Options limited for special-needs students after graduation
Bryan Gardner taps his foot in time to a printer. He misses the instruction, but not the beat.
“Time to go. Time to go now.” He paces in front of the rickety machine, raising his voice. “I want to go home.”
Gardner, 21, of Hampton has autism spectrum disorder. He only speaks when it suits him. His mind is rhythmic, metered by precision and distracted by noise.
Ideally, he would land a data entry job at a company friendly to special needs workers, something challenging with employers who value his proclivity for numbers.
His mother isn't so hopeful.
Special needs students making the transition from the round-the-clock care they received as children to the adult workforce struggle to find fulfilling work. Existing programs don't help much, experts and parents said.
“The current transition system is broken,” said Penny Gardner, Bryan's mother. “It must change in order for young adults like Bryan who want and are capable of working to be employed in a job that interests them and showcases their strengths and talents.”
The definition of work is the crux of the question, said Andrew Kruse, an employment specialist with South Side-based ACHIEVA, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. The national unemployment rate for an estimated 713,000 work-ready adults with disabilities is 13.2 percent, compared to the latest national average of 7.2 percent.
“We try to ask what value someone brings to a company,” he said. “If you come at that question focused solely on productivity, it doesn't leave a lot of room for people with disabilities.”
For her youngest son, Nick, Regina Sciullo of Latrobe envisions brick-laying, ball-coaching and grand babies, if that's what he wants.
Nick, 19, is sweet and sociable, loves bodybuilding and trains at the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center as a mason — the closest he could safely get to his older brother's high school love of carpentry. His Down syndrome limits his independence, but not his drive.
“I want to do lots of things. Build and coach baseball, go to school and party. I want a good job someday,” Nick said.
He graduated June 11 from Greater Latrobe High School and plans to attend Saint Vincent College in the fall. Just two classes, English and math, plus lunch, Regina Sciullo said.
“Every step along the way has been working toward graduation so that he can go out into the community and have a competitive job or go to college just like everybody else,” his mother said.
State-funded programs like those at ACHIEVA or the Allegheny Intermediate Unit offer vocational consultants, travel instructors, job coaches and life skills programs, but they don't guarantee a job.
Kruse monitored Gardner this spring, assessing his abilities in clerical, janitorial and data entry work. He shined with the repetition of window washing, but was startled when the clunky doors rattled the walls. Laundry was a bust. He wanted to feel the towels, breathe in every one. His typing skills are good, but not good enough.
“It's a puzzle we try to figure out for every person,” Kruse said. “So far, Bryan is not a clear-cut case.”
Gardner works a few days a month analyzing figures for a local insurance company. Other days, he envelopes himself in solitude, tending his collections at home. Often, he sits on the couch.
His mother wonders why advocates paid to work with her son didn't push him harder before he aged out of his high school-based disability supports on June 6. Her worry is palpable and ever-present.
“(My husband) and I will die some day, and he will be on his own with no siblings or cousins to help him,” she said.
Eric Ross, assistant executive director for PA Connecting Communities, a Lawrenceville-based advocacy group, represents an estimated 3,000 disabled individuals in seven Western Pennsylvania counties. When he or his staff meet a client, they start small, he said.
“First, we ask about strengths and weaknesses, then we try several hours of different community assessments,” Ross said. “That could mean paperwork, filing or mass-mailing at a clerical job, bagging groceries at Giant Eagle, retail at a consignment shop or escorting patients at a hospital. We try to tailor employment opportunities to an area of interest, not a specific job.”
Some clients want to work in high-paced environments like theaters and restaurants. They can sweep or clean, Ross said, but many aren't fast enough to clear a cash register through heavy traffic. Some parents dictate the terms.
On average, Pittsburgh companies are more comfortable than most with hiring special needs workers, ACHIEVA employment specialist Melissa Hall said, citing placements with Kuhn's Market in Banksville, an Applebees in Scott, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh in the North Side, Baptist Homes in Mt. Lebanon and several Giant Eagle stores.
“All of us who have disabilities have lived through this question — how to find a job — and that's given many of us a natural inclination to problem solve,” said Kate Seelman, associate dean and professor for disability programs at the University of Pittsburgh.
President Obama recently appointed Seelman, 75, who is hearing impaired, to the National Council on Disability, where she advocates for civil rights and social supports.
“We have to make sure our kids get signed up for work before they sign up for Social Security,” she said.
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.