Imagine being a parent of a child with a disability. One of the greatest fears would be the thought of what happens to the child if they lose the support of the family they depend on. Are they going to be able to find a job? Are they going to be able to get a place to live? Are they going to be able to take care of themselves?
According to the 2010 census, more than 38 million people have what is considered to be a severe disability in this country. A severe disability is one that hinders functional, day-to-day activities. These disabilities can also harm one’s ability to find employment, build and maintain relationships and speak out for your needs.
Disabled students in California have the ability to stay in high school until the age of 22. At that point however, they leave the structure of the classroom for the chaos of the modern world. Many of the students leave high school having learned the facts needed to graduate but not having the skills necessary to find work. The Disabled Students Programs and Services teach people with disabilities the skills they need to live independently.
“In high school they are not adults,” said Barbara Anderson, instructor for the DSPS. “We are trying to provide them a college opportunity like their peers that will provide them as much independence as possible for the rest of their lives.”
As part of the School of Continuing Education on the edge of Fullerton College’s Campus, the program has been educating students on everything from word processing and self-advocacy to even more basic tasks for most people like cooking and paying bills.
The program originally started at Cypress College in 1977 and expanded to the Wilshire Center near Fullerton College in 2008. The North Orange County Community College District and the Regional Center of Orange County, which provides services for people with disabilities, jointly fund the program of over 600 students.
Much like any college, the goal of the program is to teach disabled students the skills they will need to be able to support themselves on a daily basis. This includes everything required to find and keep a job: learning how to get around with public transit, communicate with others at work and dealing with expectations from bosses.
The program has worked to find places for the disabled students to learn these skills with actual on-the-job training at places around Fullerton College. The DSPS has partnered up with the Child Development Lab, the library, the cafeteria and the Horticulture Center to provide volunteer opportunities.
Every Friday, Manny Gamboa and Jesse Mosquesda make the walk across campus to the Horticulture Center to do their weekly volunteer work. They are accompanied by Josh Feaster, a job coach for the DSPS who works alongside them to promote the work habits that will be required of them to find a job.
Manny and Jesse, both with undiagnosed disabilities, have been volunteering at the Horticulture Center for the past three semesters. They have been helping out each week with planting seeds, transplanting plants into bigger pots, labeling plants for sale and other odd jobs that the center needs help with. On this Friday they were transporting plants to the shade house and sorting plant trays that were not in use.
While not the most glamorous of jobs, working in the Horticulture Center has become a highlight of the pair’s week. It is an opportunity for them to interact with people outside of the bubble of the DSPS and the program has been happy with their help.
“We have adopted them and they have adopted us,” said Diane Komos, a lab tech in the department.
Komos raved about what a help they were with the department’s Tomato Sale last March. They had over eight thousand plants on sale, all of which had to be planted, grown, sorted and labeled.
She also spoke of their interest in learning about plants. On this day, she showed them how the pump works to add fertilizer to the water they give the plants.
“Their [Manny and Jesse] productivity and confidence has improved tremendously,” said Feaster. “They wish we were there longer each week.”
Jesse and Manny have also picked up a green thumb in their own time. Both of them picked out a couple of tomato plants that they wanted to plant at home. Komos explained to them the differences in the various species of plants and the different needs each one requires to grow to their full potential.
While they have learned a lot in their time with the Horticulture Center, there are still challenges with their ability to complete some tasks. When they were sorting out planter trays for storage, some of the trays had different patterns on the bottom and both had trouble sorting out the differences between them.
Working with his hands has extended to other areas of Jesse’s life. He learned from his father how to replace brakes and tires, change oil and other skills that would allow him to find work as a mechanic. When the class heads to the library, Jesse can often be found with a manual on how to pick up new auto skills.
“They like to feel important, they like to be useful and they like to show that they can be useful,” said Anderson. “I asked Jesse to spray the door to clean it and he shined the chrome around the doorknob. That’s how thorough he was.”
