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The Preview: Disabilities

Find meaningful paid work for graduates with disabilities, with Project SEARCH

Smiling young woman with a colorful cap and pink lab coat working in a supply room
Students complete a rotation of internships with a host business to gain skills, determine preferences, and demonstrate aptitude

It costs employers money to recruit, train, and retain good employees. They want workers who are dependable, well trained (and willing to be trained), who get along with others, and who have a good attitude.

In cities and towns around the country, businesses are discovering prospective employees with these very qualities who have graduated from the Project SEARCH® High School Transition Program.

Project SEARCH is a school-to-work program with a remarkable success rate for placing students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in paid employment that is both rewarding to them and valuable to their employers. The program has been so successful that it has grown from its original site in Cincinnati to over 200 sites across the United States and Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia.

The origins of Project SEARCH

Project SEARCH grew out of a search for a real-world solution to a real-world problem. Erin Riehle, then nursing director of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Emergency Department, was frustrated by chronically high turnover and lackluster performance of personnel hired to stock examination room supply carts. Typically, the most readily available pool of candidates for this position consisted of undergraduates hoping to get into medical school, nursing students, and others who wanted to add hospital experience to their resumes. Although these were competent, bright people, they lacked any real interest in the job.

During the same period, Erin saw a young man with developmental disabilities bagging groceries at the grocery store, and the germ of an idea was born. She asked herself, "If he can do this job, why couldn't he stock exam rooms?" And from there Project SEARCH grew. (You can read the full story in High School Transition that Works: Lessons Learned from Project SEARCH®.)

How Project SEARCH works

Project SEARCH is a unique approach to the critical transition from high school to adult life. It is a one-school-year internship program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their last year of high-school eligibility (students often are 21). It is a collaborative model supported by braided funding that involves individuals and organizations typically involved in providing transition and support services for young adults with disabilities. An advisory board of key representatives guides each program.

Read the true-life experience of Jill, one of Project SEARCH's earliest success stories.

The internships take place entirely at a host business, which provides a classroom, where students report each day. The business also provides a liaison who devotes 5–10% of his or her time to the Project SEARCH program. The students are supported in arranging for their own transportation—just as they would for a typical job. They receive daily instruction in real-life skills with direct application in the work setting from a special educator provided by the school district. Following classroom instruction (at the work site), they report to the department to which they are assigned for the majority of each day. A job coach from vocational rehabilitation services assists with job-skills training at the internship site.

Students generally complete three 10-week internship rotations within the 9-month period, learning the type of work that best suits their interests and demonstrating areas of aptitude. Typically, about one-third of Project SEARCH students are hired by the host business, with more hired by other local businesses who have seen evidence of the students' job experience and abilities.

The results of Project SEARCH

According to Project SEARCH data, positive employment outcomes run in the neighborhood of 70%—an incredibly high rate for a group of young people who traditionally go to adult activity centers, sheltered workshops, or sit at home. Sometimes interns are employed before the end of the 9-month period, sometimes at the end of the internship, but usually within 3 to 6 months after the completion of the program.

According to Paul Wehman, editor of the landmark transition text Life Beyond the Classroom who has himself established Project SEARCH sites in Virginia, "Our own data on Project SEARCH participants with autism show 94% employed after 3 years." (This is particularly notable given the recent report in Pediatrics that nearly 7 years after high school, 35 percent of young adults with autism had no paid employment.)

"The brilliance of Project SEARCH," according to Dr. Wehman, "is that it builds on the knowledge of the host business and combines that with the best we know about community-based instruction, mentoring, on-site behavioral assessments, assistive technology, and supported employment ... Project SEARCH is about competitive employment. It is not a work adjustment program; it is not a shadowing program; it is not an evaluation program. This is a program that is directly related to and measured by the ability of its interns to gain competitive employment."

Business benefits of Project SEARCH

Approximately 10% of Americans have some sort of disability. Through Project SEARCH, Cincinnati Children's has built a substantial and visible presence of people with disabilities. As a result, the program has gone far beyond its original goals of increased retention in chronically unfilled support positions and enhanced workforce diversity. The program has delivered an added bonus by setting off a ripple effect that has resulted in other unanticipated business benefits for the hospital.

Greater productivity and improved retention in high-turnover support positions is a clear and direct benefit of the work activities of employees with disabilities within Cincinnati Children's. But Project SEARCH has also had an indirect impact on the recruiting of high-level professionals. When the hospital hired a new chief of surgery, chief of staff, and director of cardiac research over the course of the past several years, the individuals accepting these critical positions all cited the hospital's commitment to training and hiring people with disabilities as influencing their decision.

In addition to the impact on employee recruitment, Project SEARCH has expanded the hospital's patient base and increased patient satisfaction. Families of children with chronic illnesses and disabilities tend to be very loyal customers who form long-term relationships with their health care organizations. The hospital's obvious commitment to employing people with disabilities has increased the loyalty of these important customers.

Employees with disabilities further serve as role models for patients and families. It gives a sense of hope to these families when they see people with disabilities as productive employees, and this effect is reflected in increased compliance with medical orders and in patient satisfaction surveys.

A striking example of this came in a letter from a mother of an infant with Down syndrome. In her letter, the mother explained that her baby experienced cardiac complications and was airlifted to Cincinnati Children's for surgery. She received excellent medical care for her child, but that wasn't what made the biggest impression on her. What she hadn't expected was a life-changing moment that came when she was with her baby in intensive care waiting for surgery.

She was in tears, worrying about the surgery but, even more than that, fearing for her child's future. She was still adjusting to the reality of her child's disability. But then a young woman with Down syndrome walked into the room, looked into the crib and said, "That's a cute baby," and proceeded to stock every supply in the room. At that moment, the new mother's outlook changed completely.

After seeing what this young woman could do, and how confidently she moved about the hospital room, she had new hope for her own child. She knew then that her baby could grow up and be productively employed, and she was intensely grateful to Cincinnati Children's for giving her that new perspective. For her, more than anything else that happened during her hospital stay, it was that experience that changed the outcome for her baby and for her family.

If you are interested in establishing an official Project SEARCH program site, please contact Project SEARCH at for technical assistance and information on licensing. To ensure model fidelity and consistent quality of programming across sites, Project SEARCH is a licensed, trademarked model.

Adapted from High School Transition That Works: Lessons Learned from Project SEARCH®.

Find more guidance on strategies leading to meaningful work:

High School Transition That Works: Lessons Learned from Project SEARCH®

The New Transition Handbook: Strategies High School Teachers Use that Work!

Life Beyond the Classroom: Transition Strategies for Young People with Disabilities, Fifth Edition

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