By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — Five days a week this school year, seven young people from all seven public high schools in Durham who have completed their high school course work are interning at Duke Regional Hospital, rotating through departments to develop skills to prepare them for local jobs.
The students all have intellectual and developmental disabilities and spent most of their school career separated from most other students, learning in classrooms for those with “individual education plans.”
They are are among 70 who are interning at nine sites, primarily hospitals, throughout North Carolina through Project SEARCH, a model launched in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Funding several of the North Carolina programs has been the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities.
The Council, a stand-alone state agency that reports to the state secretary of health and human services and is mandated and funded by the federal government, works to give people with disabilities and their families access to — and a voice in shaping — services and supports they need.
Employment is critical for individuals with disabilities, says Chris Egan, the Council’s executive director.
“It means you’re working, and work is a huge outcome for most everyone in our society — to work, earn, contribute and get paid,” he says. “It leads not only to doing the job but to asset development, and engagement with people who become friends. And for people with disabilities, it demonstrates their contribution and potential, and their individuality.”
About 80 percent of individuals with developmental disabilities in the U.S. are unemployed, he says. In North Carolina, about 185,000 to 200,000 individuals, or about 1.5 percent to two percent of the population, live with developmental disabilities.
And they face continuing challenges, including low expectations, stereotyping and isolation, Egan says.
“If you have a disability, you’re often not considered capable, and society’s expectations tend to be low,” resulting in “fewer choices and fewer opportunities to contribute to your community, even when you want to and could,” he says.
Historically, he says, stereotyping resulted in the segregation and separation of individuals with disabilities in school, the workplace and the community.
Operating with an annual budget of $1.9 million and a staff of 10 people, the Council invests 70 percent of its funding in about 20 initiatives that focus on improving services and connectedness for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
A new five-year plan the Council is developing focuses on boosting its constituents’ financial security and community living, and their participation in advocacy work.
Project SEARCH, for example, aims to help students with disabilities make the transition from school to work, combining classroom instruction, career exploration and job‐skills training through internships.
The collaboration taps the resources of schools, businesses, community workforce agencies and the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
The Council is working with Wake Technical Community College, Community Workforce Solutions, the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Alliance Behavioral Health and NC Works to expand the program to young adults with disabilities in Wake County starting in August.
To help improve community living, the Council is working with Easter Seals UCP of North Carolina and Virginia, and with The Arc of North Carolina, to find a way to integrate and better coordinate access to health and wellness services for individuals with developmental disabilities.
For about 20 years, it also has funded Partners in Policymaking, a program that each year provides about 25 individuals with developmental disabilities and family members with a day-and-a-half of training a month to help build their leadership skills so they can be effective advocates for services they need.
And it is working with Benchmarks, a Raleigh-based alliance of agencies that serve children, adults and families, to organize a state chapter of the National Association of Direct Support Professionals.
Direct support professionals provide services that are indispensable in the daily lives of individuals with developmental disabilities, yet they are among the lowest paid in the health-care field, Egan says.
Ultimately, he says, the Council aims to help ensure that individuals with development disabilities lead full and fulfilling lives.
“A disability is a natural part of human condition,” he says, “and a label doesn’t define a person and what they’re capable of.”