Colorado State University team launches grant-funded program to support workforce development for people with disabilities

Three Colorado State University entities are teaming up to create a program for neurodiverse job seekers in the STEM and agriculture industries – and a grant from Larimer County will help get this novel project up and running.

Individual in a wheelchair holding the reins of a young horse during hippotherapy
An individual in a wheelchair holding the reins of a young horse

Two centers in the CSU College of Health and Human Sciences – the Center for Community Partnerships in the Department of Occupational Therapy and the Prevention Research Center in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies – are collaborating with the College of Agricultural Sciences on a new project called Ram Scholars, aimed at providing direct pathways to meaningful careers for individuals with disabilities in the Larimer County community.

This effort comes after the recommendations from the Colorado Workforce Development Council’s 2021 Talent Pipeline Report to increase access to competency-based, non-degree credentials and to help employers adopt more skills-based hiring. Ideally, individuals enrolled in the inclusive training will be put on the fast track to employment in two relevant sectors in Larimer County – STEM and agriculture.

It begins with a single step

Historically, individuals with disabilities experience much higher unemployment and underemployment rates compared to their non-disabled peers. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic had an immense negative impact on employment opportunities for neurodiverse individuals, particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Additionally, Colorado’s unemployment rate remains higher than pre-COVID levels, and the impacts of low-quality jobs and demands for skilled workers create stress within the labor market.

In an effort to counteract the negative impact the pandemic had on Colorado labor, Governor Jared Polis signed Colorado House Bill 21-1264 in June 2021 which allowed federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to support talent development in the state. This includes funding to invest in programs and grants that support training for the unemployed and underemployed when state unemployment rates are substantial. This led to the creation of the Larimer County Workforce Innovation Grant, designed to help solve pressing workforce challenges by financially supporting innovative pandemic recovery plans in Larimer County. According to the grant, the ideal plan helps build in-demand job skills, connects workers and learners to quality jobs, and/or drives employer engagement in employee development.

With a means of funding in sight, CSU’s team applied for a grant from Larimer County. The Larimer County Economic and Workforce Development team funded 12 proposals and awarded $1.1 million in grants to organizations, including $150,000 to CSU’s team over two years.

Laying the foundation

With funding secured the team could now look at the full scope of what will be possible with Ram Scholars. James Graham, director of the Center for Community Partnerships, notes the team is “not short on goals” for this program.

“Our overarching goal is to provide direct pathways to meaningful careers for those often-marginalized individuals in our community. Tied to that goal is providing local agricultural and STEM employers with potential employees who have achieved fundamental competencies in their respective industries,” Graham said.

Ram Scholars will serve 16 people with an intellectual or developmental disability. This group will participate in foundational career preparation courses, fully integrated CSU courses, and an intensive experiential learning opportunity. Throughout the program, these students will receive individual and group support from faculty sponsors, trained interns, or peer mentors. Thus, in addition to promoting career opportunities for neurodiverse job seekers from the community, the program also provides CSU students with the knowledge and skills to support individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in their future careers.

The College of Agricultural Sciences is excited to be able to provide opportunities for agriculture education students to work directly with neurodiverse learners. High school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities often gravitate to agricultural courses and activities; however, many agriculture education teachers feel they have not been properly prepared to fully support students with learning differences. With the Ram Scholars program, the hope is to better equip future agriculture educators with the skills to aid neurodiverse learners.

“There is nothing better than experiential learning,” noted Kellie Enns and Nathan Clark, program partners within the College of Agricultural Sciences, in a joint statement. “This program will provide avenues to invest significantly in diverse individuals. These relationships will give first-hand experience to prepare future educators better. Through this, they will enter the teaching profession confident of their ability to make an impact with all types of learners.”

In short, this new program can positively impact community employers, individuals with disabilities seeking employment, and CSU students looking to gain real-world experience.

Bringing diverse perspectives

CSU is no stranger to groundbreaking programs centered around promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Deborah Fidler, director of the Prevention Research Center’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Division and Human Development and Family Studies professor, has spent her career advocating for this population, and is also a part of the new grant.

“CSU has been an innovator in the intersection between agriculture, disability, and well-being for decades. This new Ram Scholars program builds on CSU’s remarkable history with the goal of promoting employment and community engagement for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout Northern Colorado,” explained Fidler.

For Graham and Fidler, this project embodies the true intent and tangible impact of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice efforts. According to Graham, too often the DEIJ narrative focuses on what we should do, with a simple checklist approach to documenting success. This team feels the focus should be on why we want to promote DEIJ and the impacts that has on individuals, organizations, and communities. The term ‘return on inclusion,’ or ROI, is used to help people understand that DEIJ is not charity or a simple feel-good activity. Rather, DEIJ is a mutually beneficial strategy that includes people with diverse perspectives, lived experiences, abilities, and values and utilizes those people in pivotal roles in the workforce.

Today, more than ever, organizations and society as a whole need people with the ability to quickly adapt to fluid circumstances and situations. People with disabilities, who must continuously think creatively about how to problem-solve to accomplish everyday tasks, translate into innovative and ‘outside-the-box’ thinkers in the workplace.

“Organizations that embrace neurodiversity experience increased profitability and employee morale as a direct result of lower turnover, better safety records, innovation, and higher productivity among neurodiverse employees,” Graham added.

A chance at independence

From the perspective of people with disabilities, meaningful employment is not just about earning a paycheck. For them, meaningful employment means a chance at independence and an opportunity to become involved in the workforce and improve their overall quality of life. That is what purposeful DEIJ efforts can achieve.

With a dream team of passionate faculty, staff, and students, the Ram Scholars program is aiming high and ready to create a model neurodiversity-to-industry pipeline that will impact the community for decades to come.

The CSU team encourages anyone who is interested in learning more about Ram Scholars, or who would like to get involved on some level, to please contact either James Graham or Deborah Fidler for more details.

The Workforce Innovation Grant is a collaboration between the Colorado Workforce Development Council, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Larimer County, Larimer County Workforce Development Board, and Larimer County Economic and Workforce Development. This project is being supported, in whole or in part, by federal award number SLFRF0126, awarded to the State of Colorado by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Department of Occupational Therapy and Human Development and Family Studies are part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.