New England Business Associates (NEBA) formed in 1983 to serve teens and adults with disabilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The service approach at NEBA has always been to individualize services for people with disabilities, so that they can participate as fully as possible in their communities.
Two of NEBA’s programs meet the needs of transition-age students with disabilities in Massachusetts. The On Our Way program, begun in 2001, is a collaboration between NEBA and Springfield College to provide social and academic programming in a college setting. The Career Ladders program, begun in 2008, combines classes in computer skills, social and life skills, and job preparation with job development and support services. The impetus to begin both programs came from students who wanted to acquire new skills and have experiences beyond what was available within their school systems. The school staff knew about NEBA’s services and contracted with them to provide services to these students.
The On Our Way program gives students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to strengthen their social and academic skills in a college setting. The program follows the school calendar, and transition-age students attend several times a week. Each student has an individualized schedule, based on his/her needs and goals, which includes academics and other activities.
Academic work takes place on the Springfield College campus, and material is taught by NEBA staff, the Program Coordinator, or program interns. It can cover a range of subjects, from reading, math, and history to money skills and studying the driving manual in order to obtain a learner’s permit. The academic material is typically based on the individuals’ goals in his/her Individual Education Program (IEP) or Individual Service Plan (ISP). Other activities are supported by interns, generally Springfield College students from the Rehabilitation and Psychology departments. These include going to the dining hall or student center, going for walks on campus, and watching baseball practice. Recently, NEBA contracted with the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Springfield College to become a placement site for undergraduate Art Therapy Internships. Participation in On Our Way is funded by public school systems, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), and sometimes the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC). Occasionally, families do opt to pay privately.
Career Ladders also operates throughout the school year and in addition offers a summer program. Students are funded by their school systems to attend. Transition-age students make up about half the Career Ladders attendees, while other attendees are funded by MRC and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind to attend a 12-week version of the program for retraining after a job loss. The number of program participants is small, usually no more than 12. The curriculum includes three areas:
Students attend classes at NEBA’s main office on a Monday-and-Wednesday or Tuesday-and-Thursday schedule. They spend two additional weekdays working, volunteering, or conducting a job search in the community. Each Friday, they have classes and training about self-advocacy. They are engaged in the program for a total of 30 hours per week.
Funding was a key challenge for both programs. For On Our Way, finding the funds to rent a space on campus was an initial challenge in starting up the program. The Career Ladders program coordinator noted, “We’re always marketing with the school systems. … The biggest problem is whether or not the school system has funding for the program.”
For On Our Way, recruiting interns and aligning their roles with the requirements for fulfilling their practicum has been another challenge. The presence of supportive professors who are willing to funnel interns into the program and promote it to their classes and advisees has been important to the program’s success. For Career Ladders, challenges have related to barriers to job development. For example, schools may have liability concerns related to employment of students still in high school. In addition, lack of transportation and accessibility issues at the workplace can arise as barriers.
For both these programs, benefits to participating students are the major impact. One important role of programs such as these is providing options outside of the high school setting for older students. These youths have benefited as much as possible from attending high school, but have not yet turned 22 and aged out of the school system. Particularly for smaller school systems that may be unable to offer such a program themselves, provider-operated programs such as On Our Way and Career Ladders are a helpful resource.
In terms of outcomes, the On Our Way students have made academic and social progress. Although no formal analysis of outcomes for students has been conducted, most participants work or volunteer in the community. The program coordinator has noted that individuals who participate in On Our Way seem to do better at their jobs, and their job supports can be faded sooner. This also depends on how well the job tasks fit the abilities of the individual. As an additional outcome, the interns working with the On Our Way students have themselves benefited from their exposure to students with intellectual disabilities. Their views of people with disabilities are less stereotypical, and the experience of teaching someone gives them greater confidence in their own abilities.
Career Ladders has benefited participants in multiple ways, ranging from obtaining new job skills to gaining “soft skills,” such as proper workplace hygiene and behavior. For example, one participant, prior to participating in the program, had inappropriate social behaviors that served as a barrier to work. He has made progress and obtained two paid jobs, and even increased his hours in one of his jobs. Similarly, another participant, who had issues with hygiene and social skills, learned to adopt a professional appearance. He also gained interviewing and resume-writing skills, which led to his obtaining a job in the community and starting his own business.
To implement a program such as On Our Way:
Seek a college campus that will be supportive of your efforts. Look into space options, and research potential faculty connections. Faculty members can be a key resource in recruiting interns and spreading the word about the program on campus. Meet with them ahead of time to strategize how to do so. Consider alternatives to simply renting space; NEBA currently gives out $1800 in scholarships each spring to rehabilitation students who have worked with the program, as a more creative way of giving back to the college in lieu of renting space.
Use multiple sources of information to determine the best plan for each student. In developing a student’s schedule, NEBA staff review the student’s IEP, talk with the student and family members, and perform an assessment of the student’s skills and interests.
Look into software options to facilitate individualized teaching. On Our Way uses computers and specialized software for instruction. It is in the process of purchasing new web-based software, so that students can continue the learning process at home. Also, free, age appropriate material in a variety of subjects can be found on the Internet to supplement the instructional software. To implement a Career Ladders-type program:
Respect the individual personalities and needs of each participant. Says the Career Ladders director, “The people we serve are all unique, with their own skill sets, strengths, and support needs. It is a major flaw of many classroom-style programs to teach to the majority. A program like Career Ladders is the most successful when each person receives individual attention, tailored programming, and respect for who they are. When people are treated as fully appreciated, respected, and valued individuals in a community setting, many ‘issues’ just disappear.”
Maintain good communication with families. Prompt responses to families’ questions are always appreciated. Career Ladders also provides sheets indicating the progress students have made in acquiring skills.
Aaron Labonte, Program Coordinator, Career Ladders
New England Business Associates
Melissa Benoit, Program Coordinator, On Our Way
New England Business Associates
Jennifer Bose, Research Data Coordinator
Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston