What if we could help more young people with developmental disabilities get meaningful jobs?
Only about a third of people with disabilities are employed, compared to almost 80 percent of people without disabilities.
This number has stubbornly refused to budge despite legislation aimed at leveling the playing the field, including requiring schools to help students transition to jobs or further training after high school.
But researchers Michael Wehmeyer and Wendy Parent are working to turn this around.
Wehmeyer, director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities (KUCDD), is finding out what and how existing programs help teenagers with disabilities transition to adult employment through a five-year National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research grant.
“After high school, young people with disabilities are less likely have jobs, live independently or continue their education,” Wehmeyer said. “Developing self-determination —problem-solving, decision-making and goal setting—can give them control over their lives.”
Wehmeyer said that a recent government report confirmed that the quality of federally mandated transition services varies widely. “There is very little empirical knowledge about the impact of self-determination on adult success.”
Wehmeyer’s study will yield much evidence on this. Wehmeyer’s KU research group is collaborating with University of Portland researchers to evaluate high school self-determination programs in seven states involving 700 students.
“Policymakers can use this information to incorporate self-determination instruction into the high school curriculum,” said Wehmeyer.
Wendy Parent, KUCDD Lawrence assistant director, says that many more people with developmental disabilities could be competitively employed.
Parent is directing a project to help young women get good jobs in non-traditional career areas before they leave high school.
The four-year program was implemented this year in seven Kansas high schools and will add seven more high schools and seven middle schools by 2008. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Women’s Equitable Employment Act Program.
Women with disabilities earn lower wages and are even less likely to be employed, be employed full time and remain employed than men with disabilities, Parent said.
To tackle this problem, the project merges the self-determination process with supported or customized employment—a proven approach for assisting people with disabilities become competitively employed.
Parent, who has dual expertise in vocational rehabilitation and special education, and a long and successful history of helping individuals with disabilities find creative jobs, is guiding the young women to think outside the box—including considering jobs traditionally held by men.
People with disabilities want to work and can work when they have individualized supports that meet their needs, Parent maintains. “The employer gains a qualified employee and the employee becomes a contributing member of society —
it’s a win-win situation.”