Transition from School to Work: Time to Move Out from your Classroom Walls

Having just returned from speaking at a Transition Conference in Illinois, I was encouraged by how much enthusiasm the transition teachers there brought to learning about community employment. They took furious notes during my opening. And my breakout session, which focused on job development tools, had to be moved to accommodate everyone. The comment I heard most was, “we have never heard this type of information before!”
This isn’t so much a reflection of my speaking skills as it is the huge gap in the training special educators have available in the practical application of career planning, marketing, and job development. It seems to me that most of these type of conferences are often too wrapped in very specialized approaches, such as running a school bakery, or some other such “transition model.” Educators, like those in adult services, are always seeking the latest in such program models.
Yet, for successful transition, basic wholesale change needs to occur that is much more than some new “model” to try in the building. Schools must expand beyond their classroom walls into their business communities. They need to build career development curricula that are flexible so that they can be customized for each student. They need to turn their focus to engage their local employers, not asking for favors, but as an investment in the future labor force of their community. Most transition programs are noticeably absent in business networking and marketing, despite the fact that they are preparing a significant portion of tomorrow’s workers. 
This absence critically hampers employment opportunities. Schools need to have active partnerships with their local business for career exploration, job site training, resume development, and soft skill training, not to mention job experience. Without marketing plans in place, employers have no idea how schools can function as resources to their business.
Most teachers have a good background in task analysis and training, but I find there is a tendency to over-rely on this approach to solve all work problems encountered. In the world of employment, training isn’t always the answer to hiring and job success. Accommodations, natural support, and individualized job matching can bring much greater results more immediately.
My takeaway from spending some time with transition staff is to acknowledge how much you care about your students and how hard you are working. But it is time for educators to bring in some employment advocates and trainers who can help you build real-world opportunities to keep your graduates from ever seeing the inside of sheltered workshop.

Sheltered Work Phasing Out in Rhode Island; Will Your State Host the Next Olmstead Investigation?

This week, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a landmark settlement based on the conclusion that the state of RI and the city of Providence failed to provide services to individuals with developmental disabilities in the most integrated setting, and were putting students in a school transition program at risk of unnecessary segregation in sheltered workshop and day program settings. Earlier this year, DOJ had investigated the state for violating the Olmstead decision of the Supreme Court through its day activity services system. They focused on Training Through Placement (TTP), a North Providence agency that had a sheltered workshop with transitioning students from the Birch Vocational Program and other schools.

Under the settlement, individuals in Birch and the TTP workshops will now receive supported employment and integrated day services sufficient to support 40 hours per week. It is expected people will work an average of 20 hours a week and receive competitive wages. According to the agreement, supported employment placements cannot be in sheltered workshops, group enclaves, mobile work crews, time-limited work experiences (internships), or other facility-based day programs.

The 29-page agreement is quite comprehensive, and follows on the heels of another DOJ intervention regarding sheltered workshops in Oregon (see The Good, Bad and Ugly). This now marks two separate states that within the last six months have been pushed, under the Olmstead decision, into finally taking action against their long-standing policies of primarily funding sheltered workshops for day services. Clearly, the issue of day service segregation is finally moving from “wait and see” to civil rights enforcement. 

Let’s look at the Rhode Island situation further. TTP workers with disabilities made an average $1.57 per hour, with one person making as little as 14 cents per hour. The investigation also found that Birch students were generally denied diplomas. Most were paid between 50 cents and $2 per hour, or were not paid at all, regardless of productivity. DOJ noted that the Birch program had been in existence for 25 years, and was a “direct pipeline” for cheap labor for TTP, which had contracts with local companies. The jobs were mostly typical of sheltered workshops, assembling jewelry, bagging, labeling and collating.

Effective March 31, 2014, the State will no longer provide placement or funding for any sheltered workshop or segregated day activity services at TTP. Further, last March, Rhode Island embraced an Employment First policy. Under the new policy, new participants in the state system that provides employment and other daytime services to 3,600 people with developmental disabilities will no longer be placed in sheltered workshops. The sheltered workshops should be completely phased out within the next two to three years.

The next question that should come to mind, if you are running or funding a program in a state chock full of workshops, is “Am I next?” Readers of this blog can examine the case presented for moving away from sheltered employment in other posts here. I also have had this discussion with some of the US DOJ attorneys. It’s time to expand the Employment First movement so that we away from sub-minimum wage, segregation, and limited work options, based on an obsolete model that can leave people open to exploitation. People with disabilities deserve better in every state. Employment First should not just be rhetoric. Take a leadership role now; there is no reason to wait for a lawsuit…

We Are Failing Students with Disabilities in Transition from School to Work

The future of changing disability segregation is with young people.

One of the most serious concerns I have about the continued segregation of people with disabilities is based on the lack of progress we have made with young adults with severe disabilities leaving school. Far too many “transition plans” still simply recommend sheltered workshops or other day programs, for example. This often is contradicted by families or the students themselves, who rightly feel that a real job should be the outcome of school to adult life.

I still get a number of requests to act as a consultant or an expert witness in such family-school disputes over transition planning or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond to most of these cases.

In a 2003 study (see National Longitudinal Transition Study), only 15% of youth (13 to 16 years old) with autism, approximately one-fourth of youth with multiple disabilities, deaf-blindness, or orthopedic impairments, and about one-third of youth with mental retardation or visual impairments are employed in a given 1-year period.

Special education needs to do a better job to provide out-of-school work experiences for their students with disabilities, especially those with more challenging disabilities. The older the student gets, the more imperative it is for real world job experience.