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Youth with disabilities help make government work better

#RespectTheAbility Campaign: Spotlight on Project SEARCH

Youth with disabilities help make government work better

Former Project SEARCH intern Dalila Ochoa on the ground (photo credit POSITIVE EXPOSURE)

Former Project SEARCH intern Dalila Ochoa on the ground (photo credit POSITIVE EXPOSURE)

Several years ago during a blizzard in the northeast, the local news announced that people should stay home due to dangerous conditions on the roads. The government told its workers that only “essential” employees should report to work. One boss in the area made it to his office, and was surprised to find an employee who happens to have a disability waiting at the front doors to be let in.

When asked how and why he came out in the blizzard, the employee, who is a graduate of Project SEARCH, an apprenticeship program for young people with disabilities who want to work, responded, “Essential employees were told to come in. I am essential here.” The employee was right – their services were indeed valued and needed.

This kind of dedication is a surprise to many employers. However, such devotion to work is found in workers with disabilities across the country. Studies show that they have some of the highest retention and loyalty levels of any employee group, and can be amongst the best performing talent in an organization.

Another gleaming example is Dalila Ochoa. Ochoa, former Project SEARCH intern at Montefiore New Rochelle, was offered permanent employment by the New Rochelle City Hall offices. Ochoa has been working at City Hall for over two years now, and she has become a vital part of their staff.

“When we had a vacancy in our office, I knew Dalila’s skills, and I knew her work ethic,” said Yvette Goorevitch, the director of special education in New Rochelle, who works at City Hall with Ochoa. “Dalila does great work. She is the kind of person you want to hire. She comes to work, works hard, and takes pride in her work. She is productive, asks what the expectations are; a lot of our competitive employees don’t even do that. Her work ethic is better than most.”

Ochoa’s employment at City Hall is the perfect example of what Project SEARCH aims to accomplish. The sole definition of a successful outcome is competitive employment in an integrated setting for each Project SEARCH intern, which includes employment in an integrated setting, year-round work, and 20 hours per week or more at minimum wage or higher. Project SEARCH interns learn relevant, marketable skills while immersed in the business and those businesses are active partners, participating without subsidies.

Goorevitch and her colleagues were able to sample the talent pool of the SEARCH program, and saw the potential and the work ethic of the interns. All the staff members rave about Ochoa’s performance at the job – she does clerical work: files, scans, and creates packets for presentations. She does her job very well, and is trusted and respected by her coworkers at City Hall.

“I recommend this program every day,” said Goorevitch. “These SEARCH interns are workers that can be relied on. They are an employers dream! When Dalila started working here, the attitude around the office changed immensely. The dedication and passion she brings to her work inspires us all. And I see this ethic in all of the SEARCH young adults.”

Former Project SEARCH intern and New Rochelle City Hall employee, Dalila Ochoa, putting record books in order (photo credit POSITIVE EXPOSURE)

Former Project SEARCH intern and New Rochelle City Hall employee, Dalila Ochoa, putting record books in order (photo credit POSITIVE EXPOSURE)

There are more than 240 Project SEARCH programs around the country. Each year more than 2,000 young adults “graduate” the program and more than 65% of them get jobs. It is truly an exceptional program, as it is able to give young adults with disabilities a chance to show what they can do and in many cases stay off government benefits. Sadly, the workforce overall has missed out on this entire group of talented young adults for years.

Said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbiityUSA, a non-profit working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream, “We are fortunate to have programs like Project SEARCH that open our eyes to the abilities and talents of this group of individuals, and in turn, give them the opportunity to contribute to society and redefine societal norms. With the motivation that Project SEARCH provides, and the growing skills of the interns, it will be fascinating to see the strides our country will take in the next few years in acclimating these young adults as a permanent part of the workforce. Indeed, new employees with disabilities are breaking glass ceilings, helping employers re-imagine the workplace.”

Under the hashtag #RespectTheAbility, POSTIVE EXPOSURE and RespectabilityUSA hope to spread the word about Project SEARCH, and the new candidate pool they and other apprenticeship and transition programs are cultivating for permanent competitive employment. #RespectTheAbility is a campaign that focuses on how hiring people with disabilities can make organizations stronger and more successful. The campaign highlights the benefits to employers that look beyond the disability and imagine the possibility when hiring talented employees with disabilities. The program wants to “change what people see” and thus “see how people change” so that discrimination against workers with disabilities can be eliminated and workers with disabilities can be a part of making America great in the future.

#RespectTheAbility Success Stories

Download our free toolkit, “Disability Employment First Planning Tool,” for more information.


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