Project Summer targets employment opportunities for youth with disabilities

by Bobbi Jo Snethen

High schools across the country strive to prepare youth for adulthood, but there are additional challenges for youth with disabilities during this transition.

Project Summer, an effort of the Community Inclusion Unit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Waisman Center, is a three-year research project that focuses on identifying strategies to increase the participation of youth with disabilities in employment and community life.

“The overall goal is post-school success for students with disabilities. One of the ways we’re working toward that is focusing on employment and other community activities during the summer,” says project Coordinator Beth Sweeden.

Project Summer Principal Investigator Erik Carter says some barriers to employment for youth with disabilities are similar to challenges all students face, such as locating employers willing to hire youth, scheduling, and transportation.

“A lot of times, however, youth with disabilities face additional challenges to successful employment. One of our focuses is on seeing if identifying youth preferences, interests, strengths and more deliberately matching those interests to local employment opportunities improves employment outcomes for youth with disabilities,” says Carter.

Beginning in the summer of 2006, the Project Summer staff recruited high schools in Wisconsin who were willing to help improve the connections of youth with disabilities to their community. From there, the research team followed approximately 400 students to learn what kinds of activities and jobs they had during the summer.

“The first year of the project we announced that we were interested in addressing these issues and we received responses from 34 high schools in the state who believed it was beneficial in becoming a partner to research this idea,” says Carter. “Currently, we’re working more intensely with seven schools and about 130 students.”

Funded by the United States Department of Education, Project Summer is largely focused on finding employment for disabled youth during the summer months, but Carter emphasizes that any sort of community involvement is beneficial for these students.

“One of the strongest predictors of adult employment for youth with disabilities is having a job during high school, but beyond that, we hope to make connections through volunteering, internships or recreational groups that are all very valuable,” says Carter.

To raise awareness of the importance of employment for youth with disabilities, Project Summer hosted a series of “community conversations” that invited a broad group of community members together for an evening of brainstorming about ways to improve employment opportunities. Anywhere from 20 to 90 people attended each conversation, including mayors, legislators, employers and teachers willing to help, says Carter.

“Overall, the reaction has been incredibly positive everywhere we’ve gone. We realized that a lot of people take interest in this issue, but it’s never crossed their mind because no one has ever asked them to get involved,” says Sweeden.

Some benefits in hiring youth with disabilities include long-term employment and reliability in high-turnover positions, tax incentives to reduce bottom-line hiring costs and utilizing an untapped resource to increase a steadily-declining workforce.

Project Summer’s success is measured through questionnaires and follow-ups with students’ families and teachers. By quantifying their research, the staff hopes to acquire further funding to explore this topic.

“We’ve been funded to come up with a promising set of strategies that schools can use and show evidence for success,” says Carter. “If we are proven successful, then we’ll apply for funding to direct this project to a much larger scale.”

“The idea is to create something that can be replicated across the state and eventually nationally,” says Sweeden. “It’s a very rewarding project and it’s very exciting to see so many people in the community willing to help youth with disabilities become successful.”