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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

In Their Own Words: Employer Perspectives on Youth with Disabilities in the Workplace

Investigating Human Resource Options:
American Institute for Cancer Research

by John McIlveen

The American Institute for Cancer Research is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to research and education that expands understanding and awareness of the relationship between diet and cancer. It receives no federal funds, nor has it received large-scale funding from any corporate or industry interest. Consequently, the institute relies on public support for its funding. It employs more than 100 people, including medical researchers, fundraising staff, media specialists, and various support staff.

One of the institute’s major responsibilities to the community is the dissemination of information and research materials regarding cancer prevention. We also handle a large volume of inquiries concerning our research and regularly process donations and fundraising inquiries. The institute’s Fulfillment Center processes up to 600 mailings a day (most are publication inserts). Mail processing is an often tedious but integral part of our operation. Since an ongoing concern is staff turnover in that department, we were eager to listen to representatives from a local special education transition program when they contacted us about hiring students they represented.

When hired in the human resources department, I was given a brochure from a program called Bridges…From School to Work which represented youth with disabilities. It was presented as a potential resource for recruiting, especially for entry-level positions. I was open to considering young people with disabilities because of prior experience in other companies. I also believed that being involved with the program would be a way for the institute to do something positive for the community as we found individuals who could fill our positions. We eventually brought in two high school students represented by Bridges to work in our Fulfillment Center.

Challenges to Making it Work

Many of the challenges to the initial success involved integrating the students into the workplace. Most staff had never worked with individuals with disabilities, and they had to learn how to interact with them and how to provide guidance and instruction. The Bridges staff assisted with this activity in the beginning, but since they did not interact daily with the students, the challenge was often in making the shift from Bridges staff support to co-worker support. Our employees often found themselves having to assist the students in basic tasks, from learning their jobs to navigating around the offices.

In addition, employees often had preconceived notions about what the students could or could not do. These concerns were usually related to perceptions about the students’ ability to keep up with the work so that they would not interrupt the work flow. Because of this initial skepticism, there was a level of acceptance that had to occur among the staff. Consequently, it was a challenge to balance finding appropriate duties that would challenge the students yet not overwhelm them. Ultimately, achieving this balance was what convinced the staff to have the students in our workplace.

Strategies that Made the Relationship Work

The main reason the students are successful in our workplace is the assistance of the Bridges staff. They provide initial information and guidance about particular students as well as initial assistance in getting the students situated. They work with us to assess the job requirements and the students’ skill level so that a good match can be made, resulting in tasks at which the students can excel.

A strategy we found effective was to bring the students in on a trial basis. Not only did this give the students time to become acclimated to their new jobs, but it also enabled the other employees to accept their presence. In fact, we made sure that the other employees were involved in decision-making related to student assignments and that their views were considered in evaluating the effectiveness of the matches of the students to their tasks.

Finally, because Bridges staff are available to the students and the employer, there is help to mitigate some of the external influences that challenge the students and ultimately affect their work. Bridges staff can make referrals to necessary external services and can act as intermediaries between the students’ families, the schools, and community resources.

Evidence of Success

Two young men in the program began working with us while they were still in high school. They have finished school and now work at the institute. One man has worked at the institute for almost two years. This represents potential longevity in their positions that will benefit the institute. They are evaluated the same as other employees, and they identify and chart their progress and personal goals for job improvement as part of the institute’s evaluation process. These men are helping us learn how to map out their tenure with the organization. They are challenged to do good work, and we are challenged to continually elevate their work assignments.

It is remarkable is to see young people find their voice and advocate on their own behalf. For example, it is very gratifying to see them seek out human resources personnel to talk about job issues affecting them. As they mature, it is obvious to us that they will be good employees in any future work environment. Sometimes little things like seeing them in a crisp shirt and tie gives me a good feeling that they are growing as employees and as responsible people.

Expanding the Relationships

Since bringing these men into the institute, I have become active in the Bridges Business Advisory Council and am currently the co-chair. This group exists to provide the program with employer perspectives. Our activities include providing feedback and technical expertise on making contact with businesses, providing mock interviews for students as they prepare for the job search, and promoting the program to other employers. We meet six times a year and participate in a number of other activities between meetings. For example, we have sponsored breakfast recruitment meetings to inform employers about the program and its potential benefits. We have also developed the Youth Experience Series (YES), which offers training sessions designed to give students skills in goal setting, résumé development, and other job success skills. Job shadowing experiences often accompany these sessions.

Ultimately, the members of the Business Advisory Council want to expand the impact of Bridges for both youth and employers. We are working to influence more companies to consider the benefits. It is often difficult to find a good match in hiring. It is important to find someone who has the appropriate skills, to keep them performing at a high level, to increase their skill level over time, and to make sure that burn-out does not occur so they remain productive members of the organization. We have been able to reach these goals in the institute’s Fulfillment Center. Involving youth in our workplace through the competent and responsive help of programs like Bridges is a win-win situation.

John McIlveen is the Director of Human Resources and Administration at the American Institute of Cancer Research in Washington, DC. He is also co-chair of the Business Advisory Council of the Washington, DC Bridges…From School to Work program of the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities.

Table of Contents

Cover Page


Publish or Perish: Macworld Magazine by Shelly Ginenthal

Reaching Out to Youth: Microsoft Corporation by Mylene Padolina

Boosting the High Tech Workforce: Kennedy Space Center, NASA by Cassandra Black

Finding Premium Volunteers: Port Discovery by Leah Burke

Investigating Human Resource Options: American Institute for Cancer Research by John McIlveen

Manufacturing & Production Technician Youth Apprentices: Generac Portable Products Corporation by Bob Hurd

Infrastructure for Success: Kemtah Group, Inc. by Keith Harris

Quality Products, Quality Employees: Medtronic Physio-Control by LaDrene Coyne

Searching for a Reliable Workforce: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center by J. Erin Riehle

Keeping Stock of Personnel Needs: Safeway by Grace Louie

Brokering Achievement: Old Colony Insurance Service, Inc. by S. Brooks May, Jr.

Summary & Conclusion

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Citation: Luecking, R., Ed. (2004). Essential tools: In their own words: Employer perspectives on youth with disabilities in the workplace. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternative formats. For additional copies of this publication, or to request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 109 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Drive SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.