Educators, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and job coaches have stories to prove it: with support, people with disabilities can succeed in competitive jobs. And for young men and women with disabilities, a competitive job, a “real” job, is life-changing.
On these pages, you will find numerous stories of interest to families and supporters of people with disabilities about how employment success is achieved.
Similar to all of our initial work experiences, training and on-the-job assistance are often key to job success.
- A successful laundry business resulted from not only excellent job training in high school but from hearing about the success stories of others with disabilities.
- A special education teacher knew her young student loved to play with insects and snakes. The teacher found a job for the student when she left school as a snake holder at a natural history museum.
- For Justin, the high school community work program proved it: with support, there are jobs he can do well, especially jobs using the strength he has developed through weight lifting.
Employment Specialists also point to another important factor to successful employment: finding the job that the individual with disabilities wants to do. They say learning the preferences of potential employees is important to matching them to jobs that can be successful.
But it is not only the assistance from organizations that create employment success, it is often the community around us, the natural supports.
Thinking back on our own transition to the world of employment, often it was some community link that brought about employment: someone the family knew whose business needed help, or a friend of a friend that knew about a job opportunity.
A mother of a young man with autism who has a very successful small business said community jobs put her son on the road to later success. As she put it, “It’s often the community that teaches you the skills.”
It was a video about bees shown to his third grade class more than a decade ago that started things. Now Anthony Schwager is a spring and summer fixture at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Lawrence, where he sells honey and other products of the bee business he and his family have built.
At the Lawrence market, customers come in waves, purchasing honey, lip balm, honey straws, or other wax or honey products from Anthony‘s Beehive. Some stop to study the observation hive on a table, watching the bees do their magic, as Anthony works to keep honey jars clean and stocked and Anthony’s assistant, Aaron Kim-Luellen, waits on customers at a table set up in front of the truck used for hauling the goods.
“I told my parents I wanted bees,” said Anthony, who has mild Intellectual Disability and Epilepsy. “They said no; they didn’t know anything about bees.”
Anthony persisted, said his father, Tony Schwager.
“It became obvious pretty quickly it wasn‘t just a whim,” he said. “Now he’s been doing this a long time. That’s what’s cool about it; he’s got the skill set to do all of this.”
Anthony, now 23, even has an observation bee hive in his bedroom.
Bea Scott carries two large tote bags full of clean, folded towels on her lap as she pulls her wheelchair into the business. She’ll leave with different bags of at least the same size, full of towels that need cleaning.
It’s pick up and delivery day for Bea’s Business. This Monday, she’s at the Headlines Salon on 23rd Street in Lawrence, accompanied by personal assistant Becky Stakes, who drives the van with “Bea’s Business” printed on the side panels.
Bea, 30, who has cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities, has run a laundry service for beauty professionals since 2008. The Headlines Salon has been a steady customer for a year and a half.
The smile on Bea’s face as she greets salon owner Desiree Strecker shows how much Bea values the business. She talks to Ms. Strecker about the storm that hit Lawrence the night before, and her smile broadens as she accepts a payment check.
Joe Steffy’s parents admit it started off as a way to prove the school system wrong. What it turned into was a future for their son. A future with his own community surrounding him.
Joe’s father Ray Steffy said they were told that because Joe has Down’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is non-verbal, Joe had no chance of future employment. His future was most likely in a group home, living with others with disabilities and maybe doing busywork in a very controlled atmosphere.
Ray and Joe’s mother Janet Steffy knew better. They lived with Joe.
“We saw more than that with Joe,” Mr. Steffy said. “At home, what we saw was that Joe was very capable of working. I said ‘we’ll prove Joe has capability.’”
The Steffys set out to show the world what Joe could do. But what Joe, now 24, has accomplished in the years since then has amazed even his parents. In many ways, Joe Steffy -- Poppin’ Joe -- has become a nationally-known symbol for successful employment of young people with developmental disabilities.
There’s always an option. Sometimes it just takes brainstorming to find it.
For Annie Anschutz, snakes became that option, and a willing museum room manager in Annie’s hometown of Hays made the option possible, along with a caring special education teacher.
Annie, 22, who has severe autism, is a regular “holder” of snakes in the Discovery Room of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.
With her sister Crystal, Annie regularly goes to the museum and lets various non-venomous snakes slide up and down her arms and, to her giggly delight during an early May visit, temporarily underneath her sweatshirt and up her arm.
Discovery Room Manager Thea Havgen said the snake holding Annie does as a museum volunteer serves a purpose. She said the snakes, including a Great Plains Rat Snake named Buddy and the Milk Snake that made its way up Annie’s arm, need to be handled because they need to get used to the groups of children that visit the Discovery Room regularly.
“Stress is trying on animals in captivity,” Mrs. Havgen said. “Annie helps them get used to stress. She likes to call it snake exercise time. She tells us she’s letting the snakes work their muscles.
“Sometimes she even holds the mice and some days, when I’m far behind, Annie helps me put dishes away,” said Mrs. Havgen.
Circle of Friends is just one of several programs that Washburn Rural Transition Specialist Kathryn “Kak” Eli-Schneider has been instrumental in developing during her 13 years in the position. She came to the district 15 years ago and began the transition program at the school.
Mrs. Schneider also started the school’s on-campus cookie shack where students with disabilities learn job skills by baking, decorating, and selling cookies.
The community work program is a major part of transition work done at Washburn Rural under Mrs. Schneider‘s leadership. It involves students with disabilities, many ages 18-21 with developmental disabilities, working at competitive jobs in businesses across Topeka, sometimes with a fellow student serving as job coach as they learn the work.
Mrs. Schneider spends part of her time working to find jobs for students with disabilities in her program, especially the 18-21 year old age group. And although the recent sour economy has made this tougher, she has had plenty of success.
“I have kids working all over the city,” she said. “Most kids in job placement are kids with developmental disabilities, with various degrees of disabilities. Some need job coaches, some do not.”
Mrs. Schneider says the goal of transition is to prepare students for life outside school. This is not something emphasized in the past.
“Circle of Friends” has been key to Justin White’s tremendous growth over the last couple of years.
At Washburn Rural High School southwest of Topeka, Circle of Friends involves students who have found a way to blur traditional lines between students with disabilities and other students. It pairs mentors, including top student athletes, with students with disabilities and has grown from an original 40 students two years ago to 175 student this year.
Friendships bloom in the group as they get together for games or do things as simple as getting together for lunch. At Washburn Rural, it’s no longer students with disabilities at an isolated lunch table in a corner of the cafeteria.
Justin, 21, is finishing up his last semester at Washburn Rural. Because of his developmental disabilities, including Intellectual Disability and Epilepsy, he has remained in school in the work study program past his normal graduating class. Under federal law, students with disabilities with unmet goals on their Individual Education Plan can continue education until age 21.
The progress Justin has made during these final school years has amazed his mother, Tonia Martin, and she points to the social connections he has made through Circle of Friends as a main reason. Justin is an original member of Circle of Friends and serves as co-president.