Transition Pathways Project: Connecting High School Students to Paid Work

/ July 6, 2021

By Jessica Awsumb

The goal of the Transition Pathways Project, a federally funded initiative, is to explore the impact of paid work experiences during high school on the post-school outcomes of youth with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities. While paid employment during high school is a typical experience for many youth without disabilities, the same cannot be said for students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities (Carter et al., 2010).

However, when young people with disabilities are connected to meaningful work experiences in their communities, achieving their goals becomes much more likely. In addition to a paycheck, a good job contributes to a sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and greater independence; it gives people a place to share their strengths in valued ways; it can foster new friendships and access to social supports; and it provides resources and connections that increase community involvement and contributions. For youth and young adults with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities, participating in paid work in the final years of high school helps develop their pathway to employment after high school. While students may take part in experiences such as job site visits, short-term job sampling, or unpaid training, most high school programs stop short of paid work experiences (Lipscomb et al. 2017).

The Transition Pathways Project is part of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center focused on the Employment of Transition-Age Youth with Disabilities. The RRTC is funded through the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), which is a part of the federal Administration of Community Living. The Transition Pathways Project directly supports schools to help connect students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities to paid work that will lead to better post-school outcomes. This project requires collaboration between the student, their family, their teacher, and others in the student’s network, such as Vocational Rehabilitation and providers of Pre-Employment Transition Services. We anticipate that the ability of school teams and families to deliver high-quality transition services will increase.

To begin this work, our team reviewed the research literature and held focus groups and individual interviews. Our team is made up of five experts in the field of transition including Dr. Erik Carter, Dr. Ben Schwartzman, Leah Burgess, and Michele Schutz.  We were trying to answer these questions:

  1. What are the barriers to paid work during high school?
  2. How are these barriers solved so that students can get and keep paid work during high school?
  3. What do interviewees see as meaningful work during high school?

We interviewed 24 parents of young people with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities, 17 employment agency service providers, 15 special educators, 13 employers, and five school district leaders. Many barriers were discussed in relation to:

  • Community challenges (for example, are there employment options in the area?)
  • Employer and workplace challenges (such as the workplace’s understanding of disability),
  • Family-related challenges (how much or how little is the family involved?)
  • Service system challenges (there is often much confusion around adult services)
  • Partnership challenges (how well does the school team collaborate?)
  • School-related challenges (for example, are there school policies that may hinder employment?)
  • Student-related challenges (such as communication difficulties or behavior concerns)
  • Transportation challenges (such as access to transportation)

While many barriers were mentioned, recommendations for solutions were also shared including:

  • Attitudes and mindsets (for example, focus on students’ strengths)
  • Individualization (align jobs to students’ skill sets and interests)
  • Knowledge/skill instruction (for example, provide career planning)
  • Staffing (more staff is likely to be needed)
  • Student work experiences (provide community-based work experiences)
  • Supports for students (for example, use other workers to provide “natural work supports”)
  • Training and information (including providing businesses with training)
  • Transportation (provide travel training, which teaches students how to use public transit or ride-sharing apps)
  • Collaboration (particularly collaborating with families)

Based on this information from the interviewees, our team finalized our intervention plan, and we will partner with a handful of school districts in Middle Tennessee, starting in the 2021-2022 school year, to test this intervention plan.

Across the next two school years, we plan to work with school teams to help approximately 50 students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities gain paid employment in their communities. A school team must include the student, their teacher, and at least one parent, but we anticipate additional supports such as Pre-Employment Transition Services providers, and others in a student’s support network working with the school team. We will provide training, support, and our expertise to these school teams to help them connect their students to paid jobs. This will be individualized to each student, meaning while one student may be ready to go into the job they have been wanting to try, another student may need some help better understanding what job they would like to try. One teacher may have a lot of experience working with employers in the community, and another may need resources to understand how to communicate and connect with employers. The goal is to understand the needs of the school teams and provide support and coaching when and where it is necessary.

So, what will happen with the remainder of these students with disabilities in each participating school district? They will be included in the comparison group, which will receive the transition services that are already happening in schools. Each participating student will be followed for one year after high school to track their employment status, as well as satisfaction. Tracking students for one year after high school will allow us to examine the impact of in-school paid employment on post-school paid employment. Our goal is to package the intervention (materials, stories, and findings) and share across the state and country. Early work experiences can help students (a) build their resumes, (b) demonstrate their capacity for successful work, (c) change expectations of families and professionals, (d) connect to employers, and (e) learn and apply skills in the very settings in which they will use those skills. We believe that by helping students with disabilities experience paid employment, they will go on to live meaningful and fulfilling lives in their communities.

My thanks to Jessica for providing details on what I consider an exciting new project that could have an important impact on students with significant disabilities. As I learned about the research that my colleague Dr. Erik Carter and his team have done over the past several years that highlights the importance of paid work experiences DURING high school for students with disabilities, I had very much hoped that my son would be able to have a job during high school. But we encountered many of the barriers listed above. And he never got that experience. I am still hopeful that he may, at some point, find employment that brings him joy and satisfaction, but we’ve not been able to find that right fit yet. I know so many students with disabilities want to work, and I’m delighted that this effort is aimed at finding the best ways to make that happen.

Jessica Awsumb is a research associate and the project director for the Transition Pathways Project to help students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disability connect to paid employment in high school. She came from Chicago, IL, where she received her doctorate in disability studies. Jessica previously worked with Chicago Public Schools and Illinois’ Vocational Rehabilitation to become meaningful partners in serving youth with disabilities.

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