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Balancing Acts

Kids with disabilities shut out by economy

Edgar Howe, the Youth-Links program director at the South Coastal Career Center in Quincy, assists Kristen Bardon with an application for summer employment. Edgar Howe, the Youth-Links program director at the South Coastal Career Center in Quincy, assists Kristen Bardon with an application for summer employment. (Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)
By Maggie Jackson
June 14, 2009
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Kristen Bardon, 17, applied for a state summer jobs program last week, hoping to add to the part-time job she has at a local bakery.

Brennan Srisirikul, 17, will return to a beloved apprenticeship at a local theater, unable to find a better-paying summer gig.

Finding a summer job, the classic adolescent rite of passage, is tougher this summer than it has been in decades. But for teens with disabilities like Bardon and Srisirikul, the challenge is so monumental that only a very few may find work this year.

The recession adds to perennial hurdles for kids with special needs: closed doors and closed minds in the community, and physical and cognitive issues that may make even simple tasks such as stocking store shelves out of reach. Too often, the immeasurables - their loyalty and tenacity - get overlooked, especially in a cutthroat job market.

"The notion of going out and getting a job, even in the best of economic times, is very difficult for these students," says Richard Robison, executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Federation for Children with Special Needs and father of two grown children with Down syndrome. "Employers may determine that they don't want to deal with their needs, and find ways to screen them out."

Even in recent boom years of 2006-2007, only 17 percent of Massachusetts high school students with disabilities worked in some capacity, compared with 31 percent of those without disabilities, according to studies led by Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.

After high school graduation, the gap widens: 62 percent of youths who are not disabled work versus just a quarter of those with disabilities.

This summer, just 15 out of every 100 youths in this age group with disabilities probably will land a job, Sum estimates. Typically, more than half of youths without disabilities get summer paychecks, national data show.

And who are the losers? We all are. Along with ignoring a pool of good workers, we as a society miss out on the chance to help willing youngsters gain work experience that leads to independence in adulthood. Teens with disabilities who work during high school are four times as likely to graduate, according to data compiled by the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"Without those fundamental work experiences, they're fundamentally at a disadvantage as adults," says Cindy Thomas, coordinator for employment services at the Institute for Community Inclusion. "What you learned at your first job - those are the experiences that build our identity and capabilities as an adult worker."

Behind the grim numbers, however, there are potential bright spots. The state is committing $30 million in mostly federal stimulus money over the next two years to create 10,000 summer jobs for youths in 60 communities. While the jobs are mostly earmarked for disadvantaged or low-income youths, all kids with disabilities are priority candidates, according to officials at the state Department of Labor and Workforce. (For more information see www.commcorp.org/youthworks.)

Bardon, who attends special-education classes at Quincy High, applied for one of the stimulus jobs at the suggestion of a counselor at the South Coastal Career Center in Quincy, where Bardon took a job-skills workshop last year. Last fall, the center helped her land a job at a bakery, where she'll work about 12 hours a week this summer, making boxes and frosting and "stuff like that."

"I like a lot of things about working," says Bardon, who has a processing disorder, meaning she learns at a slower pace. "I like to make new friends and I like the new experiences that I get with everything."

Like other special-needs youths, by law Bardon must get extra help with life skills and job-readiness from her school district until she either graduates from high school or transitions out of child social services at age 22. Still, a "real" summer job is a rite that isn't always a priority for beleaguered special-education teachers or overwhelmed parents.

Children with special needs often get stuck in low-paying institutional jobs or volunteer positions, which provide good experience yet aren't the real-life jobs they crave.

"They all want more than anything to have a summer job," says Pam Varrin, family support coordinator at the private Cotting School for children with disabilities in Lexington. "Many of our students couldn't just slip into a job at McDonald's, they would need support, but that doesn't mean it isn't important to them."

And many can contribute, studies show. Adult workers with disabilities had fewer scheduled absences than those without disabilities, and nearly identical job performance ratings, according to one recent study of large Chicago-area retail, hospitality, and healthcare companies. Costs associated with hiring them were minimal, company administrators reported.

But to land summer jobs, youths with disabilities often need help. Key supports include teachers' help with advanced planning, liaisons between schools and the business community, and high expectations by families and teachers that youths can work, according to Erik Carter of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Sixty-five percent of youths with disabilities who received such interventions found summer work, compared with 20 percent of students who didn't get such help, a study by the university's "Project Summer" found. The study involved youths with severe intellectual disabilities or autism (www.projectsummer.info).

During the school year, Srisirikul, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, received some help from a local agency in filling out online applications for retail jobs. But nothing panned out, nor did he win a coveted summer acting part in a local theater troupe. So in July, he'll return for a fourth summer as an apprentice at the New Bedford Festival Theatre, where he'll get a $250 stipend for three weeks of training.

"It's not for the pay, it's more for the experience and resume-building," says Srisirikul, who graduated from Fairhaven High School and heads to Rhode Island College in the fall to study theater.

For the theater, too, Srisirikul is a huge asset, says Elaine Santos, company manager. "Brennan has touched the heart of everyone, not by being 'that poor kid in the wheelchair,' but by being an incredible kid," says Santos. "He's a real stick-to-it kind of guy."

Maggie Jackson is the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." She can be reached at www.maggie-jackson.com.