Wisconsin’s “Let’s Get to Work” Project Expands Employment Opportunities for Youth with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
What is “Let’s Get to Work”?
Youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) experience some of the lowest rates of employment of all student groups. To combat this problem, the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities (WBPDD) is working to improve employment outcomes for youth with I/DD through its Let’s Get to Work project, which is funded through AIDD’s Projects of National Significance (PNS) and is part of the Partnerships in Employment Systems Change initiative.
In 2011, WBPDD and organizations in five other states each received a 5-year grant providing $365,000 per year in funding to carry out their projects. Grantees in two additional states were funded in 2012.
The goal of Let’s Get to Work is to prioritize community employment and increase the employment rate for youth and young adults with I/DD who are transitioning from high school or post-secondary education to adulthood. Individuals in this group are commonly referred to as “transition students.” The project hopes to rid Wisconsin of old practices and expectations that place youth in sheltered and isolated positions, often receiving sub-minimum wage, and instead introduce new policies that will help these individuals find meaningful work in integrated settings.
The project consists of four main parts:
- Pilot schools
- Coaching team
- Policy team
The consortium contains 60–70 individuals from a variety of backgrounds who meet quarterly to provide input on policy change and strategy. Members include employment experts, advocates, service providers, teachers, and youth and their families. The consortium establishes relationships with legislators, disseminates policies and practices, and participates in grassroots advocacy.
The nine pilot schools are responsible for implementing an intervention package for youth with I/DD to help students determine their interests and goals, connect with employers in the community, and gain employment opportunities and experience. The intervention package is a set of evidence-based or promising practices intended to test the effectiveness of potential policy changes; the practices focus on preparing youth for adulthood and the work environment. Each school works with at least 5 youth with I/DD between the ages of 15 and 17. The results of the school’s work will be evaluated, analyzed, and used to develop strategies that will improve policies and practices in the state.
Each pilot school works with a coach who provides training and technical assistance in areas such as job development, customized employment, and person-centered planning. When all schools experience challenges in the same area, training is coordinated for that particular topic.
The policy team consists of individuals with experience in implementing legislation and policy. The team meets biweekly to discuss the consortium’s policy recommendations and figure out ways to move them forward.
As part of its policy improvement efforts, the project is enhancing collaboration across three state agencies: the Department of Health Services, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Department of Public Instruction. Through these state partnerships, Let’s Get to Work is developing policies and practices that will raise community expectations, improve overall employment outcomes for youth with I/DD, and remove existing barriers in state systems.
Activities and Accomplishments
The Let’s Get to Work project team and pilot schools made significant progress in the project’s first year. The activities described in this section are drawn from the project’s most recent semiannual report, which covers activities conducted between April and September 2012.
Creating Policy and Legislative Change
One major goal of the project is to implement policy and legislative change that will increase the number of transition students in Wisconsin who are employed in integrated, community-based settings after leaving high school or a post-secondary institution, and who become economically self-sufficient. Project staff attended consortium meetings and met with legislators and state agencies in pursuit of this goal.
Consortium Meetings and Youth Involvement
The consortium held quarterly meetings to allow pilot schools and state agency leadership to give updates on projects and policy developments. To increase student involvement, the consortium held a Youth Leadership Day at its August meeting, where students from the pilot schools learned about legislative advocacy and met with their legislators at the state capitol to discuss employment issues. This youth track received positive feedback from families, teachers, and youth, and will be continued at future consortium meetings.
Project staff met with several state legislators to discuss legislative changes promoting college and workforce readiness for students with disabilities, ensure that students with disabilities are included in discussions regarding Individual Learning Plan policies, and discuss drafting Employment First legislation.
To help move policy initiatives forward, project staff met regularly with leadership at the three state agencies. For example, a project staff member participated in a workgroup at the Department of Health Services that was tasked with determining ways to improve programs for youth in transition. The department is considering permanently funding a team training, proposed by the project, for Children’s Long-Term Support service coordinators and families that focuses on transition, employment, and early preparation for youth. In addition, peer-to-peer mentoring was added to the Children’s Long-Term Support Medicaid Waiver, with a focus on employment skills support.
The project’s policy team established quarterly meetings with the state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), covering topics such as the importance of academic career plans for youth with disabilities, and embedding Universal Design for Learning into DPI’s budget for overall digital learning.
Raising Awareness about Employing Youth with Disabilities
Another project goal is to increase stakeholder expectations and awareness about integrated employment for youth with I/DD. The activities of the school pilot sites, as well as the support that the schools receive from their coaches, are vital to reaching this goal.
