Project SEARCH Helps Students with Disabilities Secure Careers
By Marlee Talbot
“I want to get a job. J-O-B, “ said Tim Ashley, a student intern for ComArtSci. “But I’ve got to see what I can do [first].”
In many ways, Ashley is like any other 22-year-old. He likes comedy movies, goes to class and his internship, and loves to eat pizza. He also wants a career after graduation.
Yet, Ashley also differs from the average 22-year-old. He has a disability, which presents unique challenges and qualifies him to be a member of Spartan Project SEARCH.
Learning New Skills and Trades
Project SEARCH began at a hospital in Cincinnati as an effort to help individuals with disabilities gain on-the-job experience. It has since expanded across the country and the world. The project partners with businesses that are willing to work with individuals with disabilities, helping them to learn a skill or a trade.
The MSU branch of the project is named Spartan Project SEARCH. It began with nine locations on campus in 2016 and has grown to include a total of 17 this year.
Students participate in three rotations per year. They interview for each area they are interested in and select their top three work sites. The interviewers also choose their top three students. The final placements are based on students’ abilities, interests and goals.
The ultimate goal of the project is to help participants develop the skills they need to get a job and be less dependent on their parents. Marcia Evans, a skills trainer who has been with Spartan Project SEARCH since its inception, says that is her favorite part.
“Once you see that they’re getting a paycheck and a job, it’s a wonderful feeling. Just to watch them from beginning to end is amazing. They grow so much,” said Evans. “A person with a disability is coddled, but sometimes you have to be the tough love. It is amazing how much they learn from the tough love this program provides.”
The Spartan Project SEARCH Experience
As a skills trainer, Evans helps students develop the skills they need to be successful in their job placements and future careers. She works with the students in their Project SEARCH class periods as well as their job placements.
“At the very beginning we teach them how to interview, how to write a resume, fill out an application, work etiquette and work on hygiene,” said Evans. “It’s simple things that other people take for granted but the students don’t.”
Evans says her favorite part about working with Ashley is watching him gain confidence in skills he doesn’t know he has.
“His first response is always, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I’m not good at that,’” Evans said. “But as soon as he applies himself, it clicks. He realizes ‘oh wait, I can do that.’”
Ashley’s current job placement is split between the College of Communication Arts and Sciences’ Communications Office and the Dean’s Office, where he works alongside students and staff. Some of his responsibilities include: answering phones, hanging posters and flyers, and updating the office calendar.
“I like being on time, or a little early to make sure I can get everything ready,” Ashley said of his internship. “I love learning the mail, how to send emails, and learning how to use a movie editor.”
Matching Disabilities to Abilities
In Michigan, students with disabilities receive a certificate after completing high school, rather than a diploma, and can continue schooling until age 26. However, Project SEARCH participants, no matter their age, are considered to be in their final year of school. The program ends in graduation and students entering the workforce.
Ashley explained that the most valuable skill he has learned from Spartan Project SEARCH so far has been how to interview for jobs. Before he graduates in May, he hopes to learn how to turn that skill around and interview other people in order to create podcasts.
“That’s going to be a little tricky,” Ashley said of his goal. “But I’m stubborn about my goals. I get really stuck on them.”
“We tell them everyone’s got a disability,” said Evans. “For some of us it might be our eyes (glasses), might be our hearing, might be our speech, could be autism, might be ADD, could be an allergy of some sort — but it’s important to feel comfortable asking for the accommodation they need.”
Project SEARCH is helping people across the country overcome their disabilities to learn new skills and achieve their goals.