Matthew Altieri wanted to follow the expected course of action for many young adults after high-school. He wanted to go to college. But Altieri, who is autistic, needed more than classroom education to prepare him for a career. He needed self-confidence and job readiness skills in order to succeed. He found those skills through assistance from the College Works program.
The Arc Oneida-Lewis Chapter’s innovative College Works program effectively blends education in work and life skills for people with autism and other disabilities. This two-year, on-campus program of higher education allows individuals with developmental disabilities to attend college at Mohawk Valley Community College and graduate with a two-year certificate.
The courses focus on life and work skills and on exploring specific career tracks in care-giving, hospitality, janitorial maintenance, and office retail. They are taught by employment specialists and professional experts from the community, and over the course of two years, help students explore possible career paths and develop fundamental knowledge and skills in a particular area. In year two, the program also includes an internship with an employer.
The Arc developed the program in response to the need for students who were aging out of high school to explore career options, prepare for employment, and experience college life as a normal transition to adulthood.
“We follow our graduates, often working with New York’s Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID) to provide transitional and pre-employment services as they approach their graduation and beyond,” said The Arc’s Director of Employment Services, Joanne Donaruma. “We’ve found that College Works gives them the college experience and prepares them for employment with some specific job skills. But, more importantly, it provides them with the essential soft skills needed to retain a job – team work, work ethic, and the ability to relate successfully to co-workers and supervisors. It also introduces them to different career options so they are more likely to find employment that suits who they are.”
Matthew’s mother, Cindy Altieri, says that through College Works, Matthew became very involved with campus life, and made friends – with and without disabilities – who he still keeps in touch with today.
College Works also showed her son that it’s possible to have a job doing what you like. With the skills he learned through this program, Matthew was able to intern in the computer graphics and design department at a local newspaper, where he made a real contribution. While no full-time job was available there after his internship, he still hopes to work for the paper again one day.
Vicky Yarwood and her son, Mark, also realized the benefits of this college program.
“Without exaggeration, College Works changed all of our lives – his dad’s, mine and Mark’s, but even his siblings’,” said Vicky. “Mark is so much happier. He’s proud of what he’s accomplished. We all are. There isn’t any medicine that can give you that.”
Mark credits College Works with helping him with his social skills, something he struggled with his entire life. He is now employed as a dietary aide at a local nursing home. Mark says he enjoys his work and his co-workers, but, perhaps equally important, he now reports, “For the first time in my life, I have a real girlfriend!”
Education Equals Opportunity
No matter who we are or where we are, education equals opportunity. And opportunity can make the difference between simply living and “having a life.” For people like Matthew and Mark who have ASDs, however, attaining an education takes extra hard work and help from others – early in life, during the school years, and well beyond.
The mission of New York State’s Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) is to help people with developmental disabilities live richer lives. While that involves many things, it very clearly involves supporting people in their dreams of pursuing education. With the right level of support, people with developmental disabilities can not only obtain diplomas and degrees, but also, the skills and confidence that will allow them to fully contribute to their communities.
“OMRDD’s commitment to education means we make a lifelong commitment to raising an individual’s capacity for living fully, whatever their age and ability,” said OMRDD Commissioner Diana Jones Ritter. “That means we must partner with school districts and the State Education Department – in both Special Education and Vocational Education – to find the unique blend of services that will allow each individual to live their best life.”
OMRDD provides individualized supports and services to more than 125,000 individuals with developmental disabilities across New York State. These individuals range in age from infants to senior citizens. They receive residential services, therapies such as Speech and Occupational Therapy; clinical services such as psychology, nursing and nutrition; family supports such as caregiver respite and crisis intervention; supported employment; and habilitation services that focus on building the skills a person needs to pursue their life goals.
Currently, OMRDD supports approximately 18,700 individuals with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. More than 11,000 of those people are under the age of 22 years. For those 11,000, OMRDD provides services that supplement the educational services provided by local public school districts. Families and their children with autism receive supports like Medicaid Service Coordination; Family Support Services such as crisis intervention, family training, and caregiver respite; or additional clinical services that add to what the students receive through school. Essentially, OMRDD assists students and families in securing needed services and navigating the challenges of living with autism so that the student can better achieve in school and the family can succeed at home.
The Importance of Transition Planning
When a person reaches age 15, schools must, by law, begin transition planning with each student with a disability. That is, they must start to develop employment and life goals for the student and a plan for attaining the education and supports needed to achieve those goals. It is crucial at this time that students understand what both the educational system – through New York’s Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID) – and the OMRDD system can provide them as adults. It is also imperative for transitional age students to be evaluated for eligibility for these services. The services and supports available beyond the school years depend entirely upon this determination of eligibility.
VESID services help people prepare for employment and vocational independence. They may help someone obtain the college education needed for a particular job or profession or help them receive the vocational training needed for a trade. They can also assist someone to obtain supported employment. But, disabilities like autism don’t disappear at the end of a work day. People working to have a life in spite of autism face significant challenges in their social and personal lives, and OMRDD offers a range of services that can support them in achieving their professional and personal aspirations. If further education does not take the form of a classroom or a vocational “shop,” OMRDD may provide continued learning and skill building through residential and day habilitation services, pre-vocational services, and supported employment. These services meet a person where they are and support a continuum of growth in the abilities needed to succeed at home and in the community, to obtain a job, and to succeed in long term employment.
Clearly, education is classrooms and textbooks, but it’s also experience and practice at life itself. As ASD diagnoses increase, OMRDD will continue supporting students with ASDs in formal education and in continuing lifelong learning and advancement.
For more information on OMRDD eligibility contact your local Developmental Disabilities Services Office (DDSO). For contact information, go to www.omr.state.ny.us. Click on “About OMRDD” and then “Developmental Disabilities Services Offices.” For information on VESID services, visit www.vesid.nysed.gov.