Study Focuses On Teens With Disabilities\ Project Summer Aims To Get Teens Involved In Jobs, Schools, And The Community

By Devin Rose, Wisconsin State Journal

Getting a good job as a teenager can be difficult enough, let alone when the teenage job-seeker has a disability such as autism.

But thanks to a three-year study at-UW Madison, the issue is being examined with the intent of turning the problem around.

Project Summer, run by the Community Inclusion Unit at the university’s Waisman Center, aims to increase the levels of school, employment and community involvement for youth with a variety of disabilities.

“We’re all interested in the transition of youth into adulthood,” said project investigator Audrey Trainor. “The goal is to address what kids are doing this summer because it’s such a great time for them to develop their skills away from the demands of the academic school year.”

The research team is bringing suggestions from community members together with students’ desires in order to connect them with summer jobs and internships, which principle investigator Erik Carter said will lead to better outcomes in the students’ adult lives.

The project began with a grant in July 2006 from the National Center for Special Education Research, a part of the U.S. Department of Education.

From there, project coordinator Beth Swedeen said the team started examining the involvement of about 400 youths from 34 Wisconsin high schools in the spring of 2007, 90 percent of them with emotional, behavioral, cognitive and learning disabilities.

Swedeen said they looked at how engaged the students were in school and whether they worked or wanted to work during the summer. The findings, she said, “didn’t surprise us.”

“It was apparent that many of them were not experiencing the success that their peers without disabilities were experiencing,” Trainor said, such as enrolling in college, getting involved in their communities or being competitively paid if they were able to get jobs.

The students with disabilities had significantly lower employment rates at the start of summer, and many who were employed ended up losing their jobs before summer’s end.

The next step, beginning in the winter of 2007, was a series of “Community Conversations” in Baraboo, Madison, Stoughton and other communities. Parents, teachers, youth program leaders and business members brainstormed ways to increase youth employment.

Trainor said the conversations were a “fantastic jumping-off point,” and issues such as networking, help with transportation and on-the-job support were discussed. She added that just knowing students with disabilities want to be employed is helpful to the process.

Swedeen agreed, and said it was “really heartening” to see so much support for the project.

In the spring, teachers from the communities sat down with students to discuss their plans for summer. Since this is not typically something teachers do, the research team thought it would be beneficial and students would be less likely to lose jobs.

To get schools and businesses communicating with each other, business owners and members of each community’s chamber of commerce were appointed as business liaisons. Resource maps were also created listing different opportunities available to students.

Although analysis of the outcome data is just beginning, Swedeen said the strategies used during Project Summer’s intervention appear to have had an effect on students’ ability to get jobs.

“It’s a massive undertaking and there are many components,” Trainor said, but added the project has gone “very well” so far.

Reprinted with permission.