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Breaking barriers to employment for youth with disabilities

By The Partnership for Public Service
Monday, March 22, 2010; 4:50 PM

As a teenager, Rachael Dorman participated in a program designed to help students who were visually impaired navigate the job market and transition into the next stage of life. This experience eventually led her to the Department of Labor in 2002, where she now devotes her energies to helping young people with disabilities prepare for the world of work or college long before their high school graduation day arrives.

"I realized this was an area where I wanted to work. It was a positive transition experience for me, and I wanted others to have that experience," Dorman said.

Dorman, who is legally blind, is a youth policy advisor in the Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy. In this role, she promotes a series of government initiatives aimed at getting employers to consider hiring young people with disabilities and helping provide guidance for those coming out of high school or college.

"Employment is the barrier that impacts people with disabilities," Dorman said. "Our goal is to get the people who deal with employment to think about those with disabilities and give them the tools to work with youth with disabilities."

Many employers have misconceptions about people with disabilities, making it difficult when the disabled look for jobs, thus resulting in a high rate of unemployment for this sector of the population.

Dorman has worked on a variety of programs, including one that gave disabled high school students the chance to explore careers in science, mathematics and technology. She has helped run Disability Mentoring Day, a job shadowing day at workplaces for youth with disabilities, and managed an internship program to give youth with disabilities meaningful work experiences in government and the private sector.

Last year, the program recruited and interviewed about 2,000 students that resulted in 545 getting either summer internships or permanent positions in government or the private sector. Students routinely have been placed at a wide range of federal agencies including the Census Bureau, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense and the Labor Department.

Currently, Dorman is developing a 15-hour curriculum to help young people learn skills such as communication, problem solving, and taking initiative.

Dorman's office partners with government agencies and employer associations across the country to ease the transition for youth with physical, mental, learning, visual and other disabilities. She has also worked with community organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs and other after-school programs offering advice and technical assistance to staff who work with youngsters who have disabilities.

Dorman noted that the transition to the workplace can be especially difficult for young people with disabilities. For example, she said one of the main conflicts is the choice of disclosure, particularly if the individual has a "hidden" disability but still might need some special assistance.

"College students think they are not supposed to disclose their disability," Dorman explained. "The choice is theirs, but if they will need an accommodation ¿ like flexible work schedules or specially designed software ¿ then they will have to disclose."

In her own case, Dorman said she uses a large screen computer with screen magnification software and carries a monocular wherever she goes to help her read things from a distance.

Nadia Ibrahim, senior policy advisor at the Labor Department disability program, said Dorman is committed both professionally and personally to her work, and is able to bring important insights to the job.

"She has a unique ability to help people understand what is necessary for young people with disabilities to succeed in the workplace," Ibrahim said.

Dorman said she gets great satisfaction from her job and the opportunity to help people. And she said there's the added benefit that "government agencies are flexible, which can allow them to create a more comfortable work environment for people with disabilities."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work.

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