The project started with five pilot schools in the first year and completed the selection process for four additional schools to begin activities in the second year. The overall goal of the schools’ activities is to find sustainable ways to:
- Identify students’ career goals
- Find community jobs that match their interests
As part of the intervention package, schools created community action teams to support youth employment and elevate awareness. Each school hosted a “community conversation” activity and invited community members (such as parents, teachers, legislators, employers, school administrators, and school aides) to discuss integrated employment.
Schools reported that the community conversations were invaluable and resulted in increased engagement from businesses—an outcome that has led to more job opportunities for youth. Other positive outcomes include increased interest in employment from students and improved partnerships with stakeholders (such as service providers, colleges, and businesses).
Schools also worked on involving students with I/DD in general education classes and extracurricular activities. Several schools reported working with general education students on coffee carts or other in-school businesses, allowing students to learn about skills such as providing customer service, conducting inventory tasks, and tracking expenses.
Pilot school students gained employment experience (including job placements, internships, and job shadowing) in a variety of settings. One school held a 2-day career academy where students completed job shadows based on their expressed interests in working at retail, hospitality, automotive, daycare, and other environments.
As a result of the pilot schools’ activities, students have shown increased confidence and self-esteem, as well as improved self-advocacy skills. Schools reported that students enjoy having the opportunity to express their interests and are becoming more open to discussing their career goals. At one school, a student with a disability made spirit key chains to sell at a volleyball game and attended the sporting event. Previously, the student would not have attended an event like this, but the Let’s Get to Work activities helped her find a role and purpose in the school.
In their year-end reports, schools emphasized the importance of continuing to build relationships with businesses in the community. One school noted that the best way to raise employer expectations is to show them what students can do. For example, some schools have created short videos targeted to employers to raise awareness about youth working in the community. Another school reported that overall attitudes and perceptions are changing, and that everyone is seeing more possibilities for children with disabilities.
Many schools reported that parents are sometimes reluctant to embrace community employment as a possibility for their child and that changing these expectations can be difficult. Some parents are fearful for their children’s future or are not really sure how to help their child find a job. At the same time, some schools are seeing parents develop more confidence in their children’s abilities, resulting in them taking a more active role in helping their children talk about their goals and find employment.
The coaching team meets monthly with project staff to discuss the schools’ progress and challenges, determine whether any policy implications are connected to their work, and identify training needs. Coaches reported that the process of ensuring that schools were implementing the intervention correctly initially took more time than anticipated.
Evaluating Outcomes and Sharing Information
Schools are following an evaluation plan provided by the project’s evaluator. The project has collected baseline data, which will be used to develop policy proposals and identify areas needing improvement. The evaluator will continue to track progress and collect data throughout the life of the project.
The project has also developed a website (http://letsgettoworkwi.org) that will serve as the main way to disseminate tools, resources, and products developed by the project, as well as success stories and general project information.
The project reported that it has been most successful in proposing policy and practice changes to policymakers and departments when these changes can be framed around current political and social concerns that affect the state’s entire population. For example, project staff have promoted policy change by framing it around the issue of schools developing workforce-ready graduates, reducing the unemployment rate, and reducing overall dependence on public benefits. As a result, the project has been a part of discussions with the Governor’s Council on Workforce and College Readiness, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on workforce development issues, and with conservative statewide leadership on public benefits issues.
In addition, the project requested guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), regarding how Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies to transition work placements for youth with disabilities. OSEP confirmed that if a work placement is part of the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), it must comply with LRE, and the IEP team must take into consideration aids and services that could be provided to allow the youth to participate in a work placement with peers without disabilities. The project developed a user-friendly guide to help teachers and families understand OSEP’s response.
The project is also developing a user-friendly guide for parents and educators regarding the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation’s (DVR) guidance on paid work and training options. The guidance clarifies how DVR-funded options can be used, wage expectations, and how services can be combined to support an individual in a competitive wage, integrated job.
In the near future, the project will focus its efforts on youth and parent involvement, transition endorsement, Employment First legislation, and building relationships with employers.
The project team will also be presenting at national and statewide conferences, focusing on what schools and others can do to change policy in their communities and how the project’s materials and policy changes can benefit families and youth in transition.
Visit the Let’s Get to Work website for more information about the project team, pilot schools, and resources. The site will be updated with new resources and success stories as the project advances.