Manny’s father owns strawberry fields and while it would seem like a natural fit for him to work there, he wants to find a job outside of his family. In the past, he worked in the FC cafeteria cleaning tables and has shown proficiency with cooking and knitting.
“Manny has come a long way,” said Anderson. “He had big time anxiety when he came her five years ago. He deals with things much better, he’s calmer. He used to get mixed up a lot more.”
Feaster said that working in the Horticulture Center has made Manny and Jesse the envy of their classmates and as they finished for the day, they were eager to show off their new plants.
Kevin VanMatre and Wesley Macias have been working since the summer with the Child Development Lab School on campus. Both are in their early 20’s and both have cerebral palsy. Every Friday morning they come into the lab with Feaster and help clean up after the children’s breakfast, then work on whatever odd jobs the lab has for them.
“They clean windows, clean tables, raking but also they join us during the morning meeting time and we sing songs with them,” said Karin Pavelek, a lab tech at the Child Development Lab. “It’s like they are a part of our classroom community. Having children with disabilities as well as adults with disabilities gives us a true diversity.”
After breakfast they talk for a bit with some of the kids at the school about Halloween costumes. Kevin plans on dressing up as an orange M&M; and Wesley is excited about his costume as Michael Jackson in “Thriller.” Wesley talks about his trip to Oregon later in the week where he will attend a friend’s birthday party.
On this day, the Lab School is preparing for their open house. They ask Wesley and Kevin to rake up leaves that have fallen into the sandbox and onto the walkways. This proves to be a more difficult task than one might imagine.
Kevin struggles with raking leaves into the trash while not picking up the sand with them. Feaster shows him a few times how to use a light touch to just get leaves but Kevin has trouble doing the same.
Kevin and Wesley also have trouble remembering the steps in the job they were assigned. After Feaster makes a few piles of leaves for them to sweep up, Kevin picks up one pile and then shouted, “done.” When Wesley finished raking up leaves he called for Feaster as he was unsure what to do next.
Despite the challenges, the Lab School workers and the children have enjoyed their partnership with the DSPS. Kevin and Wesley are not the first disabled students to work in the lab. Nancy Castro and David Campos worked there for two years and after their time in the program ended they continued to volunteer there every week.
“Even though the jobs are more manual labor, they feel valued by the public,” said Feaster. “Other students think of the job program as an honor.”
The job program has become an essential part of the DSPS as it helps the students learn the skills they will need after the program ends. In addition to picking up skills that are marketable to an employer, there are also simpler concepts that the students must learn to be employable.
“We work on things like good work habits; coming to work everyday, greeting your co-workers,” said Anderson. “They don’t learn things like you do. You have to actually teach them, ‘when you go to work, say hello to your co-workers.’”
In addition to the job program, the DSPS teaches skills to help every part of an independent life. They teach good habits like exercise and getting enough sleep. They teach every step of how to cook simple meals. Once a month they take the students to the mall and teach them how to read the directory and what the different signs mean.
“I take a lot for granted until we started walking through the mall and started seeing that there are a lot of things that our students wouldn’t understand, like family restrooms,” said Anderson. “They have a family so they didn’t understand why they couldn’t go in there.”
The DSPS allows disabled students to stay in their program for up to five years. It is modeled after the average college tenure and the hope is that at the end the students will be able to transition into a life where they live independent of constant care.
Anderson talked about two of her students that are currently sharing an apartment in Fullerton. She talked about one student that was able to get a job working in the food court at the mall. Of course, not every student is able to successfully make that jump.
Feaster believes that many of the students have not been made to do things independently in their homes lives and this makes it harder to transition them into living independently. Still he sees the improvement that the job program has had on the students he works with.
The DSPS is working to get more job opportunities for disabled students. They have even had people contact them from other Fullerton College offices to see if their students can help out. Despite the help that The DSPS provides for disabled students there are many more waiting to get into the program.