Washougal, WA — Employment provides individuals with a sense of satisfaction and the reward of a paycheck. Washougal School District Adult Transition Program is working to offer young adults with disabilities that opportunity by providing job skills training and connections with local employers.
“Employers are often surprised by the hard work, positive attitude, and dedication that the students bring to their work,” said Jessica Nickels, Washougal Adult Transition Program Teacher. “The atmosphere in the workplace will often shift to an environment of acceptance, friendships, and mutual respect. Frequently employers form a relationship with the student based on a foundation of care and concern that is often unexpected for the employer.”
Emily Taghon, Columbia Ridge Senior Living Executive Director, has seen this first-hand with a variety of students who have worked at the Camas facility. “Seeing how the confidence level of these students increases over time is amazing,” she said. “They come in so reserved, but after learning skills and gaining experience, they are able to look up and say hello to a resident and really start to build a sense of community and belonging.”
“The Adult Transition Program helped me be confident in so many ways,” said Shelbi Langston, program participant who works in the local Best Western laundry. “I was nervous about doing things with friends on my own, but the Transition Program staff helped me by telling me I can do this. When I lost my first job, the staff in the Transition Program helped me get back on my feet. They are amazing.”
Awareness of the needs for competitive employment opportunities for young adults with disabilities is the subject of the award-winning documentary Hearts of Glass. “Thanks to a Camas-Washougal Community Chest grant, our community, including Camas and Hockinson School District patrons, are invited to on-demand viewing access to the movie June 2-12,” said Nickels. “A follow up webinar discussion panel will also be presented on June 9, featuring Taghon, Langston, and members of the films’ cast and crew.” To sign up for viewing go to https://watch.showandtell.film/watch/washougal-hearts-of-glass or the WSD website.
This 2018 film follows the initial months of operation of Vertical Harvest, a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse that grows crops while providing meaningful, competitively paid jobs for people with disabilities working alongside people without disabilities. A trailer can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuBSMUZa8wQ.
A key to the program success at Columbia Ridge was to rethink job assignments and split of duties to adapt for specific skills sets or limits. “Teamwork means working together but it does not mean that everyone has to do the same job,” explained Taghon. “Accommodations can be made so everyone can contribute at their level. With a little retraining, staff learn that all the pieces of a task make up the whole assignment.”
Taylor Cusack, General Manager of the Best Western Parkersville Inn and Suites, agrees saying each student has come to them with different abilities. “In the hospitality industry we have a lot of different duties and can accommodate many skill levels. One young man was great at vacuuming floors and stairs, while Shelbi can work more independently and did well in the laundry.”
“Employers need to consider the strengths of each young person,” added Nickels. “It is important for employers to know that many of the accommodations that individuals with disabilities may need are free or low cost. It is also important for them to be aware of their own biases and misconceptions.”
“Teaching people who do not live with disabilities to understand and realize some of the challenges being overcome by these students is important,” said Taghon. “As much as we don’t want to believe it, there is a lot of bias out there. Having open conversations can be uncomfortable but are an important step.”
Progress is being made. “Many people have changed their perception of individuals with disabilities,” explained Nickels. “Once community partners have begun working with student interns from our program, they begin to see the individual and their personality rather than just the intern’s limitations. Young people in the program have gained greater independence, confidence, and valuable experiences. As staff members, we get to see student growth and development on a daily basis.”
“We really like working with the school on this program,” Cusack said. “The teachers are great people, and they are always available if an issue comes up. And Shelbi has been great! She is always ready to learn and to help out.”
“The skills I have learned are to communicate with my co-workers, to speak-up when I need help, and I learned coping strategies for stressful situations,” Langston explained.
Having the opportunity to see several different jobs through the program helped Langston to see what jobs she liked and which she did not. “I’m very happy with my current job because I get to socialize with my co-workers,” she said.
“When given an employment opportunity, the potential benefits are endless for both student and employer,” said WSD Job Coach, Rhonda Nester.
“Our students can not only meet employer expectations but can exceed them,” added WSD Job Coach, Tiffaney Forney.
When asked what advice Taghon has for an employer considering hiring a student in the Adult Transition Program she said, “Do it! It is wonderful to see relationships and community being built within your staff. And it is so rewarding to teach someone skills they can use to be successful elsewhere.”