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Diagnosed: Transitioning To The Adult World For Persons With Disabilities

Photo courtesy of Aggies Elevated

High schools and universities around the state are gearing up for graduation. For some, leaving school means entering the adult world. But for people with disabilities, an independent life is less certain. Eight in 10 people with disabilities are not in the labor force, compared with three in 10 among people without a disability. 

In our continuing partnership with the Center for Persons with Disabilities, and as part of the UPR Original Series Diagnosed, JoLynne Lyon talks with Utahns who struggled to make that transition—and they are seeing success.

It’s spring and a fresh crop of graduates will soon enter the adult world. Some will get jobs, some will go on to more education, some will start their careers. And some may wonder if independence will ever come.

“Shortly after graduation, I was jobless for the next few months," said Jaden Miller of Logan. "I spent a lot of my time at home doing nothing.”

He is on the autism spectrum, and for a while, his future looked uncertain.

“I never really thought that me living on my own would be a choice,” he said.

We’ll get back to Jaden in a minute, but for now, it’s safe to say he wasn’t alone. In Salt Lake City, Tammy Mabey’s son, Nick, had similar thoughts. 

“He graduated from the University of Utah in chemical engineering and couldn’t get a job for several years. He was delivering pizzas,” Tammy said. 

Nick, too, is on the autism spectrum.  When he took the ACT, he earned a score of 32, while the national average is 21. But those scores didn’t help him overcome his biggest hurdle: the job interview.

“That was THE hurdle for him. They would ask him, ‘What would your worst enemy say about you,’ and he’s thinking, ‘I have enemies?’ Tammy said.“I knew that if someone would give him a chance, that they would see the treasure that’s on the inside that I’ve always seen. Everybody that did actually hire him, they loved him.”

“Sometimes people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, have a hard time with soft skills," said Sue Reeves,  program director of Aggies Elevated in the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. "And that’s critical in being able to interview for a job, get the job and keep the job, so that’s an entire semester class focused on those skills.”

Aggies Elevated offers a two-year vocational program to young adults with a range of intellectual disabilities.

“Aggies Elevated has had 14 graduates in three cohorts. And they are all working in competitive, paid employment. We have four full-time, three with benefits, and the rest of them are part-time as their abilities allow them to do. It’s pretty exciting when you consider that that average employment rate for people with disabilities is about 20%.”

A big focus for Aggies Elevated is the interview.

“We focus a lot on interviewing skills, how to use job boards, how to write cover letters, how to make sure their resume says what they need it to say - and I have this wonderful network of volunteers on campus who do mock interviews with my students,” Sue said.

Jenna Mosher of Park City graduated from the program in 2016. She went on to earn her associates on her own, and she’s working toward her bachelor’s at USU.

“As of right now I’m majoring in HDFS which stands for human development and family studies," she said. "I did a lot of exploration with careers but at the end of the day I’m really passionate about working with people and helping people.”

That word—passion—is important for Jenna when she talks about career plans. All of the people interviewed in this story said finding a job wasn’t enough; they wanted their work to be meaningful.

“We help them find a job in a field that they’re interested in rather than just flipping burgers somewhere if that’s not their dream job," Sue said. “In the first semester of career exploration, they identify a couple of careers that they’re interested in and then create a map of the stepping stone jobs that they’ll need to have to achieve that goal.”

For Jaden, the change to independent living started this way:

“I felt that this was something that nobody else was going to do for me. I was going to have to do it on my own," he said. "DI was kind of my first start and then I just kind of had second jobs off and on again between this one job that’s making money and paying my rent and buying my food and everything else that I need in life, so…

“I’ve been living on my own for about seven, eight months now.” 

He also has a car and is working toward getting a driver license.

“I feel like me getting my driver’s license is kind of just the beginning of what my future career might be; what I’m wanting to do is just starting out with getting my driver’s license and then maybe wait for a couple of years or so until I want to see about getting my commercial driver’s license and then driving semi trucks,” Jaden said. 

Nick’s journey took a step forward when his mom Tammy studied communications and psychology at the University of Utah. That’s where she made a documentary about her son, and people from an engineering firm saw it.

“They saw that video and they called him in for an interview, and because they knew the situation and they knew the person he was, took him around, and they just loved him," she said. "That documentary actually was the reason he was able to get the job he has now.”

Still, when Tammy remembers what it was like watching him take those first steps into the adult world, it brings back some hard memories. In addition to Nick, she has a younger son Andrew who is also on the autism spectrum.

“It’s like having your heart ripped out," she said. "It’s like trying to figure out how to be there and not take over, and try and protect, because you can’t do that the rest of your life," she said. “I think that we’re going in the right direction because I can see such a difference between raising Nick and raising Andy, and how many more services there are and how many more accommodations have been made.”

Support for Diagnosed has been provided in part by our members and Intermountain Healthcare, a Utah-based not-for-profit system of 23 hospitals, 170 clinics, a Medical Group with close to 2,300 employed physicians and advanced practice clinicians, a health plans group under the name SelectHealth, and other medical services. Details found here.