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Ready, willing and able: Students with disabilities prepare for the work world

Among college graduates (including Ph.D holders) with disabilities, only one in five is employed. WorkAbility, a program offered by Berkeley's Disabled Students Program, helps students with disabilities make inroads into the world of work, through internships related to their career interests.

Breaking new ground for youth with disabilities — from a nearby center named for and inspired by one of his heroes. For undergrad Jon Drennan, it doesn’t get much better.

Making WAIVs for young people with disabilities

Berkeley sophomore Jon Drennan says he often felt socially isolated as a teen in San Jose. Getting involved with the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center during his senior year in high school helped to “change my loneliness,” he recalls. There, he worked on setting up an eight-week leadership course for high-school and college-age youth with disabilities.

A history and political science major, and co-president of the campus’s Disabled Students Union, Drennan plans to teach a course this year at Berkeley, to help new students with disabilities make the challenging transition to college and adulthood.

“Your parents basically helped you with everything for the past 18 years,” he notes. Suddenly, youth with disabilities have to come up to speed quickly on how to navigate multiple bureaucracies — from Social Security (for supplemental income) to supportive services from the state Department of Rehabilitation — “all while facing discrimination “on a daily basis.”

Drennan lives in a student co-op south of campus, and is grateful that his summer internship is just a BART stop away — saving wear and tear on his aging electric wheelchair. “They’re supposed to be replaced every five years. But I don’t want to break up that often,” he jokes. “It would just be too painful.”

Outspoken and ambitious in his activism, Drennan does not want Berkeley — the city or the university — to rest on its laurels, satisfied with its historic role in the disability-rights movement. “That’s wrong!” he insists. “There’s a lot more to do.”

The UC Berkeley sophomore, a history and political science double major, is spending part of his summer at the Ed Roberts Campus, a brand new nonprofit hub located at the Ashby BART stop. There, as an intern at the Center for Independent Living, Drennan has been researching local housing resources available to youth with disabilities, with an eye to setting up a CIL program that would help young people find affordable and accessible places to live.

“It needs to be done. There are youth out there who transition at 18, get kicked out of their parents’ house,” he says. “Where do they go?”

Drennan’s opportunity to make a difference comes by way of WorkAbility IV (WAIV), a program at Berkeley designed to place students with disabilities in careers and internships related to their interests. Working in collaboration with the California Department of Rehabilitation, it is often able to reimburse the employer for a student’s salary or stipend, and to cover costs associated with disability accommodations the intern may need in order to perform his or her job.

To help students over initial job-seeking hurdles, counselors offer guidance on writing a resume and acing an interview. Via mock interviews with a mentor, Drennan says, he learned “the art of bragging — how to brag about yourself, but not too much so it sounds selfish.” WAIV also helped him with people skills, he says, that have served him well in his rewarding summer placement.

“I love what I do!” he says.

‘What are your ambitions?’

Before WAIV, lack of a job-readiness component made for a “big gaping hole” in campus services for students with disabilities — and in students’ resumes — says Paul Hippolitus, director of the campus’s Disabled Students’ Program (DSP).

“I would ask students, ‘What are you going to do when you leave Cal? What are your ambitions? Where are you headed?'” recalls Hippolitus. “They would look to the ground. They weren’t confident about the question.”

A grant of $100,000 in federal stimulus funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act presented the opportunity to address the career-development issue. Since its launch last spring, WAIV has helped students secure 57 internships and post-graduation jobs in government, private and nonprofit organizations — among them a local organic mushroom-growing business, Bay Area disability-rights organizations, the EPA. regional office in San Francisco and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Working last summer in the local office of state Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), student intern Alex Ghenis did groundwork to secure official recognition of Jan. 23 as Ed Roberts Day in California, honoring the Cal alum who helped launch the disability-rights movement on campus in the 1960s and went on to be a pioneering leader of the national movement. Another student worked as an architecture intern for Equity Community Builders, the real-estate management firm that developed the Ed Roberts Campus and the David Brower Center, a social-action hub in downtown Berkeley. After the summer, ECB hired her on as an employee.

WAIV coordinator David Casanave says that when he came to campus 20 months ago, to launch the internship program, there was little talk about career preparation among DSP students. Today, he says, “they are abuzz with professional aspirations.

“We started the conversation, offered tools, preparation and encouragement. And then their world of possibilities opened up.”

‘Measure disability-rights progress by economic equality,’ says DSP director Paul Hippolitus

After completing two tours of duty in the Navy during the Vietnam war, Paul Hippolitus began a 30-year career working on employment issues for people with disabilities — culminating in a program directorship at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Paul HippolitusHippolitus was present at the 1990 ceremony at which President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. He says his ambition to work at Berkeley was sparked several decades ago, when he would visit campus to recruit students for federal internships in D.C. “I wanted to come here because of the tradition that Berkeley has around disability.”

He hoped to “add a new twist” to the campus’s storied disability-rights history. “To me there’s no greater achievement in equality than economic equity,” Hippolitus says. “Until we get people with disabilities to a place where they can work and have access to jobs, they will not have reached equality.”

How far is there yet to go? He notes that among college graduates (including Ph.D. holders) with disabilities, only one in five is employed. Bringing a job-readiness focus to the Disabled Students’ Program at Berkeley is “legacy work,” he says — “the culmination of a long career and a chance to pass on a legacy to the next generation.”

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