By Nancy Kiehl
Ben J. is an articulate, intelligent and friendly twenty-one year old with a dual diagnosis of ADHD and autism that lives and works in Boulder County, Colorado. He is employed as a dishwasher at a popular Indian restaurant. Since August 2013, Ben has received support in obtaining and maintaining employment from Jason Hewes, who is the Coordinator of the School to Work Alliance Program (SWAP) with the Boulder Valley School District. Initially, Ben and Jason met weekly. First, they completed assessments of Ben’s vocational skills and interests. Next, they spent some time on career exploration. Afterward, Jason provided Ben with short-term instruction in skills such as resume writing, completing job applications and interview practice. Social and soft skills in the workplace were presented as well. Ben has learned appropriate job seeking and employment retention skills that can be used throughout his lifetime.
According to Ben, “It was helpful to learn how to write a good resume. Learning interviewing skills and mock interview practice taught me what to expect and how best to present myself. The job leads Jason provided were great. Most helpful of all was during a previous work experience. Jason was able to speak with my employer on my behalf.” Ben got connected to the restaurant where he now works through a family friend. He says, “Because my employers have a child with autism, they are understanding of my disability, which has not always been the case in my experience.”
Ben is currently torn between academic pursuits and employment and while dishwashing is not a career choice for him in the long run, he values this part-time position as he considers returning to college. He says his long-term employment goal after college is in the computer industry.
School to Work Alliance Program is in its 20th year of assisting youth, with mild to moderate disabilities, to successfully seek and maintain competitive employment. They can be physical, emotional or learning disabilities which create a barrier to employment. SWAP serves youth between the ages of 16 and 25 and the Colorado Department of Vocational Rehabilitation determines eligibility for SWAP. The program operates as a collaborative agreement between the Colorado Department of Education, the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and local school districts. There are thirty-nine SWAP sites across the state of Colorado. Each site has a coordinator and depending on the size of the area it serves, there are often additional employment specialists.
Referral to SWAP is best made when a youth’s primary focus is employment, and she or he is available for services. To make a referral, families and schools contact the SWAP coordinator in the community where the youth resides. Youth can be in school and served by either a Section 504 program or IDEA (Special Education) program, or have a suspected or known disability under another category. Those who are out of school and meet the same criteria of eligibility for services may apply whether they have graduated or aged out of school, dropped out or are at risk of dropping out, and/or are unemployed. Increasingly, SWAP sites are serving community college and 4-year college graduates with a disability, some of whom are entering the workforce for the first time.
SWAP staff assists applicants in completing the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) application. They also gather school records related to the documented disability; often times this is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan. DVR may provide testing for an applicant, if there is a suspected disability that is undocumented. SWAP schedules the DVR intake appointment for clients and attends with them. At this meeting, the application and accompanying documents are submitted to the DVR counselor, releases are signed and the client learns about their rights and responsibilities as a client of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
In other states, where SWAP is not available, applying directly to the local DVR office can be a great way for those with a disability of any age to seek employment services, but those residing in Colorado can turn to SWAP. Ben was self-referred to the School to Work Alliance Program but referrals can be made by teachers, school counselors, family members, physicians, therapists or any interested party.
After a 90-day period of stable, successful employment, DVR will close Ben’s case. However, he will continue to receive follow-along services from SWAP for a full calendar year after the DVR closure.
About the Author
Nancy Kiehl has been with the Boulder Valley School District since 2003. She began with 6 ½ years as a caseworker in the Transition Program working with 18-21 year olds; next she provided Special Education support in the classroom at the Career and Technical Education, CTE; and since the fall of 2013 she has enjoyed being a SWAP Specialist.