ATLANTIC CITY — Anthony Austin hopes that after he completes high school, he can find a job in an office.
With the help of a new pre-employment transition services (pre-ETS) workshop for students with disabilities, Austin will learn the skills he needs to make that happen.
“I was nervous at first,” said Austin, 20, a student at Atlantic City High School. Now, he said, he is excited.
Referred to as pre-ETS, the workshops are now required as part of changes to a federal law in 2017. Grants were made available that year by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to organizations that could provide such services that would help students with developmental disabilities prepare for and get employment.
Mary Beth Preyer of the Atlantic Center for Independent Living, which was one of several grant recipients in the region, said the students receive training in school and will be partnered this spring with employers for additional experience.
Preyer said the use of pre-ETS programs is an emerging philosophy across the country. She said it is likely in response to public outcry for more visibility for people with disabilities and more diversity. She said the program addresses the question of what happens when the school bus stops coming.
“What does my day now look like?” Preyer said. “We take that fear away. It’s good for everyone.”
The employers are still being worked out and include companies in hospitality, food service, administrative and support services, and more, she said.
Preyer said the students will get to try out different career fields so they have an understanding of what will be required of them.
“It’s just as important to know what you don’t like as it is to know what you do like,” she said.
Atlantic Center for Independent Living (Atlantic CIL) has partnered with Atlantic City and Pleasantville school districts this year for the roll-out of the program, which began just last month.
Training coordinator Pete Abraldes from Atlantic CIL was in Jonathan Lelli’s special education class at Atlantic City High School last week to discuss with the students what they aspire to be and how they can get there. He was beginning a lesson on making a vision board to help accomplish a goal.
“Nothing exists until you put it on paper,” Abraldes told the students.
He asked them to think about where they want to go and what they want to do after high school.
The students yelled out their aspirations: a chef, a car mechanic, an EMT in the Armed Forces.
Abraldes then told them they have to begin to understand themselves, know their strengths and weaknesses, so they can excel in their chosen fields.
“We all have a purpose. We just have to find what it is,” he said.
Between 2014 and 2016, the Boggs Center on Development Disabilities at Rutgers conducted a study on transition experiences and found many areas where New Jersey could improve on preparing young adults with developmental disabilities for self-advocacy, employment and independence.
“As a human, you have to have a purpose,” Abraldes said. “I think it’s a more fulfilling life.”
He said that groups like Atlantic CIL are the bridge between the classroom and the employer.
“A key to these programs is to get employer buy-in,” Abraldes said.
Lelli said since his students have learned about the program, they have been excitedly talking about what jobs and careers they would like to have.
“Especially Anthony, he’s excited about it,” Lelli said.
He was happy his students, who range in age and disability, are having the chance to experience the program.
“It allows the students to see what’s out there for them,” he said.