Project SEARCH Helps D.C. Residents with Disabilities Transition to Employment

University engages young adults with disabilities in career exploration and development program.
Project Search
Members of the intern cohort hold their "work word," a chosen positive affirmation and stand with Provost of Academic Planning and Assessment Cheryl Beil, Project SEARCH Program Manager Emily Lehman and (far right) Career Coach Shamira Jones.
December 16, 2013

By Brittney Dunkins

A new program developed at the George Washington University is helping young adults with disabilities transition from education to employment.

“Statistically, we know that individuals with disabilities are at greater risk for unemployment than the general population, and this is especially true in D.C.,” Professor of Special Education and Disability Studies Juliana Taymans said. “Project SEARCH provides youth and young adults with disabilities with the tools to explore their career interests and develop job skills.”

The national employment preparation program has engaged 11 D.C. residents with disabilities in an 11-month program that follows them from first day workplace jitters to the feeling of a job well done and, hopefully, regular employment.

Project SEARCH was established with funding from the D.C. Department of Disability Services and developed in partnership with the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Goodwill of Greater Washington and Project SEARCH national.

 The employment transition program is a campus-wide collaboration between the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Academic Technologies and University Human Resources.

I have been utterly astonished by the generosity of the GW community in supporting Project SEARCH,” Associate Provost for Academic Planning and Assessment Cheryl Beil said. “From used furniture, desks, white boards and chairs provided by Facilities Services, to donated computer equipment from Academic Technologies, the GW community has embraced this project.”

Interns attend daily classroom sessions with Project SEARCH Career Coach Shamira Jones who provides classroom instruction and onsite support.  

 “We meet each day to review any difficulties they have and find solutions,” Ms. Jones said. “I also help them find ways to speak up about any accommodations they may need to complete their duties.”

An integral part of the program is helping the interns understand the value of work and create positive associations with going to work each day. One assignment tasked each intern with choosing a word that described his or her positive feelings about work.

“The goal is to make the students employable, and helping them to complete tasks on their own and view work as an accomplishment is an important part of that process.”

The curriculum, developed by GW Project Search Program Manager Emily Lehman, an Ed. D. candidate in the special education program, in collaboration with GSEHD doctoral students Lindsey Anderson and Reina Guartico, is centered on increasing interpersonal skills essential to the workplace and teaching students about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We are in the process of delivering curriculum modules that teach the interns about disability rights, in order to help them come to a better understanding of their own disabilities,” Ms. Lehman said. “The primary goal of the program, aside from 100 percent employment, is to assist in the development of the interns' self-awareness and self-determination and to ensure that they have the ability to pursue their short- and long-term career goals.”

The interns explore career options and gain valuable workplace experience through a series of three 13-week internship rotations at the GW Bookstore, the Mount Vernon Campus Registrar’s Office, the Lerner Health and Wellness Center and the Mount Vernon Campus and Foggy Bottom Campus Package Services.

Internship partnerships with the Office of Safety and Security, Academic Technologies and the Office of Summer and Special Programs are currently in the works. Offices that are interested in participating in the program should contact Ms. Lehman.

Assistant Director of Staff Training and Development Brett Graskewitz said that the staff of the Lerner Health and Wellness Center was happy to work with intern Avion Hension because the program aligns with one of the department’s core values: to provide opportunities for young people to learn transferrable skills in an employment environment.

“It has been rewarding to see Mr. Hension grow in our work environment,” Mr. Graskewitz said. “When he first started working with us he was quite shy and unsure how to accomplish his job duties, but over the past couple of months he has grown into an important part of our operation and gets along well with our other student employees.”

Mr. Graskewitz added that students have requested to work the same shifts in the fitness center next semester in order to work with Mr. Hension.

Dr. Beil said that day-to-day interaction between the students and the interns promotes an inclusive and diverse university community. 

“Through Project SEARCH, our students are working side by side and interacting with young adults with disabilities whom they would not meet in the classroom or in their residence halls,” Dr. Beil said. “The students have been tremendous in making the interns feel welcome to the university community.”

Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed agreed that the effort was an excellent opportunity for collaboration and growth.

“Our collaboration with Project SEARCH reflects our efforts to pursue the GW values of diversity and community,” Dr. Reed said.

In addition to the newly launched Project SEARCH, Dr. Taymans has managed the Career Investigation for Transitioning Youth (CITY) program for six years. CITY currently collaborates with 11 departments and offers undergraduate students the opportunity to work with high school-age youth with disabilities through a service learning course. The program brings youth with disabilities to GW’s campus for career exploration experiences.

The university intends to continue both programs.

“The university is like a small city with all types of jobs and work settings, which provides a small geographic area with a variety of jobs— the perfect combination for an employment preparation program,” Dr. Taymans said.

The current cohort of interns will graduate from the program in May. Two interns in the Project SEARCH program have been hired for regular employment at GW.

 “Like GW students, the Project SEARCH interns are at the university to prepare for a future that reflects their interests and potential,” Dr. Taymans said. “They are able to contribute to their internship sites in a community where they are accepted, valued and provided opportunities to set a positive direction for their adult lives.”

“This is truly a win-win,” she added.