A $32 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund a University of Arkansas effort designed to improve career options for low-income Arkansas teenagers with disabilities.
The grant is the largest federal research grant in UA history, and includes coordination with the Arkansas Department of Education and several federal agencies.
Grant funds come from the federal “Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income” (PROMISE) program to support students from low-income families who receive federal benefits – Supplemental Security income (SSI) – because of a disability.
Brent Williams, associate professor of rehabilitation education and research at the University of Arkansas, is the principal investigator of the PROMISE grant and will oversee the project. Tom Smith, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, said the focus of the project will be to develop a model program to assist adolescents with disabilities to become independent adults.
The program will work with 2,000 students between the ages of 14 and 16 who receive SSI. The students will be divided into two groups, with half receiving the intervention of job coaching and benefits counseling, and the other half serving as a control group that does not receive the intervention. Students will be monitored for five years.
“Most of us in the competitive workplace had a first entry-level job or internship at the beginning of our work lives,” Williams said in a statement. “That experience, good or bad, was instrumental in our later workplace success. Adolescents who receive Social Security disability benefits typically do not have a first job or internship experience. As such, they remain cut off from the world of work. The PROMISE grant seeks to provide 1,000 adolescents with disabilities who receive Social Security disability benefits with their first paid work experience.”
The PROMISE program is a joint initiative of the federal Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor and the Social Security Administration.
“Its underlying premise is that improved coordination between services can improve outcomes for youth and their families. Its goals also include decreasing reliance on SSI and reducing the cost to the federal government. The grant was submitted through a partnership between the university, the Arkansas Department of Education and other state agencies,” noted language in Thursday’s (Oct. 3) statement.
POTENTIAL LONG-TERM BENEFITS
The PROMISE grant is the first national study to investigate the strength of the possible correlation between initial paid work experiences and later competitive employment, Williams said. Poverty and disability perpetuate a cycle that further isolates and marginalizes people with disabilities from low-income families, he said. Fewer than one in 10 adolescents with disabilities who receive SSI ever achieve competitive employment, he said.
“The findings from this research could go a long way toward facilitating the independence and societal inclusion of adolescents with disabilities while reducing the financial encumbrance of the Social Security Administration,” Williams said. “This would benefit not only Arkansas, but the nation as a whole, now and for years to come.”
Williams stressed that the program is less about monitoring and more about “intervention.” He said the students and families will volunteer to participate. The program will provide career and benefits counseling to the students and families. Also, the students will be evaluated to determine career interests and abilities. Once that is complete, program officials will then attempt to match students with available jobs.
“This isn’t a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all thing. ... This has to be a good fit for the employer and the student,” Williams told The City Wire.
Details remain to be worked out on how many workers will be hired to administer the program and when the program will begin. Williams said the program was fully funded just prior to the federal government shutdown, but he is not sure about a scheduled Oct. 28 planning meeting in Washington D.C.
“We don’t have administrative contact with our project officer because she has been furloughed,” Williams said.
What Williams is certain of is that federal and state officials are eager to develop a plan that allows more people with disabilities to “work competitively” in the private-sector workforce. Less than 10% of students with disabilities who receive SSI benefits are in the workforce, Williams said.
Another aspect of the program seeks to “overcome the trepidation” some families have toward giving up a secure income through SSI benefits for what could be more – but uncertain – income in the workplace.
“There is a risk involved. ... The aspect of losing their benefits is still very anxiety provoking,” Williams explained.
Arkansas was one of five states to receive the funding. California, Maryland, New York and Wisconsin also received grant funds. A grant was also provided to a consortium of six states – Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Arizona.