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College of Education > News and Publications > 2020: 01-03 news > WorkLink prepares students with intellectual disabilities for work

WorkLink prepares students with intellectual disabilities for work

For individuals with intellectual disabilities there can be numerous challenges in securing employment, according to two Penn State professors, but with proper support, training and education, those barriers can be mitigated.

Aaron Packard, a student in WorkLink, a new initiative in the College of Education for students with intellectual disabilities (ID), said he isn’t sure exactly what he wants to do when he graduates from the program but “would like to create a video game.” Since starting at Penn State in fall 2019, he has been able to explore his interests in technology as well as immerse himself in the postsecondary environment.

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A group of students and faculty attended a fall semester open house for the WorkLink program. From left: Allison Fleming, assistant professor of rehabilitation and human services; Will Fick; Aaron Packard; Wendy Coduti, associate professor of rehabilitation and human services; Alex Badzek; and Lindsey Bannish, doctoral student and graduate assistant for WorkLink.

“I wanted to see the experience of a college student,” he said.

 For individuals with ID there can be numerous challenges in securing employment, according to two Penn State professors, but with proper support, training and education, those barriers can be mitigated.

 “A major goal of the program is for students to have employment opportunities when they graduate,” said Allison Fleming, assistant professor in rehabilitation and human services in the College of Education.“Everything we do in the classroom is connected to getting students ready for employment.”

 Fleming, along with Wendy Coduti, associate professor in rehabilitation and human services, is overseeing WorkLink, a program in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education (EPCSE) that provides academic and career preparation for students with ID and emphasizes self-determination, advocacy, independent living and social inclusion on Penn State's University Park campus. The program, which had been in development since 2015, officially started in August 2019 with the acceptance of three students (Packard, Will Fick and Alex Badzek) and is now in its second semester.

 Students accepted into the two-year WorkLink certificate program take 12 credits a semester – six WorkLink Seminar (I/II) credits and six general education audit credits of their choice. While Penn State Harrisburg has a similar program called Career Studies, Fleming said, this is the first program of its kind at University Park. In addition to receiving a certificate in WorkLink Strategies and Employability from Penn State upon graduation, students also participate in an internship their last semester – either with Penn State or in the local community. This allows students the opportunity to gain real-world work experience and begin building employment experiences along with their professional network.

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Aaron Packard proudly displays his WorkLink T-shirt at a fall semester open house in Chambers Building.

 WorkLink was made possible by The D.R.E.A.M. Partnership, which provided seed grants to start the WorkLink Program ($45,000 in 2018-2019 for planning, and another $45,000 in 2019-2020 for support during the first year). D.R.E.A.M.’s mission, according to its website, is “to develop a selection of post-secondary educational opportunities, including dormitory options, which lead to independent living and employment for students with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania.” While WorkLink currently does not have a residential option at Penn State University Park, Fleming and Coduti said they hope one day to expland the program to include a residential option for students who want to attend WorkLink, particularly for those who live outside of the greater State College area.

 There is an immense need for programs like WorkLink, Fleming and Coduti said, as people with intellectual disabilities have a disproportionately high unemployment rate compared to the general population. According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), intellectual disability is a "disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior" and originates before the age of 18. In 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment-population ratio – the proportion of the population that is employed – was 19.1 percent among those with a disability. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.9 percent. For people with ID, the employment rates are even lower, around 16 percent according to a 2016 study by Dorothy Hiersteiner, Julie Bershdadsky, Alixe Bonardi and John Butterworth. Programs such as WorkLink are designed to provide educational and employment opportunities that are comparable to their peers without disabilities and open more doors for employment upon completion of the program.

There are about 275 programs similar to WorkLink across the U.S., Fleming said, and the employment rate of graduates from those programs is about two-thirds higher than individuals with ID who are not enrolled in similar programs. For the graduates that don’t have jobs, she added, many are pursuing additional postsecondary education or are actively looking for jobs.

One of the most challenging issues that students with ID face, Fleming and Coduti said, is low expectations and lack of encouragement for pursuing higher education.

 “This is a large population that has been kept out of postsecondary (institutions),” Coduti said.

 In recent years, she added, the tide has begun to turn with milestones such as the passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014, which allows states to create tax-advantaged savings programs for eligible people with disabilities. These events, Fleming said, have created a “snowball effect” in which students now “begin to expect that college is their next step.”

 “There’s a lot of interest in finding programs like this for students,” she said, adding that alumni parents and family ties are compelling reasons to attend Penn State for these students.

 A major emphasis of WorkLink, Coduti said, is helping students find a match between their interests and abilities and “finding a good fit without having a preconceived idea of what those matches could be.” While some professions may not be realistic options for WorkLink students, the same holds true for any undergraduate student.

 “There’s always that balance between (personal) interests and what’s available in the job market,” Fleming said.

 A major partner of WorkLink, Fleming and Coduti said, is LifeLink PSU, a collaboration between the College of Education and the State College Area School District that enables students with ID to attend college classes and also teaches them independent living skills.

 "LifeLink has broken down barriers in promoting access to postsecondary education for students with ID here at Penn State" Coduti said. "WorkLink is expanding that through the creation of the certificate program and focus on work."

 Donna Fick, a professor of nursing at Penn State, said that her son, Will (a WorkLink student), has benefited from his transition from LifeLink to WorkLink.

 “We really felt like he needed more,” she said.

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Donna Fick, professor of nursing at Penn State, and her son, Will, attended a fall semester open house for WorkLink.

 Since enrolling in WorkLink, Will, 21, who has Down syndrome, has enjoyed “increased independence and the ability to act like any college student,” Fick said.

 “He works at Quality Inn and I think the integration of WorkLink and having this mentored job experience has really given him a sense of pride,” she said. “The biggest thing he wanted to do was go to college – and now he’s in college.”

 Not only is the WorkLink program beneficial to its participants, Fleming said, but also the general student body stands to gain by being around students with ID and drawing from their strengths.

 “It helps us to normalize disability in a larger sense but I think the value that our students bring to the larger Penn State community is pretty significant.”

 While the WorkLink program received another grant this year, Fleming and Coduti said, funding exists for only one more year and they are “trying to figure out if this is something we can sustain long-term here at Penn State.”

 “It always comes back to what’s the goal of a land-grant university?” Coduti said. “And that’s to educate all residents no matter where they’re at.”

Those who are interested in donating to the WorkLink program can do so by visiting http://bit.ly/2tRI1Fa.