Free job skills training opens doors for those with intellectual, developmental disabilities

Baylor's School of Education now offers free vocational and job skills training for teens and young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Illustration by Grace Everett

By Jenna Fitzgerald | Copy Editor

Through its new telehealth program, Baylor’s School of Education is now offering free vocational and job skills training for those 13 and older who have intellectual or developmental disabilities.

According to Dr. Tonya Davis, faculty adviser of the program and professor of educational psychology, the idea for the program was the result of a brainstorming effort with Plano third-year doctoral student Mackenzie Wicker and Lott second-year doctoral student Julie Hrabal. She said the ultimate goal is to help those with intellectual or developmental disabilities “reach whatever aspirations they have.”

“[Wicker and Hrabal] were really interested in the adult population, particularly preparing adults to get jobs and preparing adults to live independently,” Davis said. “Both outcomes are really poor for adults with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. Very few are getting competitive employment positions, and very few are able to live completely independently. Obviously, those are goals we want for all individuals: to be able to work and to live with autonomy.”

Hrabal said she and Wicker have known each other for about four years, and their complementary interests in serving adults who have intellectual or developmental disabilities are what enabled the launch of the program.

“I love the daily living skills part, and [Wicker] loves the vocational job skills part,” Hrabal said. “But they can go either way under those categories, so we mesh really well together. We both fell in love with it, and we teamed up on everything that we’ve done.”

According to Davis, the program is funded by The Fichtenbaum Charitable Trust — a Dallas foundation that has an interest in education and research for children with mental or physical disabilities. This year, the grant is supporting services for 20 participants, and while priority is given to those from Dallas County and other North Texas counties, Davis said they are extending the opportunity to anyone.

“This project is starting sort of as a side project that’s funded to serve a certain number of people,” Davis said. “I would love if this is successful, it becomes one of our ongoing programs within our clinic. Our clinic now serves kids with challenging behavior; it serves young children who are learning brand new skills. And if we could then incorporate this as a long-term program, I think it would be great to have it sustained beyond the life of this grant.”

Wicker said the program is tailored to each individual. When getting plugged in with the program, each participant meets one-on-one with a therapist for an initial interview and a preference assessment. Then, they spend their sessions working on skill development — something lasting varying amounts of time, depending on each individual’s skill acquisition rate.

“The job skills that are selected are going to be individualized,” Wicker said. “That’s why we interview the participant: to see what they would like to work on. Or if they do have a current employment position somewhere, what are some skills that they want to learn for their job that maybe they identified or their employer identified? Or if they are too young to be in the workforce, getting a better idea of what job they would like to have in the future … You want to work on something that is motivating for you and reinforcing for you, so we want to make sure that they feel that way too, that they have a say in what we’re going to work on.”

Davis said as long as participants have the necessary materials available to them, the program can help them work on skills for whichever career they want to pursue. Additionally, she said the program can teach broad, transferable skills like how to complete a job application and how to interview.

“For example, if someone wanted to go into the restaurant business, we could work on skills that may be relevant there, even if they’re in the room and don’t have the job yet,” Davis said. “We could work on dishwashing skills. We could work on rolling silverware. We could work on taking orders.”

Wicker said equipping participants with these kinds of skills goes beyond simply helping them to succeed at a job, as employment offers a wide array of benefits.

“Employment brings so much more than just having a job,” Wicker said. “It brings an increase in socialization. It brings relationships between co-workers and other individuals. It brings a chance to practice skills that we consider soft skills, like problem-solving, communication. It increases quality of life. It allows for financial stability. It increases autonomy and the sense of your self-esteem.”

While the program is currently only offered virtually, Davis, Wicker and Hrabal all said they hope it will eventually expand to include in-person opportunities. Wicker said she particularly loves hands-on skill development — something that pairs well with her job as a shift supervisor at Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, a coffee chain focused on employing those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“I like the hands-on part of it,” Wicker said. “That’s why I think I just love Bitty and Beau’s so much, because I’m actually in it. It’s not so much sitting behind a computer, writing up manuscripts, writing up results, graphing data. It’s more of that communication and that relationship that you’re building. And then just getting to see their excitement once they do get a job skill down is just super rewarding.”

Wicker said she hopes the Baylor community and beyond will recognize how much those with intellectual or developmental disabilities have to offer.

“Everybody deserves a chance to have a better quality of life,” Wicker said. “Not all people with disabilities just roll silverware and wipe down tables. They’re capable of so much more. So it’s starting to change the mindset, and it’s already been changing — not taking these individuals and molding them to fit within our community, but starting to mold our community to better adapt or better encompass the inclusion of these individuals because they do bring so much more to an environment.”