After fifteen years of modestly fulfilling our mission of teaching Computer Job Skills and securing employment for over three-thousand persons diagnosed with mental and physical disabilities, I regret how little we knew. We had the passion and heart for the work, but we lacked the expertise to be effective trainers for all our students.
Our wake-up call came from a mom who wanted to know why her son diagnosed with Autism wasn’t learning in our traditional, instructor-led computer classes? We didn’t know. “Chris” wouldn’t look at us, he barely spoke. We didn’t know how to communicate to learn what the issues were, much less to solve them. We did know our learning model and methods were failing “Chris” and most of the students on the Spectrum.
While they spent hours on the computer watching You Tube, T.V. and playing video games, we didn’t know how to leverage their passion into $10-$12/hr job skills such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher, keyboarding, internet searching and code proofing.
That was three years ago. Our students have taught us many things since then. Our problem was getting over ourselves and finding the courage to try new teaching methods. We hope the seven lessons below will help your students and staff to be more productive.
1) Teach the Job: A quick review of the job skills employers are looking for can be found on Craigslist.com; ”proficient in Word, must type 45wpm etc.” They are almost always looking for “hard skills”. Yet, a review of vocational provider offerings and IEP’s contain vague “soft skills”; “Johnny will become familiar with local job opportunities.” Not, “Johnny will learn to type 30wpm at 98% accuracy on Mavis Beacon by the next quarter.”
We suggest you invite employers/personnel agency/business people to speak to your class/group on the skills they require. Review your curricula; is it “Employer aligned?” Check out the Department of Labor’s O*Net online. It lists job skills for thousands of occupations. (www.onetonline.org). Once you’ve defined the job skill sets, you can begin your search for potential trainers, volunteers, parents, retirees (former secretaries are particularly valuable).
2) Stop Talking so Much: A major mistake we made with our students was over communicating the curriculum, both verbally and with hand out text. Students complained of being overloaded with information.
After testing a variety of media, we found a highly visual, minimalist comic book format and short fun You Tube videos combined with hands-on tasks and a one-on-one personal trainer to be the most effective and efficient training model. Class time was reduced by two-thirds, performance scores soared.
3) Step Back: We were unaware of the critical need of our student’s personal space. Instead of standing behind the student, the trainer backs off, touring the classroom, responding to students who ask for assistance. Simple tasks like typing a letter in Word were completed in one-third the time and zero errors. This is particularly effective with our ASD students. However, we have found our students diagnosed with anxiety disorders prefer Instructors to remain close by.
4) Diagnosis is Important: Of some twenty variables studied, diagnosis accounts for most of the test variance. We plotted the student’s job skills performance and the average time required to complete the task by their presenting DSM 5 (see chart on page 43). We were fortunate to have the same performance metrics for some seventeen job tasks across all ten populations. While the neurotypicals from One Stop were the gold standard, folks with physical disabilities (other than hand hand/arm) were next, then our ASD students. The least accomplished of our students were diagnosed substance/alcohol abusers. In our opinion, most of this population are quite capable of mastering the course work, they just weren’t interested in doing so. We don’t know (yet) how to motivate folks that don’t want to learn. Last summer Leake & Watts totally tested our learning model by dropping off eight youth diagnosed with a variety of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities for two hours a week (IQ’s ranged from 60 to 40). To our surprise & delight, three students completed the Portfolio of Computer Job Skills, all mastered the Mavis Beacon Typing System.
5) The Jobs are Hiding in Plain Sight: In Westchester County, New York, the non-profit sector; private hospitals, clinics, colleges, schools, social service providers, museums, etc. account for over fifty-thousand jobs, more than local government (49k) or retail trade (48k) (Non-profit Westchester, March 2014). While most of the non-profits have experience with the populations we all serve, we have found many do not employ more than a token of their own clients. This sector is drowning in government mandated paperwork and offers a growing opportunity, for folks with Computer Job Skills.
6) It’s Bottom-Up Not Top-Down: Fear of failure stops many Providers & schools from trying something new. They wait for a multi-signature memo from an official source before acting. They believe innovations must come from above. Better to be safe than sorry.
Sadly, none of our disruptive innovations in job skills training came from official sources – they all sprung from the trenches of direct care in response to the student’s needs. They taught us how they like to learn. Our challenge was to find the courage to pilot test a “flipped classroom”, “peer instruction”, “comic book curriculum”, “employer-defined content”, “personnel space”, remote training via SKYPE, etc. (a small computer “learning lab” can be an inexpensive and “safe” place to observe your students/clients skills).
7) The SSI Earning Cap is Not a Myth: Social Security deducts one-half of all gross earnings over $85/month from the checks of recipients of SSI (Not to be confused with SSDI). Recipients are virtually all youth with disabilities with little or no work experience. To address this, the Center created an Employment Program where students are paid $8/hr to apply what they have learned to real world work assignments from fellow NGO’s; business cards, flyers, Google look up & mailing labels, small mailings, IPad/IPhone Life Skill App Tutorials, peer instruction & Train-the-Trainer, etc.
Help is on the way, Senators Brown & Warren have recently introduced a bill which would help these SSI Recipients by:
- Disallow counting in-kind support as income,
- Raise the allowable assets from $2,000 to $10,000,
- Raise the earned income cap from $85/month to $357/month
Please email your representatives with your support of S2089 & HR 1601. Thank you.