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Oakland group connects youths with disabilities to internships

on October 25, 2019

On Tuesday evening, about 15 new high school graduates with various developmental and intellectual disabilities gathered in an echoey elementary school auditorium in Oakland for an event called Ramping Up Independence. For many, it was the first time meeting staff from the organizations that would help them transition out of special education classes and into the next phase of their lives.

The event was organized by East Bay Innovations (EBI), a nonprofit that helps disabled adults work and live independently. Along with the other organizations at Ramping Up, EBI focuses on helping people find jobs and develop the skills to maintain them – everything from creating a resume, to learning to use public transportation, to mastering administrative tasks.

The evening was intended to give parents and students an idea of what options lay ahead, according to Jessi Cutter, associate director of the group’s employment program. “It can be really overwhelming,” Cutter said as she dragged lunch tables across the linoleum floor, helping set up the event. “Parents are hurrying, trying to find the right program before their child starts to loose the skills they developed in high school.”

Rosa Cruz said she’s starting to worry about her son, a high-functioning 21-year-old about to age out of the afterschool Young Adult Recreation Program provided by the Oakland Unified School District. “All I want for him is to be happy and independent,” Cruz said.

Under the Lanterman Act of 1977, California’s Department of Developmental Services is mandated to provide people with disabilities programs that enable them to live independent lives. But in practice, it can be difficult to secure a spot in a program that meets one’s needs. Systemic underfunding makes it nearly impossible to pay job coaches and caregivers a living wage, which makes it harder to accept new clients and leads to longer waitlists, said Linda Ratner who works in the grant department of EBI.

The organization already has longstanding partnerships with various governmental offices within Alameda County and the Claremont Club and Spa—students can apply for a paid, yearlong internship in either track. But according to Cutter, they’ve placed over 500 other people in various positions across the Bay Area, ranging from grocery stores to BART offices to hospital supply rooms.

Ratner said they look for jobs that are predictable and repetitive, and for employers who are often struggling with high turnover. “It’s part of our pitch to employers—we tell them that with a little support, we have an employee that won’t quit,” Ratner said.

Support comes in the form of a job coach who accompanies the new employee and helps them settle into their role, whether it be through creating task lists, helping resolve communication issues, or training them on how to use public transit. The goal is for the job coach to gradually reduce their presence until the young adult is primarily independent, Cutter explained.

After an hour of networking during which potential clients and their parents visited booths, representatives from each organization gave a short presentation on the vocational programs they offer, while parents scribbled notes. Bill Peter, from the Oakland nonprofit Ability Now, described a program that helps people launch their own small business. Kathy Neilson from Helping Hands East Bay, talked about a bilingual job development programs serving Asian families. 

By the end of the evening, Jackie Anguyam and her 21-year-old son had chatted with about 3 recruiters from different agencies. They were the most interested in employment programs offered by EBI or Helping Hands.  

“So far, the state has been really good to my son. I just hope it continues,”Anguyam said.

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