After training in occupational therapy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Andy Persch was working as a school-based occupational therapist in neighboring Madison when he noticed that students with disabilities often struggled in adult life after finishing high school. That insight spurred a career change and, ultimately, a free website (VocFit.com) that helps employment support providers match people with disabilities to jobs that provide more than a paycheck.
“I got to experience working with people at all different ages and enjoyed all of that, but saw that, despite all the hard work that we did with children and intervention in the early years, those post-secondary outcomes — education, employment, community participation and living — weren’t great,” said Persch, an assistant professor in Colorado State University’s highly-ranked Department of Occupational Therapy. “The outcomes are poor and the costs of those outcomes are substantial.
“It occurred to me that we need to do a better job of preparing children with disabilities from ages 3 to 21 — all of their childhood — for their adulthood. Because it’s so different, and the data are clear that we’re not doing this sufficiently well.”
Teaming up for a solution
Persch and his research partner, Dennis Cleary, studied at The Ohio State University under the late Jane Case-Smith, editor of well known pediatric occupational therapy textbooks. Cleary is now a senior researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
“I came at it from the school side,” said Persch, who has been at CSU since 2018, “and (Cleary) came at it from the adult services side in recognizing this need. … It was recognizing a need from my clinical practice. Not seeing enough resources or supports available. That’s what got me itching to do scholarship and research in this area.”
As part of OSU’s Transition Options in Postsecondary Settings for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Persch and Cleary helped match participants with jobs.
‘It occurred to me that we need to do a better job of preparing children with disabilities from ages 3 to 21 — all of their childhood — for their adulthood. Because it’s so different and the data are clear that we’re not doing this sufficiently well.’
– Andy Persch
Persch said the program has helped participants who have conditions ranging from autism to Down syndrome to cerebral palsy and many others.
More than 300 such programs now exist around the country, including at CSU. The CSU Center for Community Partnerships offers a program called Opportunities for Postsecondary Success that provides additional support to students with unique challenges.
Launching a website
Taking that knowledge, the pair — along with other researchers — launched VocFit.com, short for Vocational Fit Assessment (VFA), which has garnered more than $2.5 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“It’s showing you what’s a good match and where are the gaps? How might we support someone?” Persch said, adding that the website launched in 2016, and its tools are used by employment support professionals working with special education or vocational rehabilitations settings. “Teachers, therapists, parents, job coaches or anyone inputs data on a person and compares them to a universe of jobs to help them develop employment skills.”
“They can select a job that can help them deliver that. A clerical job in a library is probably not the best job to challenge social skills,” Persch added. “A job in food service or a retail information desk rep might engage those social skills. We see where strengths lie and create opportunities to improve.”
Persch said they hope to keep the website free to use. They’ve received data from more than 9,400 users in all 50 U.S. states and several countries. These users have completed the VFA more than 25,000 times and generated more than 15,000 Job Matching Reports.
Employment support professionals across the country, including those in the Poudre School District, have used the tools developed by Persch and his partners to help their constituents.
“I kind of took it and ran with it. I learned it inside and out,” said Byron Pennington, who for six years has been the Project SEARCH program manager and instructor at a resort in St. Augustine, Florida. “(VocFit) is extremely useful. Everything that we do in our field preparing young adults with disabilities for jobs and competitive paid employment, it’s all data-driven.”
Pennington said David, a 22-year-old with autism who needs extensive support, has become one of many success stories. David can now do tray runs and assists in a restaurant and with banquet servers.
“He progressed so much to the point that we were able to create a customized role and be approved through corporate with Atrium Hospitality and Marriott to be able to give him a job customized to his unique skill set,” Pennington said. “His confidence. Everything (is better). He holds himself in a much more positive manner. He’s become more successful in his home life. He’s become more successful in his social skills and those goals that we’ve been working at developing.”
Beyond VocFit, Persch’s current studies include development and validation of the Pediatric Evaluation of Disability Inventory – Patient Reported Outcome app and an evaluation of virtual supported employment services for people with developmental disabilities in Colorado. These studies are funded by the NIH and National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research.
“Our mission is improving postsecondary employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Persch, adding that videos on the VocFit.com website show some of the impact. (The photos above of individuals who have benefitted from the program are from those videos.)
“From an occupational therapy perspective, employment has so many additional benefits,” Persch said. “Employment is connected to identity and meaning in life, socioeconomics, happiness, health and social connectedness. So, there are lots of good reasons to try to emphasize and optimize employment.”
Pennington said that of the 35 young adults with disabilities in his first five years on the job, 31 have gone on to real, full-time employment. He said the others have gone on to either colleges or trade schools.
“I would recommend any and everyone who is working towards developing a young adult with disabilities, preparing them for employment, to really use this tool to their advantage so that they can be more successful,” Pennington said. “It’s just very simple. Straightforward.”