Study looks at employment rates of Illinois graduates with severe disabilities

March 19, 2004

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has long been known for its pioneering programs and services for students with disabilities. And judging by results of recent studies of employment outcomes for university graduates with severe disabilities, those programs are continuing to make their mark.

Recent survey responses from 94 Illinois alumni with spinal cord injuries or disease (SCID) who graduated between 1978 and 2002 indicate that 79 percent of graduates with paraplegia and 70 percent of those with quadriplegia were employed. In addition: Brad Hedrick, the director of the university's Division of Rehabilitation-Education Services and principal investigator for the study, said those figures contrast with a 2000 National Organization on Disability/Harris poll that indicated only 33 percent of working-age persons with disabilities with college degrees were working full time for pay, and 12 percent were working part time.

These data and others were presented by Hedrick and Tanya Gallagher, the dean of the College of Applied Life Studies and the director of the Disability Research Institute, at the Emerging Workforce Conference last month in Weston, Fla.

The conference included representatives from the National Council on Disability, the Social Security Administration, the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel, the President's Committee for People With Intellectual Disabilities, the Access Board, and the President's Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, and representatives from other federal, state and international entities.

The presentation by Gallagher and Hedrick focused on the strengths of the "Illinois Model" for educating students with disabilities. The model, Hedrick said, "is born of a holistic philosophy that includes academic, physical, social and psychological supports."

Among its many components, the Illinois Model includes intensive transitional orientation for students on both ends of the collegiate experience -- as they move from high school to the university, and later, from the university into the job market. Illinois is one of only three institutions to offer personal-assistant services, which Hedrick said, serve as a bridge --"between the mom-and-dad service" students with disabilities have typically relied upon and the self-sufficient approach to the management of personal assistants that they will need to be successful following graduation." The program prepares students for self-sufficiency by engaging them as full partners in the recruitment, screening, interviewing, hiring, training, scheduling, payment and evaluation of their personal-assistant staff.

Sudents also receive training in self-advocacy, and are encouraged to participate in seminars and/or to enroll in courses on the history and evolution of disability rights and nondiscrimination laws. They learn strategies for improving their study and note-taking skills as well as time-management and organizational skills. Students also are afforded opportunities to take courses for academic credit to improve their information-technology literacy and proficiency in the use of state-of-the-art assistive information technologies, and to learn how to most effectively maximize their physical and mental health through the pursuit of proper nutrition and exercise.

In addition to the survey results of alumni with SCID, Hedrick said another measure of the success of the Illinois Model is the fact that only one percentage point separates the graduation rate of Illinois students with disabilities from that of the campus at large.

"But nationally, according to a 1999 study by the National Center on Education Statistics, students with disabilities are 15 percent less likely to graduate than their peers without disabilities," he said.

Among the campus's alumni who lived at Beckwith Hall -- where they received personal-assistant support services to perform daily-living activities, such as dressing, eating and grooming -- 60 percent who graduated since 1995 obtained professional employment following graduation, while 32 percent entered graduate school. Only 8 percent did not enter the work force after graduation.

Hedrick said those outcomes were corroborated by a recent study by the university's Office of Planning and Budgeting. That study found that 58.3 percent of former Beckwith Hall residents who graduated between 1986 and 2000 were employed one year following graduation.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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