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.”
- UC Berkeley launches groundbreaking disability research initiative (NewsCenter article, 2011)
- Ed Roberts, disability-rights leader and Cal alum, gets his own state day (NewsCenter article, 2010)
- The Disability Rights & Independent Living Movement (Regional Oral History Office website/collection)
- Artists with Disabilities Oral History Project (ROHO website/collection)