Andy Casady is one of four young adults with disabilities gaining hands-on work experience this fall through an internship with the College of Human Sciences. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Iowa State internships aim to secure employment for youth with disabilities

The Iowa State University College of Human Sciences is this fall providing four youth with disabilities with hands-on work experience to help them make the successful transition from school to adult life.

Recent high school graduates Andy Casady, Julia Martin, Paige Fritz, and Tom Burbey will work with each academic area of the college during the 2016-2017 school year. The internships started in August and run through April 22, when the students will graduate from the program.  

“It’s really fun because it’s free and we’re getting job experience. I’ll have something to put on my resume,” said Casady, who’s currently interning with the School of Education and enjoys working with students. “I would love to be a math teacher because I’m really good at math, or work in a kitchen as a chef. I like having a wide variety of skills.”

The youth will be hosted by the School of Education and departments of kinesiology; apparel, events, and hospitality management; food science and human nutrition; and human development and family studies.

They’ll gain on-the-job experience in places such as the Fred Duffelmeyer Reading Improvement Clinic, Joan Bice Underwood Tearoom, Child Development Laboratory School, and food science labs.   

“I think it’s important for our faculty and our students to understand that they’re going to encounter diversity not only in our classrooms, but in society,” said Linda Impecoven-Lind, a senior lecturer in special education who is leading implementation of the program. “There’s no need to be afraid of those who are different.”

On-the-job training

It’s all part of Project SEARCH, formerly known as Students Exploring Alternative Resources at Children’s Hospital.

The international business-led collaboration enables young adults with developmental disabilities (intellectual disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment, orthopedic impairment, autism) to gain and maintain employment through training and career exploration.

The College of Human Sciences is implementing the project in partnership with The Arc of Story County, a nonprofit advocacy group that partners with local businesses, providers, and community members to enrich the lives of people with disabilities.

“The whole inclusive piece is what excites me,” Impecoven-Lind said. “We preach inclusion, but now we’re practicing what we preach.”

Statistics show that people with disabilities are employed at much lower rates than those without disabilities.

In Iowa, 83.4 percent of people without disabilities were employed in 2013 compared with 43.8 percent of non-institutionalized, working-age (ages 21 to 64) people with disabilities, according to the American Community Survey, an ongoing statistical survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the youth interning with the College of Human Sciences this fall said they are eager to work.

“Whatever needs doing, I will do it,” Casady said. “I’m very open to what I’m doing.”

Key initiative of the college

Project SEARCH is a natural fit for the College of Human Sciences.

Diversity and social responsibility are key initiatives of the college, which strives to create a stimulating, holistic, and nourishing environment for people of all backgrounds, cultures, religions, socio-economic statuses, and abilities.

Martin is currently working with the Child Development Laboratory School — doing the kind of work that she hopes to continue after her internship.

“On Thursdays and Fridays, I’m in the preschool and I’m helping a teacher who’s reading to the kids and helping to monitor the kids when they go outside to play,” Martin said. “I hope to work with kids or with animals after this internship. In high school, I volunteered at a preschool and at an animal shelter.”

The College of Human Sciences has a committee on diversity, equity, and community led by Eulanda Sanders, the college’s new equity adviser and the Donna R. Danielson Professor in Textiles and Clothing. The committee aims to suggest and promote strategies that encourage diversity and improve equity.

“I am excited that we were able to get this pilot approved in the College of Human Sciences because it is the embodiment of our motto, ‘Expanding human potential; improving people’s lives,’” said Linda Serra Hagedorn, the college’s associate dean for undergraduate programs, international students, student success, equity, and community.

Lauren Wernau, a Project SEARCH skills instructor, said she’s grateful that Iowa State is partnering with The Arc of Story County to provide this opportunity for the interns.

“The community of those with disabilities in the Ames area is vast and underrepresented when it comes to having nonseasonal employment,” Wernau said.

“Our interns are eager to learn and have a desire to work,” she said. “It is our goal that they will be employed in the community upon graduation and will be able to proudly answer the question, “What do you do?” I could not be more impressed with their success thus far and am excited to see their progress in the months to come.”

More than 300 sites worldwide

Project SEARCH was developed in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and has grown to more than 300 sites across the United States and Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Australia.

Iowa State is a leader in this effort because there haven’t been many Project SEARCH internship sites in higher education, Impecoven-Lind said.

Other Project SEARCH locations in Iowa include ChildServe in Johnston, Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, the Windsor Heights Hy-Vee, Lucas County Health Center in Chariton, Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines and Mason City, UnityPoint Health’s St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, UnityPoint Health’s Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, and UnityPoint Health’s Allen Hospital in Waterloo.

Impecoven-Lind and Hagedorn said they hope Project SEARCH is so successful, Iowa State will be able to add more interns next fall.

“I am proud that our college is providing these interns the opportunity to train for future opportunities to join the workforce,” Hagedorn said. “And next year, we hope that we can expand the program across the university.”