News Article Details

Baton Rouge Community College program helps those with autism, disabilities find jobs

The Advocate - 6/23/2019

Jun. 23--Even when the unemployment rate is as low as it is, getting a job can be tough for those with autism or learning disabilities. Baton Rouge Community College is trying to make it easier.

The Program for Successful Employment, which began in 2017, doesn't focus on certain professions. It teaches skills -- workplace safety, communication, dealing with the public, reliability -- necessary for getting and keeping a job.

"It's very important to me," said Derrick Wesley, PSE director. "It's near and dear to my heart."

Spread over four semesters, PSE targets students ages 18 to 28 who have finished high school or a learning resource program and have been diagnosed with autism or a learning disability. It came about after Judy Foil, a BRCC supporter, heard about a similar program at Bossier Parish Community College. She told her son, state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, about it, and he helped secure funding.

The program enrolls 20 students each year after tests and interviews to determine which candidates would most benefit from it, Wesley said. Many candidates lack confidence to think of themselves as potential employees, so the focus is on general employability rather than skills for specific jobs.

"We spend a lot of time in class working on building up communication skills," he said. "We see that as more of a barrier than not being able to acquire the skills necessary for employment."

The course work includes workplace safety and customer interaction. Graduate students studying speech and language pathology help with communication skills, and students roll play different scenarios they might encounter in the workplace.

The program also has a virtual reality driving simulator so students who are capable of learning to drive will have that important component to independence. Some students who can't drive use public transportation, and BRCC works with CATS OnDemand to help the students travel to and from job sites, said Kizzy Payton, BRCC spokeswoman.

Also, the PSE staff accompanies students during their first days of employment to help them adjust to the new work environment. The transition specialist and instructor provide job coaching as needed, Payton said.

Recruiting employers is one of Wesley's roles, which requires him to help companies overcome fears that autistic workers might not be able to handle a job environment.

"When I come to you with a student, I can almost guarantee you that they're going to have this level of functioning, their attendance and punctuality and ability to tolerate stress, the rate at which they acquire productivity," Wesley said. "I'm going to come at you with hard data on previous internships, based on classrooms, based on other assessments."

Although the program doesn't steer students toward specific occupations, it has had the most success finding them jobs in food service, retail and hospitality, Wesley said. Twenty-four employers have hired PSE graduates, including Barnes & Noble booksellers, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and DoubleTree Hotel.

"It's been working out great," said Gary Jupiter, DoubleTree manager. "I've been working in this profession for 20 years. I started in an entry-level position, and it's fun for me to meet some of these individuals and see their growth. This is an industry where they can fit in and maybe grow their own careers. That is our goal."

Johnny Manela, whose son, Jonathan, has a part-time job at Barnes & Noble, said the program has served another purpose -- friendship.

He said his son has made friends with fellow students, who might feel isolated in other educational environments.

"They now have people that don't judge them for being different," Johnny Manela said. "They accept how they are. Some of the boys spent the night for my son's birthday, and we got a chance to talk with several of them. One of them said, 'We look out for each other. If we have a weakness, we help that person with that weakness. We kind of fill in, and we hold each other accountable -- 'Hey, you shouldn't do that' or 'you should do it this way' or 'you need to be more social.'"

Christopher Edwards learned about the program while attending Arlington Preparatory Academy. He said he learned basic job skills, how to cope with job challenges and how to manage his money. He's now a housekeeper at DoubleTree hotel.

"I love this job. I love it," Edwards said. "I won't let nothing stop me from this job."

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(c)2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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