Sunday, June 19, 2005

Mapping Job Goals for Youth with Disabilities


This world would sure be a far simpler place to live if our children were born with pre-programmed vocational software. Imagine how easy it would be if young people were pre-wired so their signature skill sets were quickly identified when queried by the user? And wouldn’t it be efficient if this software produced a clear road map so our youth could sharpen and use their innate talents for future academic success, job productivity, and personal enjoyment?
Well despite growing up in a high-tech world, today’s youth do not seem to have any clear advantage over generations preceding them when it comes to career self-discovery. They live in a more complex time that still relies heavily on self-exploration and discovery through human trial and error. And yikes, youth still have to listen to the subjective opinions of their parents, teachers, counselors, and other human services professionals!
For youth with disabilities and other related job barriers, the road map to career success gets even blurrier and more challenging to navigate. It is little wonder that many of today’s youth and young adults with significant disabilities struggle with important decisions in their transition from secondary education to adult community living and careers.
For many, this transition to adulthood is a difficult period influenced by many overlapping factors including inexperience, uncertainty, anxiety, and confusion. Without having the benefit of important life experiences behind them, most youth are poorly equipped to make important choices that will impact the direction of their adult lives. This includes setting goals and making decisions about their educational, vocational, and personal development pathways.
The choices made by transition-age youth, ages 14-21, however, drive crucial points of entry from secondary education into adult community living and careers. For this reason, academic and vocational assessment coupled with career guidance are among the most important supports offered by parents as well as frontline youth professionals. This includes educators, counselors, and other advisors inside and outside of the secondary education system.
With so many choices and not enough answers, most youth can benefit from the guiding hand of parents and professionals who are well-equipped to assist them with career decision-making. Of course, this is true of virtually all young people. However, it is particularly important to the career development of youth with learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, emotional and behavioral disabilities, chemical dependency issues, and physical or health-related disabilities. This is also important for youth with socio-economic disadvantages, cultural and language differences, and other significant school-to-career transition challenges.
Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, once said: "I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it." President Truman’s advice remains relevant today. However, if the naked truth be told, career preferences and work opportunities for many adults with significant disabilities remain elusive goals. If our nation intends to correct its historically high unemployment and underemployment rates for adults with disabilities, I believe dramatic changes will be necessary. And we need to go directly to the source to introduce improvements that can impact better educational outcomes for youth. Simply said, we need to do a better job of creating universal access to post-secondary education, training, and full workforce inclusion for all youth who leave high school.
The challenge facing parents, educators, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and adult employment providers is advising youth with disabilities so they develop a sense of clarity about their career interests, talents, aptitudes, goals, and job support needs. Of course, the inexperience and indecision associated with being a youth often complicates this objective. And the complexities associated with some disabilities demand highly focused, creative problem-solving skills. For these reasons, getting at the right answers typically requires a little digging, informational research, and applied creativity.
Most high-performing educational and employment programs for youth with disabilities have found it helpful to develop structured formats to guide an effective assessment and career planning process. Most evidenced-based studies document that career assessment is most effective when its practices are person-centered. In other words, the format should be focused on each individual and embrace an ability-based discovery process. The most effective assessments, therefore, emphasize what a youth can do. This includes known interests and preferences, knowledge, skills, and aptitudes (KSAs), and marketable job assets.
A good vocational assessment process is also inductive rather than just deductive in its design. Traditional vocational evaluation programs spend way too much time evaluating what people with significant disabilities cannot do and offer painfully obvious reasons why they cannot do it. To illustrate, many high schools and adult service agencies use prescribed vocational evaluation tasks as a baseline for making sweeping generalizations about a youth’s interests, abilities, and job placement potential. Further, traditional assessments that use standardized IQ tests as screening tools for career planning often miss the mark in identifying the potential work contributions of people with significant disabilities. They miss what a youth is able to contribute by focusing on already known intellectual and academic deficits.
In addition, a youth’s candidacy for community job placement is often restricted by the presence of maladaptive behaviors. In many cases, these behaviors are a by-product of poorly matched work, ecological, or social factors (e.g., segregated work or classroom settings). Finally, it is not uncommon for educational and adult service programs to omit the use of assistive technology assessments that may be helpful to enhancing functional living skills and meeting the employability needs of individuals with significant disabilities.
In summary, effective assessment practices are not designed to "screen out" youth who unsuitable for job placement consideration, but rather to offer scenarios of opportunity based on identified preferences and abilities. These types of assessments can and should be conducted as a integral part of each youth's Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Individualized Transition Plan (ITP) for in-school youth or Employment Plan (EP) for out-of-school youth.
Of course, assessment of a youth’s interests and abilities is really only a beginning. It is equally important to follow-up this process with a consensus plan for action. This means identifying strategies for engaging suitable jobs in the workforce for youth with disabilities. For some youth, this might mean pursuing post-secondary education or training to qualify for a job of their choice. For others, it may mean prospecting the local job market for opportunities that are a positive match to a youth’s interests, abilities, and job training needs. However, it may also mean a need for engaging customized employment strategies for youth who unlikely to compete in the job market by presenting their unique work abilities to employers in more creative ways.
According to the Department of Labor’s Office on Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP), customized employment "means individualizing the employment relationship between employees and employers in ways that meet the needs of both. It is based on an individualized determination of the strengths, needs, and interests of the person with a disability, and is also designed to meet the specific needs of the employer."
The use of customized employment strategies, therefore, assumes that a formal or informal assessment of each individual’s interests and work abilities will be conducted. And it also assumes that a basic dialogue or negotiation with community businesses may be necessary to employ the unique work contributions of individuals with significant disabilities. For these reasons, customized employment cannot be truly effective without a good assessment of each youth’s abilities as well as the types of support that he or she will likely need to be successful in the community workforce.
Customized employment offers exciting alternatives for transition-age youth with significant disabilities. These strategies change our collective vision about what is possible and make job placement a possibility for a growing number of youth with significant disabilities. However, this will require closer and more effective collaboration among high schools, post-secondary schools, One-Stop Workforce Centers, adult community service providers, and interested employers to assist youth and their families in eliminating the current road blocks to workforce integration and job success. President Truman summed it up best: "Imagine what we can accomplish if no one was concerned about who gets the credit?"
So what have we learned from school-to-career and transition research? Most national experts agree that career outcome success for youth with disabilities usually begins with a good assessment. And a good assessment is one that examines the full range of considerations for academic preparation, post-secondary education and job training, job placement, customized employment, and workforce integration strategies. In other words, person-centered assessment and career planning is fundamental to finding the right job, defining the right conditions, and ensuring the right mix of employment, family, and community supports essential to job success.
The National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) at the University of Minnesota offers resources and information to the public about person-centered planning, school-to-career transition policies, and other essential tools for frontline professionals who work with youth. NCSET's website is http://www.ncset.org/publications/default.asp. Also, readers can download a free publication that details contemporary youth assessment practices and other career building topics from the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD/Y) at this URL below:

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