By Katie Serrano
The Razorback Reporter
Arkansas ranks 43rd in employment for workers who have disabilities, according to the 2016 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium. The University or Arkansas is working to improve that ranking in a new post-secondary education program tailored to students with learning disabilities.
EMPOWER, which stands for Educate, Motivate, Prepare, Opportunity, Workplace Readiness, Employment, Responsibility, is the first of its kind in Arkansas. The program goal is to give the students a genuine college experience and to prepare them for employment opportunities, said Ashley Bradley, the director of the program.
“Although this program isn’t degree-based, our end goal is for our students to be able to do whatever they want, wherever they want at the end of these four years,” Bradley said.
The labor force participation rate for individuals with disabilities fell from 39.3 percent in 2009 to 34.5 percent in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“While the first two years we want the focus to be on the college experience, the last two years the students will be involved in internships with local companies such as The Inn at Carnall Hall or Chartwells, that will prepare them for employment when they graduate,” Bradley said.
Nick Lange, one of the three freshmen in EMPOWER, is interested in working in the hospitality industry.
“I’m from Dallas but I want to stay in Fayetteville and work at a hotel,” Lange said. “I’m learning skills that will help me get my own apartment and live on my own when I graduate.”
Tom Smith, Professor of Special Education and previous dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, brought this program to Arkansas and said he has seen it’s success at other schools across the nation.
“There are around 250 programs like this across the nation,” Smith said. “Other campuses have seen huge success in their student’s independence, and have seen their students hired when they graduate.”
The average employment rate for individuals without disabilities from 2008 to 2015 was 75 percent, compared to those with disabilities at an employment rate of 35 percent, according to the 2016 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.
In 2016, the average monthly employment-to-population ratio of individuals with a disability increased from 27.0 percent in 2015 to 27.7 and the average monthly labor force participation rate increased from 30.5 percent to 31.2 percent, according to the Trends in Disability Employment National Update.
Mary Borman, another EMPOWER student, has competed in the National Special Olympics swim team and said she hopes to become a P.E. teacher.
“We are taking a Recreation and Sports Management class,” Borman said. “I want to use it to become some type of trainer and teach cycling, Zumba or yoga.”
The third student, Grant Alley from Little Rock, said he “wasn’t exactly sure what he wants to do, but loves history classes” and hopes to pursue something along those lines.
EMPOWER aims to make these students’ goals possible, and hopes to grow the program to about 10 students per class.
Seventy-seven percent of high school students with disabilities said they aspired to get a postsecondary education, but only 31 percent had gone on to take postsecondary classes, and these students attend two-year or community college at more than double the rate of the general population, according to a survey done by the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs.
“We want our students to have their named etched in the sidewalk just like everyone else at the end of these four years,” Bradley said.
The college completion rate for disabled students is 41 percent, compared to the 52 percent of college graduates in the general population, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
“We can already see the improvement in these students lives, and new goals forming for them” Smith said. “If we hadn’t started this program, we would be missing out on a huge opportunity for the whole campus.”
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