Pitt, United Way to hire more disabled youth

By Lauren Rosenblatt / Assistant News Editor

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For many young disabled people in Pittsburgh, life comes to a halt after high school. 

“We call it graduating to the couch,” Mary Hartley, who works with local charity 21 and Able, said. “[These kids] don’t have anything to do with their time when they don’t have school.” 

To help divert this pathline, Pitt has pledged to hire at least a few of these individuals. Michelle Fullem, director of recruiting and client services for Pitt’s Human Resources department, said by early summer, Pitt and the United Way of Allegheny County will hire a full-time career transition professional who will work with disabled young adults to help them make the transition to the workplace. The career transition professional will serve as a “non-traditional job coach,” Fullem said, and will help disabled individuals find jobs at Pitt, wherever they are qualified. 

While Pitt will employ the career transition professional, the hiring is part of an initiative that the United Way of Allegheny County started this year. In January, the Kessler Foundation awarded United Way with a $378,000 grant to hire individuals in Pittsburgh like the transition professional at Pitt. 

These individuals, the release said, will help find jobs for young, disabled individuals. Before United Way received the grant, it launched a pilot of the program and hired Barbara Graham, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, to help hire disabled individuals at Giant Eagle. Since September 2013, Graham has helped employ 27 young adults, the release said.  

Using 2000 U.S. Census data, Pitt found that 7.7 percent of disabled women and 9.4 percent of disabled men in Pittsburgh were unemployed. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the national unemployment rate was 4 percent in 2000.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for disabled individuals is 10 percent, almost twice the national percentage of 5.4 percent.

Pitt’s initiative comes from a partnership with United Way and 21 and Able, which works to “bridge the gap” between high school and adulthood for people with disabilities. At Pitt, once the transition professional connects a disabled individual with the University, he or she will go through the same hiring process as any other person, and Pitt will give them the same opportunities as anyone else, Fullem said. 

“There is no limit on what types of opportunities [are available]. There could be a variety of positions based on the individual’s skills, experience and education,” Fullem said. 

United Way and 21 and Able chose to partner with Pitt because it is such a large institution and hires a variety of people, according to Hartley, who is the lead consultant for policy and advocacy for 21 and Able. 

“The nice thing about Pitt is that there are lots of different jobs, those for very high levels of education and those that you just need some training and then you can do the job,” Hartley said. “And it’s very centrally located, and the support [these students] need is close by.”

Apart from 21 and Able, some Pitt researchers are focusing on helping disabled individuals, particularly through projects such as wheelchair robotics, according to Michael Lain, Information Dissemination Coordinator for one of these labs at Pitt. 

Pitt has approximately 700-800 disabled students registered with the Office of Disability Resources and Services, according to Leigh Culley, the office’s interim director. The ODRS works to make sure disabled students have access to the same opportunities as other students. 

Culley said the program is “on a good track,” since it has an 89 percent retention rate among students with disabilities. This overall retention rate at Pitt is 92.5 percent. 

Culley credits improvements in treatments and medical services with making it possible for more disabled individuals to attend college. Despite this trend, Culley said the disabled population is still one of the largest unemployed groups. 

“There’s a lot of talent and ability [among the disabled population], so it’s a matter of working to provide additional support for them,” Culley said. 

Hartley said the high rate of unemployment for the disabled isn’t due to a lack of interest and motivation. She blames it on a problem within the system. Schools and the federal government provide education, behavioral support and life skills for disabled students through classes, programs and financial funding. But when a disabled person turns 21, only a very small percentage can maintain access to these opportunities. 

Hartley is hopeful that the change she and Culley want to see is on the horizon. 

“We’re really encouraged and excited because companies are learning the value of hiring people with disabilities,” Hartley said. “When leadership [in companies] makes a decision that this is going to change, then it is going to change.”

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