Program helps create jobs for people with disabilities

2/27/2009 - By: Claudene Wharton

Nevada professionals working with those with disabilities will have a rare opportunity to attend a special three-day training March 2 – 4 at the University of Nevada, Reno presented by the University of Montana’s Rural Institute, a recognized national leader in customized employment. Customized employment is a fairly new method found to be successful in creating innovative employment opportunities for those with disabilities.

“Using the customized employment method, we first determine the skills, interests and passions of the potential employee, and then we go out to a business and carve out a position for that individual,” said Scott Harrington of the Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities at the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Education.

Harrington said that in the older, supported employment method, professionals tried to find existing jobs requiring specific skills and then train people with disabilities to do them, but the method was not always successful.

Harrington is the co-director of the VISTA Youth Transition Project, a collaborative effort of the University and Family TIES, a private, nonprofit agency. The Youth Transition Project employs 10 VISTA volunteers, five of them with disabilities, to help high school students with disabilities transition into adult life in Reno, Las Vegas, Fallon, Elko and Carson City. The program has two purposes: to help high school students prepare for and find employment, and to help them learn how to advocate for themselves, including accessing the assistance that is available to them.

The VISTA volunteers receive a small living allowance of $750 to $900 monthly, as well as an end-of-year stipend or education award. This is the first year of the five-year project, funded by the federal AmeriCorps VISTA program. However, with the new stimulus package approved, Harrington said $200 million is being allocated for the AmeriCorps and VISTA programs nationally. He is applying for 30 additional VISTA positions for the Nevada program and is hopeful the positions will be funded.

“It is a really successful program,” he said. “We had a gentleman with autism who needed employment. He is nonverbal and didn’t like loud places, but he loved books and movies. We developed a position for him with a library, where he puts away books and movies and provides other help. He loves it, and the library really appreciates his work.”

Harrington cited another example of a woman with a disability who liked to do manicures, hair and makeup. They developed a job for her at a senior retirement facility where she provides these services to the people living there.

Harrington is bringing in the leaders in the customized employment field from the Rural Institute at the University of Montana so that the VISTA volunteers can get some first-hand, top-notch training. He has also invited others in the community who work with people with disabilities, such as the Transition Program at the Washoe County School District and the Washoe ARC, to attend and receive the training, free of charge.

“We wanted to collaborate with and invite our local colleagues who work with people with disabilities to benefit from these great trainers and pioneers in the field,” Harrington said. “We are thankful for the funding provided by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which makes this training possible.”


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