Sally loves her job. She shows up on-time with a smile, and dedication to her work. She almost never misses a day, and her co-workers say she boosts morale. Sally also happens to have Down syndrome.
“Having a job is important to me, because I like to help people. I also want to earn a paycheck, so I can buy a plane ticket to visit my brother in Washington,” Sally explains.
She got her job with the help from Project Search; an international job transition program that operates in all 50 states and 10 countries. The program’s goal is to help individuals with cognitive disabilities find competitive employment, and keep it.
Sally says “I learned to be organized in Project Search, and to always clean and sanitize.”
She wasn’t even sure she’d be able to participate in the program. Sally’s single mom works full time, and couldn’t get her to the program consistently.
Theresa Raypole, the coordinator and educator for our local Project Search program, says transportation is often an issue, but not something that can’t be overcome.
Although Sally’s mom was nervous, Sally decided to use the local city bus line to get to and from the Project Search campus. The program helped her learn how to use the line, and by the end of her internship she was riding independently.
Director Raypole accepts 12 students into the program each year, and by this spring’s graduation over half are already receiving competitive employment (they have a year from graduation to secure a job).
When students are asked “If you could go back to high school and tell your teachers what you need to be successful in life, what would you say?”
“Teach us to be comfortable around all types of people and work.”
“Talk to us about our future.”
“Teach us professionalism.”
“Get us out in the work world and community.”
“Teach us that criticism is ok. Teach us how to handle it, so we can learn from it.”
Their answers are common sense for any type of success, yet provides insight into society’s low expectations for them.
Unfortunately, only 17% of students with cognitive disabilities are included in general education classrooms in high school, and the lessons above are often absent during their educational career. Once they leave school, ONLY 24% of people with cognitive disabilities find work.
In our local Project Search program, students spend 9 months interning at a local medical center. Raypole says often medical professionals are at first nervous that individuals with cognitive disabilities are allowed in clinical situations.
But she says these professionals’ first impressions were quickly proven wrong. In her first year running the program two students were hired in the surgery department.
The head nurse found the surgery department was able to turn rooms over faster with these employees, and soon they created positions for more to be hired.
“It’s hard to explain to the business world that this is not just the ‘nice thing to do.’ It really will raise their bottom line,” Raypole argues.
Often employees with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities are highly motivated, loyal, prompt, and exceptional at customer service. They often boost co-worker morale and productivity.
Project Search students complete an internship customized to their interests. Even though they’re working in the hospital they may have an interest in landscaping or working with children, so the program creates a position for them to hone those skills.
“Every opportunity and challenge is faced during the internship. They quickly learn that they can’t just go to the break room whenever they want, or talk nonstop to their co-workers. These are all soft skills they never learn in high school. They learn to self-advocate.” Raypole explains.
“Project Search helped me learn to do things on my own and be confident,” Sally says.
Sally quickly found employment after graduating from Project Search. Now she works for a local high school’s food services division.
She gives this advice to other individuals with Down syndrome looking for work:
“I would tell others to work hard and always do their best.”