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Project SEARCH Launches Careers of Young Adults with Disabilities

October 16, 2020

It seems it’s impossible to get a job without relevant experience, and impossible to get that experience unless you’ve already had a job. This vicious cycle shuts many potentially outstanding employees out of jobs – especially those with disabilities. 
Intern Javion McPherson assembles packets at Bronson

Applicants with disabilities are routinely underestimated, and subsequently never hired, by abled employers. Data from the 2010 US Census showed that adults ages 21 to 64 with disabilities were over five times more likely to be unemployed for over two years than their abled counterparts.  

One program, Project SEARCH (Students Exploring Alternative Resources at Children’s Hospital) is working empower young people with significant disabilities around the world by giving them the training and experience they need to succeed in competitive integrated employment, and Kalamazoo RESA (KRESA) is proud to help bring it to its community.  

Nurse Erin Riehle and Susan Riehle created Project SEARCH in Cincinnati in 1996. She was struggling to find reliable team members to stock shelves in the ER department she directed at Children’s and wondered if people with disabilities could do the job. Employing people with disabilities was uncharted territory.  

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been signed into law just six years earlier, the most comprehensive federal law ever to protect the rights of people with disabilities. In addition to creating similar prohibitions as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA of 1990 specifically made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in employment and required employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  

From its inception, the program changed Riehle and her abled colleagues’ perspectives about working with people with disabilities. Project SEARCH employed 35 young people with disabilities in its first year, giving them access to critically important employment experiences. Today, there are over 600 Project SEARCH work sites spread across 49 American states and 10 countries. 

Intern Kelly Miller stocks a printer Out of all of those, the program at Bronson Methodist Hospital was selected in 2019 as the winner of Project SEARCH’s Model Fidelity Spotlight Award in Transformative Collaboration. Project SEARCH in Kalamazoo is a product of collaboration between Bronson, the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, Greenleaf Hospitality Group, Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo RESA and Michigan Rehabilitation Services. 

“Project SEARCH is the best example of families, schools, community and local businesses coming together to focus on supporting young adults with disabilities to be productive members of their community,” said Kathy Hurley, Kalamazoo RESA transition coordinator. 

Students develop their strengths by completing yearlong rotating internships that enable them to effectively transition into the workforce as independent adults. At Bronson, they might rotate through entry level roles like customer service, food preparation or environmental services. This year, staff have adapted their program to be delivered five days a week, with one day of face-to-face learning, three days of internship site experience and one day of virtual classroom activities. 

 “We train everyone on the work skills, but also social skills are a huge component and are just as important,” said Jo Ann Hurst, Kalamazoo RESA/Project SEARCH instructor. “We work on business etiquette and professional expectations so they can really be all-around successful.” 

Nearly all of Kalamazoo’s Project SEARCH graduates have gone on to secure gainful employment, many of them at the sites where they completed internship rotations. This year, KRESA hired multiple graduates to work on the custodial team.

“They become dream employees,” said Hurst. “These are people who are excited about the work they do every day, who want to be there, who are great at the work that they do.”