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People with physical disabilities face unique and varied challenges in their lives. Poverty, lower income levels than non-disabled workers, and attitudinal barriers are among some of the common challenges (Noonan, 2004). According to Chubon in 1985:
If it is apparent that the child is going to require costly lifetime support (e.g., medical or attendant care), he or she must be sensitive to the relevance of salary in career planning. Similarly, the disabled child should be taught to notice the mobility and strength requirements in jobs affected by the disability. In the same vein, specific restrictions that may legally exclude them from some jobs should be brought to their attention. (49)
As cited by Noonan, the U.S. Census in 2001 reported that approximately 54 million Americans, equaling about 20% of our nation's population, had a disability. If 20% of our population is facing challenges related with employment, then it is clear that career development needs to begin early and remain effective throughout one's youth in order to ensure maximum potential for future success.
In the 1970's and 1980's, the United States of America experienced a greater concern for more defined and comprehensive career development for our disabled population. The most widespread change has to do with words. Brolin reflected this change in semantics in 1989:
Today, terminology describing students with disabilities has changed from the handicapped, mentally retarded, or handicapped people, to a more humanistic and less dehumanizing term reflecting that they are students first and that they have a disability second. (155)
The term used today is: disabled. The focus of this research paper is persons who are physically disabled.
Another term that came into use in the 1980's was introduced by Madeline Will, the Assistant Secretary of the United States Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). As cited by Brolin, Madeline Will defined transition as, "â€¦an outcome-oriented process encompassing a broad array of services and experiences that lead to employment," (155). Brolin expands by explaining that transition includes high school and beyond through one's initial years of employment. It incorporates community involvement in working with the schools and parents. Brolin goes on to say, "â€¦one of the most fundamental tenets of education is to develop to the maximum degree possible the abilities of all its students, so they can become employed, develop personal and social skills, and function as independent citizens," (155).
Legislative actions from the 1980's also reflect the increasing concern for career development of our disabled students. Previously, students with disabilities would exit high school with the assumption that their futures contained a day-care type of program. The legal push for career development opened up employment opportunities for these students. According to Brolin, the 1983 Amendments to the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1975 (Section 626) focus on the transition difficulties of students with disabilities. Another law that allocated additional funding for career development services to disabled students is the Carl Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984. Brolin stated, "The Act is designed to provide support to students, including those with disabilities, in vocational programs to enhance their independent functioning," (156). Other laws in the 1980's that incorporated interagency cooperation with the schools included: the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986, Job Training Partnership Act of 1982, and the Developmental Disabilities Act Amendments of 1984 (Brolin, 1989).
Although the idea of transition and the legislative actions of the 1980's occurred almost three decades ago, their principles remain important to our students today. Technological developments in the 1980's, for example, influenced the career force as well as the skills needed for the job market of that time. That concept is still applicable to today's students. Chubon asserted, "increasingly effective methods are being developed for persons to compensate for their handicapping condition," (50). Although he was referring to the computer advancements that made electrical wheelchairs and off-site work possible, it is easy to apply his statement to today's work force. Voice recognition software, Braille-translated software, and laser technology are all advancements that allow disabled persons to find employment in a career field that fits them as a person, not as a disabled body.
A little more recently, our country has experienced the School-To-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 (PL 103-239), the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (PL 105-220), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. Muthumbi in 2008 said, "Lately there has been an interest in promoting the development of collaborative partnerships as a component of school-to-work transition, with a goal of ensuring improved transition outcomes for youth with disabilities," (93). But are all these legislative acts enough?
According to Nietupski, in 2008 the United States Chamber of Commerce reported the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities to be at 62%. How are programs changing to address this alarming statistic?
According to Nietupski, The National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center says that, "success is dependent upon strong school programs that provide personalized, intensive career exploration opportunities and customized supportsâ€¦One-on-one counseling, training and personalized involvement with each student are what make the program [Career Connections] such a success," (29). Career Connections is a program that provides individualized counseling to assess and place participants into a job that fits their interests and personality as well as being competitive in wage.
Another example of a similar program is the Project SEARCH, founded in 1996 by J. Erin Riehle of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. It has successfully incorporated community collaboration with the school system. Allen described Project SEARCH as a program that, "takes places in a health care or business setting where total immersion in the workplace facilitates the teaching and learning process. Each student participates in three to four internships throughout the school year learning marketable work and social skills needed to reach the program outcome - competitive employment," (23). The students with disabilities who have participated in Project SEARCH are nine times more likely to become employed and are often more successful than participation in a traditional career and technical education program. A program like Project SEARCH benefits both the employers and the disabled job-seeking, soon-to-be-graduates by providing training and experience to the future employees as well as giving the individuals the opportunity to find out their own strengths as a productive worker (25).
Programs like Career Connections and Project SEARCH are steps in the right direction. Students with physical disabilities may express interest in a career field that does not typically employ persons with physical disabilities. This is an important opportunity for the counselor, teacher, and/or parent to become an advocate for the student (Chubon, 1985) and encourage the student into the appropriate educational track(s) and risk(s). A useful tool is finding a mentor for the student. Noonan's study on women with physical and sensory disabilities who have achieved career success revealed a new perspective on the role of a mentor. The successful women are role models to disabled students in their community; sometimes they provide indirect support simply by their existence, which proves to younger students that it is possible to achieve success if you live with a physical disability. Other women described their role as mentors as having a more direct influence on the students. One woman said, "Anybody can give a lecture, butâ€¦to guide somebody throughâ€¦to share how you've done something, how it's been successful for you, how you've handled obstacles, that's truly a mentor," (75). Another woman, who is a blind international director, explained, "to have that access is so important for disabled girls," (75).
In conclusion, our nation has experienced several changes throughout the years as we attempt to empower our disabled population in their career choices. Career development needs to be initiated early in life so that a person may attain the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve his goals. Our population of physically disabled persons cannot be, and has not been, forgotten. New programs are started every year, new laws are passed, and education is becoming more readily available to everyone in order to provide equal opportunities and access for our physically disabled population. Noonan's participants in her study called it: ableism. That places a new perspective on the issue. From the dehumanizing term: handicapped in the 1970's to the slightly more empowering term: disabled in the 1980's to Noonan's newest term of: ableism today. Education and skill acquisition combined with modern technology has taken the idea of a physically disabled employee and turned him into a productive, valuable able-d employee today. What does the future hold?