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Transitioning Youth with Disabilities to the Workplace: An Innovative Approach to Independent Living

By Carolann Murphy, PA

The political activism of the 1960s fueled grassroots movements for societal change, including the Independent Living Movement, aimed at the inclusion of people with disabilities in American life. This movement influenced important legislation, such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and contributed to the formation of the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California. Today, more than 400 nonprofit consumer-directed Centers for Independent Living (CILs) provide consumer-driven community-based programs and services centered on information and referral, peer support, advocacy, and independent living skills. To ensure that the interests of their constituencies are served, CILs require that their staff and boards comprise greater than 50% participation by people with disabilities. 

In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) changed the national landscape for workforce development with its focus on the transition of people with disabilities to competitive integrated employment. A Pennsylvania CIL was recognized by the Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) for its innovative approach toward fulfilling this mandate, according to Dr. O’Neill. Based in Allentown, PA, the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living (LVCIL) was well positioned to fulfill WIOA’s mandate because of its long-term partnership with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), according to Seth Hoderewski, LVCIL’s director of transition services.

LVCIL’s programs for youth transition are models for success, which Hoderewski attributes to close relationships with community organizations and employers, as well as with OVR.  One example is Real World Lehigh Valley, a summer program for young people ages 16 to 21 years. The program is embedded at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, a local employer that hires 3,000 to 4,000 people each year.

“Working at Dorney Park is a rite of passage for the youth of Lehigh Valley,” noted Hoderewski, “and now, through Real World, young people with disabilities can share in the universal experiences of their peers. They learn how to get a job and how to keep a job,” said Hoderewski. “In addition to paid work experience, they interview with Dorney Park, and some have been hired,” he said. Human resources at Dorney Park has embraced Real World Lehigh Valley, proposing new ideas for improving the program. Their in-service training now includes yearly disability sensitivity training, another sign of their commitment. Hoderewski is hopeful that their enthusiasm will influence employment practices at the ten other properties owned by parent company Cedar Fair.

“Through our partnerships, we have established pathways to the workplace,” he said, “but much of what we do involves changing attitudes about people with disabilities. That’s what is crucial to the long-term success of our transition programs.”