Helping young adults with disabilities make school-to-work transition

The transition from high school to adulthood can be scary for anyone, but particularly for someone who has a developmental or intellectual disability.

“You start to become an adult when you leave high school. Whether you’re an 18 or 21 year old like the people we serve, it’s just a pivotal time. Everyone wants to know, ‘Well what are you going to do?,’” Richard Wilson said.

B at Americas Foundation for Chess

A client working at Americas Foundation for Chess

Wilson is the program manager who heads up the Developmental Disabilities Division’s School to Work Program. The program works with school districts in King County to help students with developmental and intellectual disabilities receive job training and seek employment in their last year of high school, so that when they graduate they’ll have a job.

“What the program really does is bring adult-style employment services to these young adults at minimum a year before they can normally get it,” Wilson said. “We bridge the gap between school and our complicated adult service system that is difficult to access.”

But the school to work program starts involving itself in the job seeking process much earlier than a student’s last year of high school. Each year, the program hosts two Transition Resource Fairs where students 14 and older are invited to attend with their families to learn about employment and adult services.

Then, in a student’s second-to-last year, Wilson receives referrals from teachers of about 150-180 students, most of whom apply to the program.

Once enrolled, students take vocational assessments and receive work experience that helps them get placed in suitable jobs.

D at Chaplin Subaru

A client working at at Chaplin Subaru

Wilson said the last time they counted there were over 650 businesses within King County that hire people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

“Some of those are large businesses with many locations, like Safeway’s and Albertsons and we have employers as large as Microsoft and Costco with fewer locations all the way down to mom and pop businesses,” Wilson said.

Making the program run smoothly takes a lot of collaboration from other systems like school districts and the State’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

“We have in many ways a cross system collaboration working in King County that doesn’t just happen overnight and it doesn’t happen everywhere,” Wilson said.

Besides job placement, Wilson said the goal of the program is to break down society’s barriers that have historically excluded people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. He believes getting a job is central to building a high quality of life.

“I think employment support services are the most inclusive support we’ve created. We’ve created a support service where we’re giving someone a chance to step forward in building a better quality of life,” Wilson said. “On the individual level, when somebody is given the impression their whole life that maybe they can’t work or maybe they’re not as valued, and then they get a job at a law firm where people welcome them, want them there, tell them they’re a good employee and then they get a pay check, that’s tangible. That fits within American culture and what is valued within our society.”