Special Needs Students Get Workforce Training At DHMC

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When special education students graduate from high school, they face an especially daunting job market.

Teens with developmental disabilities often need extra training in how to get a job, and keep it.

A two-year-old internship program called Project Search based at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center is recruiting young adults with special needs to work at the hospital. The larger aim is to prepare them to enter the job market. 

At eight o’clock on a sunny weekday morning, eight young people, aged 18-24, sat around a table in a classroom at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, tackling an assignment.

Their mental challenges range from Down syndrome to varying degrees of autism. They are all eager to enter the job market, but also unsure what it might ask of them. So their teacher, Laureen Blum, turned the tables. She asked them to look at the resumes of three fictional job applicants, and decide which ones should be hired, and why.

"Dennis, who did your group choose?" Blum asked one group leader.

"We chose Maggie, because she is reliable, because she proved to stay later than needed and get there early," Dennis Jones reported.

"So the flexibility, again, was important to you," Blum commented.

She turned to another group, headed by Ryan Guidotti.  "OK, Ryan, how about your team?"

"We chose Maggie because she has been in the company five years and has reliable transportation, unlike George," Guidotti explained.

"Unlike George,"Blum repeated. "So transportation was big, that they could get to work." The students nodded.

Punctuality, flexibility, reliability-all key ingredients to successful employment-can be daunting for people with mental disabilities.

So in this program, called "Project Search," trainees who are preparing to enter the workforce for the first time don’t just talk about things like that. They learn them on the job.  Dartmouth Hitchock is modeling this project on one started in Cincinnati, where the hospital needed to fill entry-level vacancies. But DHMC also wants to help disabled workers acquire good work habits for any job.

As she dismissed the students to their hospital job sites, Blum pulled Misty Pearce, an unsmiling brunette, aside.

"And what’s your body language going to look like?" Blum asked.

"Normal?"Pearce ventured.

"And what’s normal?"

"Like…. happy?" Pearce said.

"Happy, a little smile on your face. I don’t want to see your eyebrows coming together like this." Blum scrunched her forehead into a furrow.

Another student, Matt Sampson, has to overcome shyness for his job leading patients to their doctors.

He headed down a seemingly endless string of corridors to a waiting room, and looked at his clipboard.

"Tommy?" Sampson called.

A middle-aged man approached Sampson. He wore wraparound sunglasses, and seemed to be vision impaired. Sampson lead him carefully down the hall to a physical therapy clinic. The patient, Tommy Wentzell, commended Sampson on a good job.

"He’s smiling. He knows where he’s going. That’s the main thing, right? You don’t want to send people to the wrong place," Wentzell said, chuckling.

When he finishes his unpaid hospital internship, Sampson says he’d take almost any paying job he can get. His first choice would be working with cars.

Meanwhile, in another part of the hospital, trainee Ryan Guidotti was donning blue scrubs for his shift in the endoscopy lab. He’s responsible for rows and rows of scopes, hanging on the wall. He explained to teacher Laureen Blum how he sterilizes them.

"Hook ‘em up to a machine, put them in the sink, let that run, turn the water on, let that build up. Then there’s a cleaning process before they get sanitized,"Guidotti told her.

"So it’s a multi-step, right?" Blum asked. "So you do hand cleaning in the sink first and then they go into those bigger things that look like washing machines that are bays. And you have to be careful to hook all the ports to the right things? I can’t do that but I know you do."

Ryan hopes to get hired to do this meticulous work, or something like it.

"I am interested in health care. I hope to get a job here eventually," he said, as he hung scopes on the wall.

Two alumni from last year’s Project Search class have landed jobs at Dartmouth Hitchcock. Two others are working in grocery stores nearby.

Teacher Laureen Blum believes every one of her DHMC students could be productive workers, and she works hard to find jobs suited to their abilities. Support for the program also comes from Hartford High School and VocRehab Vermont. Jobs may be scarce, but these interns say they will work hard to get them.

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