December 10, 2015
By Greg Peters
|Ariel working at her job at T.J. Maxx|
Three times a week, Ariel loads herself onto a city bus and travels nearly 14 miles from her home to her job at a T.J. Maxx store at the Legends Outlets shopping center in Kansas City, Kansas. Holding down a job and navigating her way there and back on her own are a source of pride and accomplishment for the 32-year-old with an intellectual disability.
Ariel's ability to reach these milestones is primarily due to a partnership between the University of Kansas Department of Occupational Therapy Education and an organization called Mosaic of Northeast Kansas. Mosaic is a faith-based social ministry that advocates for individuals with intellectual disabilities, offering services, ranging from residential and occupational support to case management. Thanks to this collaboration with KU, Ariel and several others at Mosaic with intellectual disabilities now travel the city via public transportation, hold down jobs and participate in community activities.
During the past year, KU faculty and students have helped 11 Mosaic clients secure jobs, making this one of organization's most successful jobs programs in the country. Of the 40 or so Mosaic chapters nationwide, the local group was the only one to have 100 percent of its participants develop meaningful life plans and/or find employment matching their skills.
"I believe both KU and Mosaic have the same goals when it comes to providing meaningful lives to people," said Lana Smith, executive director of Mosaic of Northeast Kansas. "I believe both parties have to be open to new ideas and staying focused on the outcome, which is employment."
Building a partnership
The relationship between KU's occupational therapy department and Mosaic started about two years ago when organization officials reached out to the occupational therapy department for help. Clinical assistant professors Dory Sabata, Becky Nicholson and Evan Dean responded.
Shortly after the connection was made, KU occupational therapy students began helping Mosaic clients create life plans. For many, these plans revolve around getting a job that fits their work skills and personal interests.
Students start by evaluating their clients to determine their individual strengths and developing personalized intervention plans. They help clients create resumes, improve interview skills and learn job-specific abilities. This meticulous preparatory work ultimately pays off in successful job placements.
Sources on both sides of the hiring equation say finding the perfect match between a client's skills and interests and an employer's specific needs and then preparing the workers by using real-world scenarios are key ingredients in the secret sauce that has led to the program's success.
Benefits for students
Dean said his students learn three vital lessons during their time at Mosaic. First the experience teaches them occupational therapists can support people with intellectual disabilities as they build meaningful lives. They also get to experience how people with intellectual disabilities can thrive within a community. And the Mosaic experience gives students insights into how people with intellectual disabilities live after they leave the school environment.
"I learned to never underestimate a person with a disability," said occupational therapy student Olivia Hargreaves. "The clients amazed me with their work ethic, perseverance and positive attitudes. They taught me what is really important in life."
KU has been so successful locally that Nicholson and her husband, who are on Mosaic's advisory board, were invited to Dallas in November to make a presentation at the group's national conference. As a result, Mosaic has decided to move forward with a program to replicate the Kansas City experience in Kansas and Colorado. The Nicholsons also helped write a grant for $10,000 from State Street Bank to support the occupational therapy program at Mosaic.
Appreciation of KU's success working with Mosaic does not stop there. Occupational therapy department faculty and students have been invited to present at the national American Occupational Therapy Association conference in April.
"Each semester, I see the students excited and learning about this field," said Smith. "At the end, I see what they have gained and what they have done for us."
But the ultimate reward for the students goes well beyond the academic experience.
"While it is my goal to make a difference in their life, they are the ones that have truly made a difference in mine," said occupational therapy student Kaitlin Hartman.
Ariel's successful journey to employment is due in large part to support she received from occupational therapy students. Last spring, the students working with Ariel found out she liked cleaning and organizing merchandise on shelves at stores, so student Christina Kerr explored whether T.J. Maxx would be a good fit.
Kerr helped Ariel prepare for interviews and supported her through the hiring process last summer. After Ariel was hired, Kerr worked with her employer to create strategies to help teach her job routines and expectations, including clocking herself in and out each day. Kerr developed visual schedules that aid Ariel in keeping track of her morning and evening routines, including hygiene. She also made a home visit to organize Ariel's closet so she can choose work-appropriate clothing by herself more easily.
"After getting the job, Ariel seemed like a happier person because she was making new friends at work and getting a paycheck," Kerr said. "I have seen how society can present barriers for people with intellectual disability as they try to gain independence. These individuals are capable of being independent and can have successful and productive lives if they have the right support."