Chris and Kenny were smiling – they were “wowing the crowd” with their recently acquired computer skills generating business letters, tables, flyers, entering data without errors and in less than thirty minutes. Their Housing and Case Managers were speechless. Their instructors Peter and Steve were beaming. Their mothers had tears in their eyes. “Where did you learn this?” one Case Manager asked. “Here at the Center,” Kenny replied. “I taught myself,” said Chris. “Do you have computers at your Group Home?” “No.” “Would you practice your keyboarding and data entry skills if you did?” “Yes.”
That’s where the idea came from for the Center to donate a refurbished personal computer with Microsoft 2007, a monitor, printer and software to Rehabilitation Support Services (RSS) in Tarrytown, New York – the home where Chris, Kenny and eight other adults with special needs live. Nicole Brown, Assistant Program Manager at RSS, was excited for her clients with “the hope of their acquiring computer skills that could someday provide paid employment.”
The Center for Career Freedom is a 501(c)(3) New York State Department of Education licensed Business School, a Microsoft Office Training Center, a Social Security Administration Employment Network, and a Department of Social Services (DSS) One-Stop Provider. For the past twelve years we have served over eighteen-hundred students with psychiatric and Autism Spectrum Disorders/Asperger’s Syndrome who have a passion to raise their computer skills to competitive employment levels. Our goal is self-sufficiency for our student-interns with disabilities.
About a year ago, with the encouragement of three parents; Judy Omidvaran, Loris Nevers and Monsi Arns, and our Board Chair and Executive Director of Mental Health News Education, Inc., Ira Minot, LMSW, we began to explore ways to adapt our Microsoft Word Curricula to the demands of the workplace. Instead of teaching to Microsoft’s Certification Test, we focused on teaching only those tasks that employers would actually pay for, such as data entry. This freed up the Instructors to skip the theory and little used program features that don’t directly relate to the work task.
Joanne Casablanca was chosen to head up the curriculum development phase because of her extensive business and corporate executive secretarial experience at Reader’s Digest, IBM and Pepsi-Cola.
Each week, for twenty weeks, Joanne, Peter and Steve would set-up their students to create letters; typed and handwritten tables, charts, business cards, Google searches, etc. It is import to help them continue to practice on their own, with minimum supervision – just like in the real world of business.
After legal and financial consultation, the Center launched a for-profit division offering Microsoft Office skills to non-profits, Government Agencies, Schools, corporate and small business, etc. in Westchester County, NY, who want to outsource some of their projects, while helping their neighbors-in-need. In addition to data processing, we also offer on-site computer training by our six Microsoft Certified Instructors to strengthen their staff’s keyboarding and Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook skills. We call it “Lunch & Learn.”
As Ira Minot, LMSW, Executive Director of Mental Health News Education, Inc. who publishes Autism Spectrum News said, “There is a growing crisis in services and supports for adults with Autism.” According to the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) 2009 Medicaid billing data (OMRDD/TABS), persons diagnosed with ASD in NY have doubled in the past five years to over 20,000. We project over 40,000 persons by 2015. Incredibly, adults (21+) with ASD comprise over forty percent of the population! If CDC’s 1:110 estimate is correct, then this projection is woefully inadequate. Competitive work skills training & employment for these folks is virtually non-existent. From our Google search, it seems only Linda Fiddle, Esq., of the Fiddle Foundation has embraced this challenge.
One of our goals is to develop the ASD Employment Program into a model that could easily and inexpensively (under $1,000) be replicated by parents, schools and vocational programs throughout the world. All it takes is one volunteer-mom with excellent office skills! (In our experience, we have found few professional educators possess the required skill set). We have prepared a “shopping list” below which reflects our current experience. We welcome your suggestions for software and learning techniques to strengthen the program.
Suggested equipment includes: A tower or laptop computer, keyboard, mouse, headphones, monitor, and printer. Windows 7 or XP operating system; MS Office 2007: Excel, Word, Outlook; Mavis Beacon Typing program; Data Entry and order processing programs (Computers at Work). If you’re connected to the internet, add Antivirus, Security, and Net-Nanny programs to block access to porn and malicious sites. Internet games and videos are free. Our students like LEGO & Sim City. A comfortable chair with back support and adaptive equipment, as required, e.g.: wrist rest, joystick, trackball mouse, colored keyboard, etc. We also use partitions between stations to help minimize distractions.
Instruction should be active, collaborative, visual and tangible. Our student and Instructor both face the screen and navigate the program together, focusing on the task. Instructors speak slowly, and use a minimum of words. We let the student control the pace and mouse. Once the student is comfortable with the program, they can practice their skills without help – depending on their stamina and interest.
In class, we try to use a consistent two and a half hour schedule three times per week, supplemented by as many hours of homework as the student enjoys. We start with an hour of keyboarding, a ten minute break, then an hour of Portfolio building, e.g., business cards, flyers, letter, tables, graphics, etc. in Word. Importantly, the student takes home their projects after each class and posts them on their bulletin board. After a second break, the last half hour is spent on practicing data entry and internet search skills (such as with the Google search engine). Post class rewards include snacks, downloading favorite pictures, and video games.
Work Skill Metrics
Measures of the student’s progress towards acquiring real world work skills include: Keyboarding – 25wpm, 95% accuracy; Data Entry (3-line address labels) – 10 labels in 10 minutes, 100% accuracy; Typing a document – business letter, typing a handwritten letter, typing a table in Excel and charting it and creating a schedule in Outlook. The Portfolio demonstrates the student’s skills in a powerful way to employers, family and friends. Dr. Temple Grandin credits her portfolio of completed projects with launching her own career (Thinking in Pictures, 2006).
Once the student has completed their work skills training, they begin their paid internship, working from one to ten hours per week. Assignments can vary in length and complexity, e.g., mailing labels, data entry, scanning documents, sales lead research on the internet, etc.
Both monetary and in-kind payments are earned according to the work performed, and SSA disability regulations. Vocational and Government Benefits Counseling is on-going. Future work sites could include the Customer’s workplace and the Interns home – wherever the student feels most comfortable and productive.
The spring semester of the ASD Employment Program at the Center for Career Freedom begins February, 2011. There are five student/intern positions available. There are no fees. The pilot program is currently supported, indirectly, by New York State Office of Mental Health Reinvestment funds. Eligibility is limited to adult (21+) residents of Westchester County, NY who are passionate about the computer. Keyboarding skills (15 wpm) are a plus. There is a two hour skills assessment and interview given on Thursday afternoons in January of 2011 at the Center. Interested parties should call Steve Vernon, Director, at (914) 288-9763 to schedule an appointment. To learn more about the Center for Career Freedom and the ASD Employment Program, please visit our two websites: www.freecenter.org, and www.economicsofrecovery.org.
To insure future ASD program funding, we are circulating a Parent/Teacher Petition. We have several hundred signatures so far. Please ask Steve to email you one.