Graduates with disabilities prepare to work


Melissa Irish

When many people who have disabilities do not enter the workforce, programs such as Project SEARCH are important.   Project SEARCH is an international organization that works to enable disabled people to be able to maintain a job, and an average of 86 percent of Nebraska participants become employed after they complete the program.

Disabled high school graduates who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan can apply for the program, no matter what their disability is.

“The main purpose of the program is to get the students a job when they’re done and to help them learn some valuable work skills that they can take to other places,” Project SEARCH coordinator Byron Olsen said.

Project SEARCH lasts a year and follows the same calendar as Bellevue Public Schools.  During that year, participants work multiple internships to improve their work skills from 7:30 AM to 2:30 PM.

“They get to do three different types of jobs, and they are 10-week long internships,” Olsen said.  “Our partner is PayPal, and so within PayPal there is a food service, custodial contractors, maintenance contractors, landscaping, and security, so we use those businesses.”

A participant in the program, Nikia Smith, considers Project SEARCH to be a great opportunity.  She hopes that after she completes the program that it will have helped her to get a job.

“At the beginning of the school year, we were working on resumes cover letters for about four weeks,” Smith said in an email.  “Now we’re on my first rotation; it’s going well. I’m working in the cafe at PayPal.  I stock beverages, clean down tables, basically I’m restocking stuff that needs to be stocked. We have have five more weeks until the end of our first rotation.”

Although the main location is at PayPal, the students can also intern at Cabela’s, Embassy Suites, and the Children’s Hospital if necessary.  This offers up a wide range of opportunities.

“I think it is wonderful and amazing, and I am so excited that Bellevue was able to implement a project worksite within our district because it provides that opportunity for students who maybe just need that one extra year to be successful in gaining those employability skills,” Special Education Department Chair Renee Proksel said.

Project SEARCH has been in Bellevue for three years now.  The students typically have good ethic and don’t let their disabilities–or as Olsen calls them, “specialabilites”–hinder them.  Olsen makes visits to Special Education departments at the high schools, and other people associated with the program identify candidates as well.

“My role regarding the SEARCH program is basically to refer on our students who are good candidates in order for them to apply to the program their spring semester of their senior year,” Proksel said.  “So I really just help with the identification of the students who are good candidates.”

The 10 current participants have all graduated from Bellevue East or Bellevue West.  

“The best part of the program is allowing the interns to be around people in work settings so they can see what it’s like,” Olsen said.  “It’s not in your typical school setting, and they’re working adults and people that have professional jobs, and they get connected with mentors within PayPal.”

SEARCH positively affects the businesses they are involved with in addition to helping the students.

“PayPal is thrilled with having the students in their business and seeing what they can do as well as providing ability awareness for all of their employees,” Proksel said.  “It’s changed their culture to be more positive and accepting.”

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2015 that only 15.7 percent of the American disabled population was employed.  As a result, many businesses do not have disabled employees.

“I know that there’s a huge initiative working with community employers to promote ability awareness and the hiring of individuals with disabilities,” Proksel said.  “I think it’s an area we still need to work on because there’s so many benefits to hiring individuals with disabilities and if we can focus on the abilities and what accommodations individuals need, then our society would have many more contributing members and be better as a whole.”

Olsen agreed that allowing more disabled people into the workforce helps more than just the people themselves.

“It helps the community by being able to get persons with disabilities out in the job force and it helps the businesses be able to understand how to work with students with disabilities,” Olsen said.  “They are marketable and they can be competitively employed, and so it opens up a pool of employees for different businesses to tap into.  The students make great employees.”

Proksel then elaborated on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

“I think we need to create a nation or a culture of acceptance and opportunity for all,” Proksel said.  “In addition, by having an individual have the opportunity to be employed, we are also then saving our nation money from individuals who’d just have to rely on public assistance or disability benefits for their livelihood.  This gives those individuals an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way and be self-supportive.”

Melissa Irish
Features Editor