Preparing for work-life as a third-level student

by Una Healy, Ellen Griffith and Karen Mac Allister National Institute for Intellectual Disability, Trinity College Dublin

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“Those who work belong, those who don’t are excluded”
(Hutton 1995)

The underlying principles of the work-life programme on the Certificate in Contemporary Living (CCL) embrace a commitment to the belief that everyone, regardless of ability, has the right to full inclusion in society. Given the fundamental role of work in our society, and recognition that being an employee fulfils an integral social role for most adults, the Work-Life Programme, in keeping with the mission of the National Institute for Intellectual Disability (NIID), aims to equip the students with transferable work and social skills to enable them to participate in the workplace.

Structure of the Work-Life programme at the NIID

Throughout the two years of their studies on the CCL course, students at the NIID are required to undertake 100 hours of work experience. In their first year students study a career development module and undertake 30 hours work experience within the College environment. In the second year a stronger emphasis is placed on work experience and the students are required to carry out a minimum of 70 hours work placement within settings external to the College.

The emphasis on practical work experience reflects current thinking in skills learning, where it is argued that most of us learn transferable work skills on the job or in an authentic work environment. It also reflects trends in third-level and adult education where the emphasis is on gaining experience in the field. For many professional qualifications, students are obliged to carry out placements throughout the entire duration of their studies. This combination of the work experience and the career development module on the CCL is referred to as the Work-Life Programme. The primary focus of this programme at the NIID is to provide students with extensive supported work experience. The structure and ethos of the programme is firmly based on the principles and model of supported employment as extolled by the disability movement of the 1980s and 1990s (Stevens and Martin 1999).

Key features of the Work-Life programme at NIID

The Volunteer Job mentoring initiative
A fundamental principle of supported employment is to provide the students with adequate and appropriate support during their placements (Beyer, Kilsby and Shearn 1997). By adhering to this framework we ensure that all the CCL students have a meaningful and positive learning experience throughout their placements. Currently there are 23 second-year and 13 first-year students on the CCL course. In order to meet the challenge of providing all students with appropriate support, we decided to enlist the help of other Trinity students. We were delighted by the response to our request for volunteers and many students enthusiastically signed up to be job mentors. The staff at the NIID then provided the volunteers with training in the principles of supported employment and methods of job coaching. Student volunteers have reported positively on their experience of participating in the job mentoring initiative. An added bonus of the mentoring programme for the CCL students has been the opportunity to broaden their circle of friends and acquaintances on campus. This, in turn, promotes social integration and more enjoyable participation in college life in general.

First-year students placements on campus
As the CCL course is based in Trinity College, the setting provided the Work-Life programme with an opportunity to take advantage of all the facilities of a large third-level institution. There are several cafés, restaurants, shops, a crèche, gym and numerous offices situated on campus. Trinity staff  responded positively and enthusiastically and all first-year students were able to find suitable work experience placements within the College. This strategy continues to support the first-year CCL students to orientate to and network across the campus.

Corporate partnerships
In November 2008, the Trinity Foundation, in association with Irishjobs.ie, held a business breakfast to promote the aims of the Work-Life programme. The event was hosted by the prominent Irish businessman Denis O’Brien, who has been a keen supporter in championing the Work-Llife programme of the NIID. This event proved very successful and allowed the NIID to build relationships within the corporate and business community in Dublin.

Follow-up meetings with some of these companies has given the staff of the Work-Life programme the opportunity to promote disability and employment rights. Another positive outcome has been that students from the CCL course have been invited to make presentations on the Work-Life programme to personnel and HR managers from a number of businesses and corporations within the Dublin area.

The format for these presentations includes the CCL students delivering a PowerPoint presentation on their work-life profile, which showcases their skills and abilities in the area of employment (see Emma McCormack’s work-life profile in this issue). Feedback from these presentations has been very positive, with a number of people commenting on how useful it was to be able to meet the students, see their work-life profile and engage in informal conversation. This format helps to allay concerns and any preconceived ideas future employees might have about providing placements for people with an intellectual disability. As a result the CCL students have ongoing placements with many companies, including Accenture, Irish Rail, Irish Institute of Chartered Accountants, Starbucks and the Radisson Hotel. Through these contacts the Work-Life programme has also sourced part-time paid work for four CCL graduate students.

Future plans for the Work-Life programme at NIID

Despite the present downturn in the economy and the rise in unemployment, the NIID continues to promote the rights of people with intellectual disabilities to participate in the work.force. The value of work and work experience should not only be counted in monetary terms or enhanced skill acquisition, but also in the benefits to the student’s sense of self worth and self-esteem. Similarly, inclusive employment is of benefit to the wider community and has a vital role to play in reducing the segregation of people with intellectual disabilities by promoting a more tolerant and inclusive society.

In conclusion

What the students have said about their experiences:
I loved working with small children I feel I helped them
(Gina Wilkins, Graduate 2008)

People where I worked were very friendly and made me feel like one of the gang. I liked working there
(Jan Mahon, Graduate, 2008)

I have been working in my job in Today FM for over a year now. I love my job and I save my wages to buy presents for my family at Christmas and birthdays.
(Linda Dumphy, Graduate 2008)

What employers have said:
The experience helped staff to become a better team as they worked together to help the student to fit in.
(Jury’s Doyle Hotel 2007)

One of our guiding principles is diversity in the workplace and the team really enjoyed this element of the work placement. It was a real privilege to embrace the principle.
(Starbucks 2007)

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