as the Wayne County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Holmes County Board of Developmental Disabilities, The Counseling Center and Catholic Charities, to name a few, assist in preparing for the workforce. Families also need to begin to plan early at their student’s annual IEP meeting and discuss “what’s next” with the team at the table.

Employment for students with disabilities is like a puzzle. Every individual and situation is different. Sometimes all the pieces fit perfect the first time; other times it takes a while to put the pieces together.

High school students age 14 through graduation can participate in employment programs to help them prepare for a job, thanks to programs through Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, which provides vocational counseling for students and adults with disabilities. Goodwill of Wayne and Holmes Counties provides a program called Comprehensive Case Management and Employment Program.

The programs help eliminate barriers to employment for students with disabilities. The Wayne County Board of Developmental Disabilities not only works with students with an IEP on Pre-Employment Transition Services, but also with individuals that have a documented developmental disability prior to the age of 22 years old.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, students with disabilities are less likely to be employed than students without a disability. In fact the unemployment rate for individuals with a disability was at 80 percent compared to 3.7 percent for those without a disability. That means eight out of 10 students with a disability will be unemployed in our communities.

Secondly, 31 percent of workers with a disability worked part time compared to 17 percent of workers without a disability. Students with a disability will not attend college at the same rate as their peers, thus increasing the wage gap even further. Coupled with the many barriers students with disabilities face, many students working will not earn a living wage.

In Wayne and Holmes counties, we are fortunate to have a plethora of community resources to help families and individuals in need. The trouble with this is that many do not understand how to navigate the resources to help them.

My job as a transition specialist working with students is to help them reach their maximum potential. Students often pass up jobs they see because the job sounds too hard because of the list of qualifications and requirements.

One of the things I love most about my job is taking students on job tours and internships exploring different careers in their community. Doing this kind of feels like the television show, “Dirty Jobs,” getting to go behind the scenes to see how things are made.

There has been a tremendous response from area businesses in Wayne County that have opened their doors to give tours and mentorships and offer their time to show students what they have to offer the next generation of employees.

Patrick Johns is a transition specialist at the Wayne County Board of Developmental Disabilities. He helps prepare students with a disability to enter the workforce by working in collaboration with Opportunities with Ohioans with Disabilities, other area vocational providers, Wayne County Schools Career Center and local schools to help students reach their maximum independence and employment potential.

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