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Project job search

The unique employment challenges faced by individuals with disabilities


April 17, 2020 by Delaney FitzPatrick


When Desi Knitt graduated from Project SEARCH last spring, she was excited to put her new skills to the test in a full-time job. But in the nine months that have passed since graduation, Desi has yet to find one.

“I think a lot of times the kids come out of Project SEARCH raring to go and ready to find a job and then the actual job application and finding process is very difficult,” said Chris Knitt, Desi’s mother and legal guardian, who has been helping her daughter throughout the process.

Project SEARCH is a unique internship opportunity for individuals like Desi, who have a developmental disability. Established in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Project SEARCH places these individuals into high-turnover, entry-level positions during a nine month internship.

The program gives interns total workplace immersion through three 10-week rotations, focusing on complex, systematic jobs which teach transferable skills. These skills include “hard skills” such as data entry or cataloging as well as “soft skills’ such as communication and employability. The ultimate goal of the program is to enable these interns to secure jobs in the community that they may not be qualified for otherwise.

The Northwoods area’s own Project SEARCH was started at Howard Young Medical Center (HYMC) in 2016 and the program has trained a small number of interns each year. Interns travel to HYMC from all across the Northwoods. This year’s cohort includes seven interns who hail from Minocqua as well as Rhinelander, Sugar Camp, Laona, and Tomahawk.

During her time in Project SEARCH, Desi completed one rotation in the laboratory before starting her second rotation in supply chain where she stocked and organized hospital supplies. It was during this rotation that Desi discovered her love for inventory. 

“She stayed there for her third rotation because they felt like they could expand upon the skills that she’d learned in her second rotation and she really liked it,” Knitt said. “She has autism and so being orderly and putting things away and keeping things in order is very much her strength.”

When asked what she likes about supply chain, Desi said she enjoys “stocking, organizing, keeping it straight and clean.” 

The Knitts are trying to build off of the momentum and skills Desi gained during Project SEARCH and are actively seeking job opportunities where Desi can utilize her aptitude. The family currently lives in Rhinelander and are hoping Desi can find a job in the area.


The job hunt

Knitt has discovered that finding a job for Desi can be a complicated process. The family has been working with a counselor from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), which has a location in Rhinelander.

The Knitts were also working with a second agency, but recently switched to a new agency after they’d had no success.

Knitt said the agency a family works with can have a big impact on the job hunt process. The job counselor assigned by the agency to a family must fulfill a multitude of responsibilities such as helping the individual find appropriate jobs, assisting the individual in filling out applications and sometimes also joining an individual for her interview. 

“It’s up to them. It’s their job to find Desi the job,” Knitt said. “They’re the ones that are supposed to be doing all they leg work.”

Even with the help of a job counselor, Knitt feels there are certain barriers for Desi to get noticed by a company. Right off the bat, questions on the application like, “Do you have a driver’s license?” can be complicated. 

“I’m sure they’re wondering is she going to be able to get to work?” Knitt said. “She has to say no. She’ll never be able to drive, but through the agency she has, she will be able to have transportation, she’ll be able to have a job coach, she’ll be able to have long term supports in place to help her in a job itself.” 

Knitt points out there’s no place on an electronic application — which many companies now use — to indicate why someone like Desi would be unable to fulfill certain requirements.  

“We’d like to have her apply for like 90% of the job and that 10% she can’t do,” she said.

Knitt feels this 10% may unfairly disqualify her daughter from certain opportunities. She estimates Desi has applied for less than 10 jobs since graduating from Project SEARCH.

So far, she has had only one formal interview, which Knitt said had its own challenges.

During the interview, Desi was accompanied by Knitt and a representative from the former agency. Knitt said it seemed confusing for the woman running the interview.

“She couldn’t figure out why all these people were showing up for this job interview and so she started asking Desi a lot of questions,” Knitt said. “Desi doesn’t understand some of the vocabulary she was using.”

The process has been frustrating for the Knitt family. Knitt believes Desi would be a welcome addition for many employers.

“She’s not looking for high wages, she’s not looking to be a manager, she’s not looking for even benefits packages,” she said. “She’s looking to have a steady job and she’s the type of person that would be there every single day.”


‘Hidden talents’

One local business that hired a few Project SEARCH interns is Milestone Senior Living in Woodruff. 

Milestone currently employs two former Project SEARCH interns. One has been an employee for approximately a year and a half, while the other has been there for almost a year. Both work in Milestone’s culinary department to prep and prepare meals and then clean up afterward. 

“My experience working with the individuals themselves is excellent,” Milestone’s director Briana Hoban said. She recommends Project SEARCH interns to any business. “I would say give it a shot. You never know what kind of hidden talents are there.”


Evolving Project SEARCH

Jennifer Varsik, who has served as program instructor of the local Project SEARCH since 2017, hopes Desi’s case is an outlier. The other two interns who graduated with Desi last spring have secured jobs.

Varsik said the program continues to evolve to ensure interns’ post-graduation success. One of the new changes this year is a new partnership. 

“This year is going to be really different because it’s a different company helping place the intern,” she said. “Opportunity Development Centers (ODC) is now doing the employment planning.”

In August, HYMC Project SEARCH partnered with ODC, which is a central Wisconsin-based organization providing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

ODC was already working with Project SEARCH sites in Marshfield, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids and Wausau, making the HYMC site its fifth. 

Using the four other sites as a model, the two ODC staff members assigned to the HYMC Project SEARCH have already started to make connections with local employers that might be good fits for this year’s interns.  

“They know how to connect with employers, they know how to go out and interact and educate employers as to ‘these are the benefits, this is what this employee could do for you,’” Varsik said. “We have an employment planning meeting with all the interns, their long-term care provider and with DVR, so as a group, we’re going to look at what are the best opportunities for each individual and then ODC employees are going to go and look for those types of jobs.”

According to Varsik, the employment organization Project SEARCH worked with last year did not start looking for jobs until April or May, which was just before graduation.

She said this year, a few interns have already applied to jobs.

Varsik explained ODC should help mitigate the types of problems the Knitts have faced, such as the limitations of an electronic application or needing accommodations during an interview.

“I’m really hopeful — because she’s such a good employee — that she will find employment soon,” Varsik said of Desi. “She would do awesome so that’s what’s stressful is that the longer she’s out of Project SEARCH, the more of the skills that she’s learned will have disappeared.”

Knitt said she has noticed some regression in her daughter since she finished the program. 

“Project SEARCH really brought out her personality and being able to speak with people and ask questions and really engage people,” she said. “She has the need like everyone else does to feel like they’re contributing to society.”

Delaney FitzPatrick may be reached via email at [email protected]


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