Below are three questions I ask myself when developing or working on any employment program for youth with disabilities:
- Who are we missing at the table?
- Am I developing this program through a lens of privilege?
- Would I advise a family member or friend to participate in this program?
Opportunity is something that is often spoken of, but the road to seizing that opportunity is different for everyone. For the youth with disabilities that we serve, it is important that we understand the barriers they have faced and the roadblocks that could show up along the way. When programming and developing policy, a person must explore how that program and policy will improve the lives of the most disenfranchised community they are privileged to serve.
DC Learners and Earners has partnered with DC Rehabilitation Services Administration (DCRSA), DC Public Schools (DCPS), and other organizations to create access for transition age youth with disabilities to meaningful employment and workforce development programs. These programs are a shining representation of the diversity of the District. We recruit from all eight wards in the District from public, private, and charter schools. Casting this wide net has allowed for us to expand the diversity of our programming. This partnership also has worked hard to create programs (described below) that raise expectations and shatter stereotypes about youth with disabilities and youth of color.
Programs like People Planning Together for Employment (PPTE) provide students with disabilities the opportunity to explore what is important “to” and “for” them, so that they can advocate for themselves at home, in the community, and during Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Individual Plan for Employment (IPE) meetings. Students that complete the training are equipped with the tools to become a trainer for others using the PPTE curriculum. Trainers for PPTE are typically adults with developmental disabilities who, themselves, have work experience. Trainers are paid for each training, which provides an opportunity for students to earn income during their time in school and once they graduate. Another successful program has been the Direct Support Professional (DSP) Academy. Many of the District’s opportunity youth grow up taking care of siblings or loved ones. The DSP Academy provides them the chance to transfer those skills to a career field that is in high demand. This an effective method to leverage the skills developed from at-home responsibilities in a productive way. This program also provides a pathway into the health field in lieu of or in conjunction with a college degree. For some students, this door to a career path is important because college may be a financial barrier, or they might have graduated with a non-traditional diploma that limits the degree programs available to them.
DC Department on Disability Services (DDS) and DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) partner each year to make sure that students with disabilities complete the requirements to be eligible for the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program, which is offered to District residents ages 14-24. This partnership is important because the application process requires multiple steps and there are a limited number of slots each year for the entire city. DOES leads the program but has worked closely with DC advocacy groups and DDS to ensure that students with disabilities have the supports they need to complete the application process and receive meaningful work experiences. These supports include job coaches, application support from school teams and VR counselors, and staffing for verification offices across all 8 Wards.
Funding an employment opportunity is an important step to creating equity as well. In DC, DCRSA provides a stipend for many work-based learning opportunities or job skill development workshops for youth with disabilities. The agency has masterfully leveraged Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) funding to support these initiatives. Providing paid work-based learning opportunities has allowed our youth to open their first bank accounts, expand family career expectations, and minimize any issues that unpaid programs may cause around travel and financial need. Some youth we work with may bring home more money than anyone in their household and it is important to have conversations with both youth and the family to lay out a plan for how that money will be used. Agencies and organizations should also consider bringing in a benefits counselor to explain the relationship between employment and benefits. Some families could view employment as a threat to benefits and it is important to hear out those concerns and provide information to ease that anxiety.
Thank you for taking the time to read about the ways we are working to create equitable programs. To learn more, please visit DC Learners and Earners. This project is funded through a Partnerships in Employment (PIE) Systems Change grant from the Administration on Community Living (ACL) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.