LiveBIG Staff, July 31, 2014

When high school students with mental disabilities graduate, they all too often lack the knowledge, connections and support needed to seek full-time employment. They may have the skills to do a particular job, but they won?t know the first thing about how to search for openings, create a résumé or build up their professional network.

Indiana University?s Center on Community Living and Careers (CCLC), part of IU?s Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, is trying to change that by building developmental programs for this group in partnership with high schools and colleges, agencies, and support organizations throughout the state.

?For all our projects, the ultimate goal is a job [for the participants],? said Dr. Teresa Grossi, Ph.D., director of CCLC. ?We want them to gain social skills and participate in a résumé-building activity.?

The programs, which are relatively new, are distributed at about a half-dozen sites across the state of Indiana. Each site serves about 10-12 students at a time, allowing for highly individualized attention and support. Though in the early stages, the programs have helped 20 disabled students find jobs above minimum wage so far.

These initiatives start in high school, with mentoring at various sites performed by IU students. Most of this part of the program currently takes place at Indianapolis-area secondary schools, near the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus. The mentors are generally education majors, Grossi said, though there are a few sociology and psychology students in the mix.

This part of the program allows IU students to fulfill the university?s mission of service learning, Grossi said. ?They get to learn about the different abilities and possibilities of what these young adults are capable of doing,? she explained.

Many of the mentally disabled high school students who are mentored then go on to participate in academic programs at nearby colleges that have been specifically tailored for them. (IU has supported this stage of the project with grant funding for institutions such as Vincennes University and Franklin College.) While there, they also get to take part in extra-curricular activities and simply ?hang out like any other college student,? Grossi said.

This experience not only imparts valuable skills - from socialization to navigating a college campus - but also helps them understand they?re capable of greater things than they may have realized.

By Brian Summerfield