Transition program aiming to help students with disabilities

When it comes to school-to-work programs, Mike Etzell and Diane Fesler have a unique perspective.

Etzell and Fesler both work with students ages 18 to 21 with developmental disabilities, helping them to transition into the workforce.

“We’re investing in all of those students going to school, and why would we stop after kids with special needs graduate?” Etzell said.

He works with the Developmental Disabilities Administration to help students ease their way into life after public education, whether into college or into a job.

Etzell said that it’s important for all students, with or without disabilities, to continue their education or join the workforce to become contributing members of the society. It’s not only important to the county, he explained, but to the students and their families, as well.

“It is very clear that if you get folks jobs prior to leaving school, all of the outcomes for the next years are so much better.”

Fesler works as transition coordinator for the Oak Harbor School District.

She and a team of job coaches help teach students with developmental disabilities the skills for a job they’d enjoy, as well as the “soft skills,” as Etzell called them, of personal and social skills.

“This year, I have some students coming to me with very high-functioning autism who want to go on to college, but they’re not quite ready. … They may not have the personal, social skills or the confidence to access a college,” she said.

She said that the high school schedule these students have grown used to might not always be enough to transition into university, especially if students also need to work a part-time job while in school.

“We can be their support network to take them over to the college, get them signed up,” she said. “Some students who opt to do that take one course and do some job exploration and just see what that really feels like.”

Etzell and Fesler work with community partners to give jobs or internships to their students to help get them slowly acclimated to post-high school life during those transition years. Sometimes their students can work as little as two hours a week at a job, learning how to adjust to the adult world, with job coaches who help them through the adjustment.

Their mantra is “Jobs by June,” and they plan to work with their students throughout the year to get them ready for that.

Examples of how they help include figuring out transportation from home to work, as they won’t have that school bus anymore. They also work on the different expectations of appearance, from school to work, because the expectation of presentability is raised.

“If you’re expecting to have a job by June, or a job next year, this is the bar, and we’re not kidding,” Etzell said.

The two of them spend time out in the community, going to businesses to try to find jobs that would suit each student. Sometimes, they encounter employers eager for the opportunity, to the point where Fesler and her job coaches have to teach them to slow down, to establish boundaries and build the skills where needed.

Other times, employers who don’t have previous experience with developmentally disabled employees need to be coached through concerns of supervision and liability.

However, the lightbulb will eventually go on when the student, Etzell said, their family and the employer realize how good the job can be, for the families and for the business’s bottom line.

“If it doesn’t work for the business’s bottom line, then it’s not going to work long-term, so we want it to work for the businesses,” he said.

“We have a lot of those businesses who have kind of taken the risk and figured out that this is a huge positive for them as well as all of those employees.”

On Oct. 14, they are holding a “transition and resource fair,” Etzell said. There, families may apply for the developmental disabilities programs or commit to the Jobs by June goal.

“Some families might say, ‘You know, we haven’t gotten anything from the state, why would we bother now?’” Etzell said. “My response to that is, ‘If you don’t show up, then you won’t get anything.’”

He said that in order to qualify for the programs, generally there needs to be three areas of life function that have been significantly delayed, but that eligibility is determined by the state.

According to the Department of Social and Health Services, these qualifications include “A disability attributable to intellectual disability; cerebral palsy; epilepsy; autism; or another neurological or other condition closely related to intellectual disability or that requires treatment similar to that required for individuals with intellectual disabilities.”

“It’s my belief, and I would hope that it’s everybody’s belief, that each individual in our society deserves to be able to … have a say in what they want their life to be, no matter how or what their disability might be,” Fesler said.

“That’s not who they are.”

The Resource and Transition Fair is 4:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14 at Oak Harbor High School. Contact Mike Etzeel at 360-678-7883 for information.

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