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App aims to get students with disabilities on 'trajectory for independent living'

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, 3:27 p.m.
Freeport High School special education aide Linda Hoscheid works with student Rachel Bricker on her spelling work during the life skills class at the high school in Buffalo Township on Friday, Jan. 30, 2015.
Tribune-Review
Freeport High School special education aide Linda Hoscheid works with student Rachel Bricker on her spelling work during the life skills class at the high school in Buffalo Township on Friday, Jan. 30, 2015.

Pennsylvania teens and young adults with disabilities now have access to a free app designed to help them find jobs, manage their needs and get on track to living independently.

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration and the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania announced the app's rollout Wednesday afternoon in Downtown Pittsburgh.

"This new app prepares students for their future in either post-secondary education or employment (by) offering them access to information, education and training resources, and eventually success in a job that pays," said David DeNotaris, executive director for the state Department of Labor & Industry's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Nearly six in 10 of students with disabilities can't find jobs after high school or give up looking, according to the Campaign for What Works, a statewide coalition that advocates for youths with special needs.

The app was developed through a collaboration between multiple state agencies and United Way's "21 and Able" initiative .

'Trajectory for independent living'

The PA Planning for the Future Checklist app targets students ages 14 to 21 who have disabilities and their caregivers. About 105,000 people in that age range have a disability in Pennsylvania.

It features information about benefits and services, access to relevant resources and guidance on transitioning into the workforce. Users can find checklists outlining steps they should be taking each year based on their age — such as when to talk to an agency about Medicaid waivers, sign up for the PSAT, apply for job-shadowing programs or identify accommodations they'll need after high school.

"It's a few simple things you can do each year so that when you graduate you'll be on that trajectory for independent living," said Heather Sedlacko, United Way's director of programs for seniors and people with disabilities.

United Way based the app on a hardcopy version of the checklist dating to 2015.

"We realized if we're going to get 14-year-olds to use this, it really needs to live on their phone," Sedlacko said.

United Way tapped Pittsburgh developer Nick Sinagra of SinTek Solutions to design the app. Sinagra, a Duquesne University graduate and school technology director, has a neurological disease called spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair and ventilator.

Disabled workforce growing in Pa.

The app's development follows years of heightened focus by many state and nonprofit officials to boost the proportion of people with disabilities who work.

In Pennsylvania, about 34 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared with 75 percent of the able-bodied workforce, state data show.

In Allegheny County, as many as 40 percent of about 1,000 people ages 14 to 21 with disabilities are neither in school nor working, according to 2015 data compiled by the United Way of Allegheny County.

DeNotaris pointed Wednesday to a more encouraging figure: Last year, nearly 13,200 people with a disability entered Pennsylvania's workforce — the largest number of any U.S. state, he said.

"We are proud of this achievement, but we must continue our efforts to provide students with disabilities the opportunities to seek further education and meaningful employment," DeNotaris said.

The state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation said that last year it directly helped 8,438 people find jobs and reached more than 18,000 youths at educational events.

United Way's 21 and Able initiative also has involved getting the region's private employers to commit to dedicating a position to recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities. Giant Eagle was the first to participate .

The new app can be downloaded at https://uwswpa.org/download-pa-planning-for-the-future-checklist or by searching for "PA Planning for the Future" via the Apple iOS and Google Android app stores.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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