Avoiding Detours: Drive Past the Cliff and Follow the Road to Employment

Did you know that only 13% of youth with autism and youth with significant developmental disabilities in Kentucky are employed competitively one year after they leave high school? We’re not talking about the “unemployment rate” like you normally hear about on the news. We’re talking about the percentage of these youth who are actually working at jobs earning minimum wage or higher. Just a little over one in ten are working. Even worse, the data also show that more than half of those youth are not doing any type of work or schooling after high school.

This isn’t just a data point on a spreadsheet. This is what life after high school looks like for many students right now, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Our young people have dreams and skills and talents to contribute to the world. Yes, they have challenges and may need support to be successful at a job, but research has also shown us that they are dedicated employees with talents and lower turnover rates … and their employers value them.

A data point showing 13% employment might make some of us feel hopeless or mad or discouraged, but, instead, let’s use the data to make a change. Parents, educators, and employers can work together to support youth and young adults in finding meaningful employment. In fact, the solutions are not as elusive as you may think. We have proven tools and strategies to support youth prepare for the world of work at KentuckyWorks.org. (You can go to “Find KentuckyWorks Tools” to find out which tools might be most helpful for you.) There are also two local school districts in Kentucky that have been taking steps to show that it can be done.

The Kentucky Seamless Transition Pilot, is partnering with two Kentucky school districts – Simpson County and Montgomery County – to identify participating students’ strengths, interests, and potential employment opportunities. The Pilot is working with the schools, employers, local Vocational Rehabilitation counselors, and families to create a plan that leads to work experiences, and ultimately employment, for their son or daughter with a significant disability. 

The more I’ve learned, the more I think the answer is three-fold.

  1. We have to cast aside the once-size-fits-all approach. Rather, we need to recognize and celebrate that each student is a unique individual with gifts and talents. We need to work with each of those students to figure out what job is the best fit for them. Maybe a student struggles to speak and learn, but loves horses and could work in a stable. Maybe a student lacks social skills but is incredibly adept at computer programming. And maybe a student struggles to read or do math but is social and would like to work in retail. Everyone can work, but we have to take the time to figure out the best fit for each student based on their skills and interests. See the KentuckyWorks Vision Statement template and Charting the Lifecourse.
  2. We also have to take the plunge as soon as possible. Another data point to remember is that the greatest predictor of employment AFTER high school is paid employment IN high school. If your students wants to work at Chic-Fil-A or the grocery store like other teens their age in high school, then they absolutely CAN apply for a job and get support in doing that. We don’t have to wait until students complete school or graduate before they actually apply for a job. They can apply as soon as we think they’re ready. In the past week, I’ve heard of three young men with Down syndrome who have gotten jobs during high school at fast food restaurants and grocery stores. These are young men who struggle with speech and academics, but they are social and responsible and want to work, so NOW is the time to give them a shot. Parents and youth do not have to wait for permission. They can apply for jobs as soon as youth are ready, and they can learn their rights as employees both in the school setting and with getting support at work. To learn about where to get more support for job training in Kentucky, check out the Transition Overview Document.
  3. We need to set the expectation early with our children that they can and will work when they grow up. They each have their own unique gifts to share. As parents, we can give our kids chores and opportunities to develop talents in extra-curricular activities. In addition, educators can give youth with disabilities opportunities to learn, lead, and make friends in inclusive settings because jobs require working with everyone. Learn more about how families can prepare students for work in our free family engagement module.

I know many parents and students have wounds from fighting for services or inclusion, and they have bruises from being rejected or left out over the years. I also know many teachers get worn down by managing the daily grind of paperwork and testing while juggling precious time and resources. I’m the mother of a son with Down syndrome and the daughter of a teacher. I know these stresses can wear us down by the time youth are in their teens, and it can be hard to overcome the exhaustion and get back on the road to employment. But these students deserve to have all of us stand together to knock this 13% employment rate into oblivion. The time is now for youth, families, educators, and employment professionals to get as many youth as possible working at paid jobs and doing what they love.

So join us today in these efforts by learning more about employment tools for youth with autism and youth with significant developmental disabilities at KentuckyWorks.org; talking to students about their dreams for the future for paid work; helping them get the training and schooling they need to start work; then taking the step to apply for a paid job as soon as youth are ready! Let’s get on that road to work today!

What are your plans to make a change? KentuckyWorks and HDI also have an employment seminar on March 27 to discuss what we can do.