The University of Arizona has expanded its efforts to prepare high school students and young adults with developmental disabilities to be competitive in the workforce.
Project SEARCH, a national program founded in 1996 at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, was launched by the UA's Sonoran University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities in 2009. The project partners with large businesses to offer classroom training and hands-on job experience to individuals with a range of developmental disabilities.
For the past three years, the UA, in partnership with several local collaborators, has offered Project SEARCH Arizona at The University of Arizona Medical Center–South Campus, formerly University Physicians Hospital. Participants in the program had the opportunity to serve as interns throughout the hospital, performing tasks ranging from stocking shelves to working in the security department.
The program now has expanded to include two additional sites: The University of Arizona Medical Center–University Campus and the Student Affairs division on the main UA campus. Work is under way to expand the program to Phoenix as well, said Laura Schweers, Project SEARCH Arizona coordinator for the UA’s Sonoran University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities in the department of family and community medicine.
“The focus of the program is for young people and high school students with developmental disabilities to gain marketable employment skills and also career exploration,” Schweers said.
This year, 10 high school students are doing Project SEARCH internships at The University of Arizona Medical Center–South Campus, while a second pilot group of six high school students is working in UA Student Affairs auxiliary units, including Campus Recreation, Arizona Student Unions and the UA BookStores. The Disability Resource Center is providing classroom and office space on the main campus.
Dan Habinek, instructor for the main campus program, said the University was a perfect fit as Project SEARCH Arizona looked to expand its offerings.
“All three locations (within Student Affairs) have been so welcoming, making students not just feel like interns but part of the University of Arizona family,” he said. “They really challenge these kids and give them meaningful tasks.”
The high school programs, funded by the Pima County Joint Technological Education District, are open to 18-21-year-olds in their final year of school.
The young adult program, which has nine participants this year, is open to individuals between the ages of 18 and 30 who are eligible to receive services through Vocational Rehabilitation or the Division of Developmental Disabilities. The young adult program moved this fall from The University of Arizona–South Campus to the larger University of Arizona Medical Center–University Campus.
Caitlin Yost, the program’s instructor, said the hospital has been very welcoming to the interns, many whom are brand new to the workforce.
“For a lot of them, it’s their first time working in the community,” Yost said. “The goal of the program is developing specific skills but also more broad-based skills that they can use in their daily life.”
Over the course of the year-long program, Project SEARCH participants rotate through three to four different internships with support provided by staff from Easter Seals Blake Foundation/SAGE, as needed. As interns gain skills and confidence in their rotation, support is scaled back to promote independence. They start their days with hour-long classes on topics such as employability skills, social skills and independent living skills, then spend the afternoon working five-hour shifts as interns.
The goal is for program graduates to gain competitive employment. This can be difficult for anyone in today’s job market, but it presents unique challenges for young people with developmental disabilities, Schweers said.
“Sometimes employment options have not really been presented to them as they grow up. It hasn’t really been modeled that the expectation is for them to gain employment, so that’s one of the challenges,” Schweers said. “Secondly, businesses – and hopefully this is changing – sometimes might think that a person with a disability is going to require a lot of support to be able to be successful when oftentimes the accommodations or reworking of the business environment is really simple.”
Some Project SEARCH graduates have gone on to get full-time jobs at the business that hosted their internship. That was the case for Daniel Morales, who graduated from the program last year and now works full-time as a patient transporter at The University of Arizona Medical Center–South Campus.
“I learned how to get a job and what goes on around here,” said 20-year-old Morales, who works to get patients safely from place to place within the hospital. "It's always busy because I'm taking care of sick people."
Other program graduates have gone on to pursue employment with outside companies, armed with new confidence and independence, thanks in large part to their experience with Project SEARCH, Schweers said.
“It’s an opportunity for young people to see that ‘I can do this.’”