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Options limited for special-needs students after graduation

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By the numbers

The national unemployment rate for an estimated 713,000 work-ready adults with disabilities is 13.2 percent; the latest national average is 7.2 percent overall.

On average, people with disabilities earn about $10,000 less than the national average of $30,660.

Almost one in four people with disabilities earn poverty-level wages. The national poverty rate for those without disabilities hovers around 15 percent.

Source: Census Bureau

Meet Greater Latrobe grad Nick Sciullo, 19, online at http://trib.me/gettingtograduation

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By Megan Harris
Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
 

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 mharris@tribweb.com.

- Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe (right) watches with student, Levi Boring, 18 as Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center masonry instructor, Bill Wilson guides Sciullo in placing a tile in the EWCTC's library, Tuesday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe (right) watches with student, Levi Boring, 18 as Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center masonry instructor, Bill Wilson guides Sciullo in placing a tile in the EWCTC's library, Tuesday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review - Nick Sciullo (right) of Latrobe and graduating senior at Greater Latrobe High School proudly smiles as his friend and fellow classmate, Shelby Noel looks on before the commencement ceremony at Latrobe High School, Wednesday.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Nick Sciullo (right) of Latrobe and graduating senior at Greater Latrobe High School proudly smiles as his friend and fellow classmate, Shelby Noel looks on before the commencement ceremony at Latrobe High School, Wednesday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune Review - Bryan Gardner, 21, graduate of Hampton Township fixes his tie at his home before for prom. Gardner is autistic and is facing limited prospects in the job market after graduation. While he favors detail-oriented work like data entry, his parents say local agencies are pushing him into the four Fs – food, flowers, folding and filth.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell | Tribune Review</em></div>Bryan Gardner, 21, graduate of Hampton Township fixes his tie at his home before for prom. Gardner is autistic and is facing limited prospects in the job market after graduation. While he favors detail-oriented work like data entry, his parents say local agencies are pushing him into the four Fs – food, flowers, folding and filth.
- Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe jokes with his prom date, Kelsey Shaffer, 21 of Latrobe at a park in Latrobe, Thursday. Sciullo has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe jokes with his prom date, Kelsey Shaffer, 21 of Latrobe at a park in Latrobe, Thursday. Sciullo has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Andrew Russell | Tribune Review - Bryan Gardner, 21, graduate of Hampton Township talks with his mother, Penny Gardner at their home in Hampton Township. Gardner is autistic and is facing limited prospects in the job market after graduation. While he favors detail-oriented work like data entry, his parents say local agencies are pushing him into the four Fs – food, flowers, folding and filth.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell | Tribune Review</em></div>Bryan Gardner, 21, graduate of Hampton Township talks with his mother, Penny Gardner at their home in Hampton Township. Gardner is autistic and is facing limited prospects in the job market after graduation. While he favors detail-oriented work like data entry, his parents say local agencies are pushing him into the four Fs – food, flowers, folding and filth.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review - Nick Sciullo (right) of Latrobe and graduating senior at Greater Latrobe High School gets a hug from his mother Regina Scuillo before the commencement ceremony at Latrobe High School at his home in Latrobe, Wednesday.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Nick Sciullo (right) of Latrobe and graduating senior at Greater Latrobe High School gets a hug from his mother Regina Scuillo before the commencement ceremony at Latrobe High School at his home in Latrobe, Wednesday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review - Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, struggles during a work assessment with Employment Specialist for ACHIEVA, Melissa Hall at ACHIEVA offices on the South Side, Monday. The assessment lasted from 10 am till 2 pm and Gardner was feeling mentally taxed near the end of the assessment.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, struggles during a work assessment with Employment Specialist for ACHIEVA, Melissa Hall at ACHIEVA offices on the South Side, Monday. The assessment lasted from 10 am till 2 pm and Gardner was feeling mentally taxed near the end of the assessment.
- Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, gets help with a dress shirt from his mother, Penny Gardner at their home in Hampton Township, Tuesday. Gardner is autistic and is facing limited prospects in the job market after graduation. While he favors detail oriented work like data entry, his parents say local agencies are pushing him into the four Fs – food, flowers, folding and filth.
Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, gets help with a dress shirt from his mother, Penny Gardner at their home in Hampton Township, Tuesday. Gardner is autistic and is facing limited prospects in the job market after graduation. While he favors detail oriented work like data entry, his parents say local agencies are pushing him into the four Fs – food, flowers, folding and filth.
- Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe laughs with his dad David Scuillo when he attended a Pirates game on Pittsburgh's North Shore, Thursday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe laughs with his dad David Scuillo when he attended a Pirates game on Pittsburgh's North Shore, Thursday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Andrew Russell | Tribune Review - Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, checks out the DJ's music during at the second annual 'A Night to Remember' Prom at the Marriott North in Cranberry last week.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell | Tribune Review</em></div>Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, checks out the DJ's music during at the second annual 'A Night to Remember' Prom at the Marriott North in Cranberry last week.
- Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe readies to throw the discus during a track meet at Latrobe High School, Wednesday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe readies to throw the discus during a track meet at Latrobe High School, Wednesday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school.
Andrew Russell | Tribune Review - Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, takes a music lesson with Maria Carlini of Sewickley and cofounder of Creative Therapies Enterprises at his home in Hampton Township. Music is one of Gardner's favorite activities and one of the ways he makes connections he to people.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell | Tribune Review</em></div>Bryan Gardner, 21, a graduate of Hampton Township, takes a music lesson with Maria Carlini of Sewickley and cofounder of Creative Therapies Enterprises at his home in Hampton Township. Music is one of Gardner's favorite activities and one of the ways he makes connections he to people.
- Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe smiles at his mother, Regina Sciullo on his front porch after finishing getting ready for prom, Thursday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school with a career goal in masonry.
Nick Sciullo, 19, of Latrobe smiles at his mother, Regina Sciullo on his front porch after finishing getting ready for prom, Thursday. Nick has Down syndrome and has spent the last several years preparing for life after high school with a career goal in masonry.
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