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Group of graduating IDD students from Catawba Valley Community College

Career Pathways Funding for IDD Students

Submitted by: Nancye Gaj, NCCCS IDD Special Project Coordinator

North Carolina community colleges and the North Carolina General Assembly are expanding a pilot program that provides career pathway opportunities to individuals with intellectual and development disabilities.

In the budget passed earlier this month, the General Assembly approved nearly $4 million in recurring funds to create statewide regional support networks that help students with developmental and cognitive impairments get training and job opportunities.

The funding provides employment achievement counselors at 15 North Carolina community colleges and funds are available for classroom materials, supplementary programming, a transportation study to determine barriers, and a two-year statewide marketing campaign.

The program was broadly supported by policymakers following a pilot project that served 157 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) at Catawba Valley and Brunswick Community Colleges last year — providing training and employment assistance that ultimately led to 55 job offers to students.

The pilot stemmed from a report commissioned in November 2019 to review services and programs targeted at students with I/DD at NC community colleges.

The five-month study found that colleges needed training programs that provide micro-credentials and other certificates that lead to increased employment outcomes, in addition to training that improves employability skills and provides on-the-job training and apprenticeships.

That report caught the eye of N.C. Sen. Michael Lee, who later met with State Board of Community Colleges Member Lisa Estep. They discussed its findings along with the idea for a pilot project that was later developed by System staff. The pilot received broad support from the General Assembly. In January 2022, the General Assembly approved $500,000 in non-recurring funds to establish pilots at Catawba Valley and Brunswick Community Colleges.

“A project like this has been a goal of mine for a very long time,” Estep said. “Individuals with IDD face so many barriers to education and employment; our system should be focused on removing those barriers. We are helping to build inclusive pathways for students with IDD that didn’t exist two years ago, and it is so exciting to be a part of that journey.”

Sen. Lee, who serves as chair of the Higher Education Committee in the Senate, supported the initiative.

“Seeing the potential and drive in our students with intellectual and developmental disabilities has always been paramount,” Lee said. “This program, and the subsequent support from the General Assembly, is a testament to our commitment to ensuring every North Carolinian has the opportunity to thrive in their chosen career path. We’re not just investing in a program – we’re investing in the future of our state and the undeniable talent of these individuals.”

Only 21 percent of individuals with a disability are employed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They are four times more likely to be unemployed than individuals with other disabilities. In addition, the median annual income is just $12,000/year for this group.

“There’s a group of individuals in our state that have been systematically left out of the workforce and that’s adults with I/DD,” said Nancye Gaj, Coordinator of the I/DD Pilot Project at the North Carolina Community College System. “We have been charged to do something about this.”

‘I have always believed in this population’
Estep and Gaj teamed up with Vickie Vinson, Adult Basic Education Coordinator at Catawba Valley Community College, and Chad Cumber, Assistant Director of the Brunswick Interagency Program and instructor at Brunswick Community College, to implement a 12-month pilot at their respective colleges.

Students enrolled in programs, including horticulture, manufacturing support, culinary/coffee shops, auto detailing, carpentry basics, furniture academy, custodial technician, manufacturing academy, early childhood education basics academy, and landscaping./

Several programs required students to earn credentials, including First Aid/CPR and OSHA. Students also enrolled in Employ-ABILITY Skills Training, including Skills to Succeed, Working Smart, Computer Literacy, Digital Literacy, and Financial Literacy courses.

“Being a part of this pilot project has been the most rewarding experience of my professional career,” Vinson said. “To see the positive changes being made on our local campus, in conjunction with seeing the changes that are being made on campuses across the system brings a sense of pride and accomplishment that cannot be described in words. I have always believed in this population and in the work that we have been doing at Catawba Valley Community College, but I also felt as if there was much more to do for our uniquely abled students.”

Among the 47 students at Catawba Valley, 55 percent secured employment by the end of the pilot. One of those students was Jaylen, who wanted a career in childcare. She completed the Early Childhood Education Basics Academy and Employ-ABILITY courses.

In May, Jaylen graduated as a registered NC Pre-Apprentice and is currently employed full-time in a licensed childcare facility.

“The pilot was crucial in assisting Jaylen achieve her goal by raising awareness to other areas at the college of the abilities of the students with I/DD,” Vinson said. “It was through this awareness that both the NC Pre-Apprenticeship and Early Childhood Education Basics Academy were developed. Instructors across the campus have become more aware and willing to assist these students achieve their goals and dreams, just as Jaylen did.”

Several students received a First Aid/CPR micro-credential and culinary certification while 100 percent of students completed career exploration, computer literacy, financial literacy, and soft skills training.

In August, students also opened a new coffee shop on campus, “BIP SIP,” that is operated solely by students with I/DD.

Chad Cumber said the pilot also played a critical role in the development and success of the Yard Crew, a landscaping business fully operated by students with I/DD. They have secured five commercial accounts and 10 residential accounts in Brunswick County.

IDD Student working at BIP SIP coffee shop

“The pilot project enabled the Yard Crew to be the only one of its kind in the region,” Cumber said. “The crew provides a safe training environment for students diagnosed with I/DD. Mistakes, questions, personal coaching, repetition, and encouragement are considered the DNA of our Crew. In time, many of the transitional crew participants will skill up and move on to private sector positions in the community.”

Changing perceptions

Vinson said the biggest misconception of individuals with I/DD starts with how society and educators see those students.

“Our students do not lack abilities, but all possess different abilities. It is our job as educators of this population to identify and nurture those abilities,” she said. “We are expanding the opportunities available to these students through academic and vocational programs at the community colleges and by doing so, we are expanding the opportunities for these individuals to live more rewarding, successful, and productive lives and allowing them the chance to thrive as adults in our society.”

As part of the pilot, the team hosted the “Different Abilities, Different Pathways, One Destination Conference” at Davidson-Davie Community College in March and invited representatives from all 58 community colleges. It was a time for faculty and staff to learn best practices and develop strategies for implementing high quality, inclusive vocational programs for students with I/DD at their campuses.

The parents of students in the pilot have also experienced a direct impact.

“A parent said to me, ‘We were told when my child was three years old that they’d never be able to work, and here they are working, and they want to work,’” Vinson said. “The impact on the parents is tremendous. It not only changes the mindset of students but the mindset of parents because they don’t feel like there are a lot of opportunities out there for their children, and knowing this opportunity now exists is amazing.”

Estep said colleges will need support from communities and organizations to realize the program’s true potential.

“We cannot just look to the General Assembly for funding, we must look for support from business and industry partners too. If you need workforce, we have it. We needed data and success stories to share with future partners, and now we have that,” she said. “This is a forgotten population, but it’s a population that wants to work and can work. People are recognizing there is a lot of room to grow when you talk about educating people with disabilities and employing people with disabilities. We have to get better. This is our mission. We can do this better than anyone.”

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