Course helps disabled students in job SEARCH

  • February 2, 2024

The University of Guelph, Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) and Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) are collaborating to provide students with disabilities the skills essential for competitive employment. 

Beginning with the Fall 2024 semester, the University of Guelph will become the first Canadian post-secondary institution to offer the Project SEARCH school-to-work training program. This internship model, conceptualized by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996, gives students over 700 hours of hands-on work experience in high-demand labour roles.  

According to the Project SEARCH website, “eligible students may have mild intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, speech/language impairments or be deaf/hard of hearing.”

Janet Doner, the university’s manager of Campus and Community Integrated Learning, said the plan is to welcome up to 10 interns from the two boards. They will be supported by a Project SEARCH instructor provided by the school boards and skills trainers courtesy of March of Dimes Canada, a non-profit supporting children living with disabilities.

Each student will receive individualized coaching, skills-building instruction and feedback as they embark upon three 10-week internships at the university. Ideally, in addition to the students developing a host of hard skills, they will nurture their sense of independence and confidence.

In addition to the potential of Project SEARCH to enrich the participants, Doner said this program could yield multiple benefits for the University of Guelph community.

“We feel that this only helps us as a university move forward our work around inclusive work practices and looking at ways at reducing barriers to employment opportunities,” said Doner. “Finally for our U of G students, to (provide) opportunities to work alongside our Project SEARCH students to develop inclusive mentorship practices. We are looking at a lot of different ways to help our students grow their skills development as well.”

The journey to get to this point dates back nearly two years when the Ontario Ministry of Education announced school divisions could register to receive grant money if it instituted Project SEARCH. Jeffrey Mawhinney, special education program coordinator for WCDSB, filed an application and then sought to identify a suitable host business.

Many of the more than 750 Project SEARCH sites around the world, including 13 of the 16 Canadian sites, are health centres or hospitals.

Mawhinney told The Catholic Register “that it is pretty great” that the WCDSB will be involved in a Project SEARCH program that is quite different than many previous entities. More importantly, Mawhinney said the University of Guelph is a good host business partner because “opportunities for employment are pretty good” for students once the internship program concludes.

“There are so many jobs that these students can do,” said Mawhinney. “Because they’ll be working in student life departments, (the university) mentioned things like working at the athletics centre, (serving) in hospitality, they could be working in the daycare. They could be doing maintenance or landscaping.

“The idea is for them to do complex routine jobs — jobs that are repetitive but require some good skills. For instance, at some of the hospitals I visited, one of the students was doing all the ingoing and outgoing mail for the hospital. Another student was preparing carts for orthopedic surgery.”

An information session is being hosted at the university on Feb. 6. In June, Project SEARCH leaders from Cincinnati will visit the university and work with departments to identify suitable internship roles for the students.

Since Project SEARCH’s inception, 70 per cent of students secure employment within a year of graduating from the program.

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