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Jamila DeCarli explains how The San Diego Community College District’s WorkAbility III program can help provide vocational counseling for students with disabilities.

First, tell me about the WorkAbility program and your part in it.

The WorkAbility model exists because of funding provided through the Department of (Vocational) Rehabilitation, to provide individuals who have disabilities with employment support while working on education and re-training. The ‘WorkAbility III’ facet is specifically for community college students who are clients of the Department of Rehabilitation. There are currently 26 WorkAbility III cooperatives in the state of California, but the program I work with is housed at the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD). I am the coordinator for the program.

In a nutshell, we provide individualized employment preparation and job development services to college students in the SDCCD with disabilities over age 18 who are clients of the Department of Rehabilitation. This could mean students at City, Mesa, or Miramar Colleges, as well as any of our seven non-credit campuses.

What kind of impact has this program had?

We provide services to approximately 200-250 students per year, and every individual we work with is given individualized support. With the assistance of our vocational specialists, as well as the support of the Department of Rehabilitation, many people with disabilities–ranging from deafness to brain injury to mental illness–are able to obtain employment opportunities in their field of choice.

One example of a recent student success is Melanie (her name has been changed), who attended Mesa and Miramar College and had a severe learning disability that made college coursework and finding employment a huge challenge. Fortunately, she qualified for support services from Disability Support Programs and Services (DSPS) Mesa College. She was also soon connected to the San Diego Department of Rehabilitation.

Because of the seriousness of her learning disability, Melanie needed support filling out employment applications, résumés, cover letters, and assistance in developing job search strategies and interview skills. She was referred to WorkAbility III, and her specialist was able to assist her with support in all those areas. She became employed within the year as an assistant teacher at San Diego Juvenile Hall, a step in the direction of her dream of becoming a Corrections Officer.

Through connections made at Mesa College, Melanie later became employed as a service officer with the San Diego Community College District’s Police Department, where she stayed while continuing her studies. Years later, she decided she wanted to fulfill her dream of becoming a corrections officer. Again, working with her WorkAbility specialist, she researched the labor market for correction officer positions in California, and learned there were scarce opportunities due to budget constraints. She opened up her job search to other states and applied within Arizona and Nevada’s prison systems. She was recently accepted—and sworn in—as a corrections officer at the Nevada State Prison.

How does the program help specifically in the job search process?

We are not a program that just hands over jobs to people, nor do we simply provide them with job leads and wish them luck. We offer individualized vocational guidance and counseling, employment preparation, and job development support, while taking into consideration the limitations that someone with a disability may have. We factor in a job seeker’s skills and qualifications, education, and experience, and try to match all these factors to an appropriate vocational goal.

Because individuals with disabilities often must mitigate unique barriers and challenges in finding work, our goal is to find ways to level the playing field so that they have the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers. We advise on how and when to request job accommodations, strategies for disclosing a disability. At times, additional support from the Department of Rehabilitation may be paramount to an individual’s success in getting a position or performing the functions of a job once hired. For example, if a deaf person needs a sign language interpreter for an interview, the DOR may pay for the cost of that service, or if a person who uses a wheelchair needs a workstation modification or assistive technology in order to do their job effectively, DOR might choose to provide funding to support the individual and their new employer. Additionally, on-the-job training contracts may be proposed to an employer to offset costs of training while an individual learns a new position.

We help students while in school or after they complete their degree, certificate, and/or training. We can assist them with finding competitive employment, and/or work experience through volunteering and internships. We can provide assistance with how to look for positions, network, résumé and cover letter development, organization strategies, effective interview skills, etc. Meetings can take place at our offices in Mission Valley, and/or we can go out to the campus where the individual attends. We also monitor progress for at least three months after they get a job.

Who is eligible for the WorkAbility program?

To be eligible for our program, an individual needs to meet two requirements. One is that they must be a client of the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR); the other is that they must be enrolled in a class through our college district, either credit or non-credit. However, if someone is eligible for DOR’s services and willing to take a class offered through our district, they could become connected with our program.

What kind of time commitment do you ask of participants?

This is a great question, but the answer is different for everyone. For someone very active in her job search, on top of time spent in classes, we might ask that she meet with her vocational specialist at least once a week for a couple of hours, with intermittent communication via e-mail or phone. We also expect that our students are doing activities on their own time that contribute to their job search.

What are the necessary steps for getting signed up?

For information about getting connected with the WorkAbility III program, you can contact your DOR counselor, disability support (DSPS) counselor at your campus, or contact us directly for information on how to get started with DOR or SDCCD.

Can you offer any further suggestions for those who think they might be interested and/or qualified?

For those people who have a disability who haven’t been in school for a while, and/or who aren’t sure what direction to go in as far as work, I can recommend a great free class to take. It’s called Occupational Opportunities, and it’s offered at two locations: At the Mid-City Continuing Education campus in City Heights, and at the Continuing Education campus located at Mesa College. It’s a great way to get the ball rolling if you are in need of a starting point.

Our website is worka.sdccd.edu, and we are on Facebook as “WorkAbility III San Diego.”

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