This article was published in the Toledo Blade on December 29, 2018
Blade Staff Writer
“What does professionalism mean?”
The small group of teenagers paused to consider the question and threw out suggestions, writing their ideas on a large classroom whiteboard.
“Be on time.”
Those qualities are among the building blocks of the Next Steps Summer Program, which offers young adults with physical and developmental disabilities the opportunity to live on the University of Toledo’s campus for five weeks of college and career-readiness development.
The Ability Center of Greater Toledo program, geared toward high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors — though open to those older — helps bridge the gap for students with potential to live, work, and study independently but who need extra support to do so.
It’s a scene that plays out on college campuses across the country every year: sweaty fathers hauling brightly-colored plastic tubs, oscillating fans, and pictures of home. A few tears from moms as they whisk items from SUVs and minivans idling outside up to the sparsely furnished dorm rooms and shared bathrooms.
As a warm July afternoon slunk into evening on the UT campus, the 16 young adults settled in for their first night of independence.
“To be eligible, participants must have a goal to seek post-secondary education or competitive employment,” said Cre Smith, a life skills specialist at the Ability Center. “They’re our future leaders, so we’re molding them to have a voice [and] to have some independence.”
The program is part life skills, part job training, part college crash course, and among its goals is to expose participants to a variety of future paths to explore.
“They’re not limited or defined by their disability,” Ms. Smith said.
On the menu are lessons in time management and self-sufficiency, including cooking, doing laundry, and scheduling transportation. Participants are matched with a work assignment at sites like the Toledo Museum of Art, where they learn how to work in a professional setting.
At the art museum’s family center, it’s a delicate balancing act of creative chaos, as children weave among easels and piles of fabric, paper, and paint pots. A handful of Next Steps participants helped children with their projects and spoke with parents there.
Watching the young people come out of their shells and find their confidence is exciting, said Leah Whitacre, a job coach with the Ability Center who joined participants at the museum.
“One thing I am really proud of them for is they are not afraid to ask for help or [ask] questions,” she said. “They’re all willing to ask for help and it’s a good quality to have.”
It’s not all serious business. In between classes about financial management and work assignments, there are trips to the bowling alley, evenings in the dormitory rec room, and lots of laughter. Next Steps is as much about helping participants hit their stride socially as it is about learning the responsibility and professionalism needed for life after high school.
Bonds form quickly. On a trip to Paul Mitchell Salon in Sylvania, a cluster of participant struggled to hold back giggles and resisted the temptation to peek around the corner. Just out of view, inches and inches of Anabella Higginbotham‘s long blond hair hit the floor.
As part of the program, participants get haircuts and styling to help them experience pampering and get a look worthy of a professional, said Marchelle Wendler, admissions leader at Paul Mitchell the School Toledo.
“I had already decided I would go short,” said Anabella, 17, now a senior at Sylvania Southview High School, as she sat in the stylist’s chair. She was ready for a change.
She would like to be a physical therapist, she said, a career that would combine her love of anatomy and physiology with her desire to help people. She’d done some overnight trips away from home, but Next Steps marked the first foray into longer stints on her own. Among her goals of the program, which included a work placement at the University of Toledo Medical Center, was professional communication.
Jimmy Reardon, who is visually and hearing impaired, said in the waning days of the program that it had helped him come out of his shell and experience a work setting.
“I was a little shy and quiet but I started socializing with students and staff,” he said through a sign language interpreter. “I noticed my personality change and I started liking socializing.” In his placement at the American Red Cross, he learned how reasonable accommodations could be made to allow him to succeed.
“I learned something about myself: That I can do my best with special equipment like an iPad,” he said.
For families with a disabled child, planning for life after high school can be an overwhelming process, and programs like Next Steps can be a wonderful opportunity but are limited in size.
In Ohio, students with disabilities are entitled to transition services at age 14. That process, led by the student’s school district, should lay out a plan that takes into consideration the student’s strengths, interests, and needs to guide them toward further education, employment, and independent living.
Kristin Hildebrant, special education team leader at the statewide advocacy group Disability Rights Ohio, said the quality of transition services can vary from district to district, and parents should begin conversations early to help their child advocate for themselves.
“They almost have to have better self-advocacy skills because they are asking for things that kids without disabilities never have to ask for,” she said.
But that isn’t always easy.
“The vast majority of parents don’t understand the process, aren’t connected to resources, and have a difficult time getting them into a college setting that’s well supported,” Ms. Hildebrant said.
She encouraged parents to take an early and active involvement in their child’s transition plan and to be well-versed in the opportunities available.
“For people who are on the autism spectrum, the big concern that I have seen from families is the social aspect of college, that they will become isolated and not become a part of the college community.”
For Tony Schweinhagen of Wauseon, Next Steps was a dry run at college.
“We have high hopes that this will give him a reality of what this is going to be like,” said his mother, Michelle, as she helped her son, who has autism, unpack his belongings.
This fall, Tony began his freshman year at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, where he is on the swimming and diving team. A team biography lists his major as early childhood and special education.
The University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, Lourdes University, and Owens Community College all have offices or centers dedicated to disability and accessibility services.
For more information about Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, visit ood.ohio.gov. The Ability Center of Greater Toledo’s website can be found at abilitycenter.org.