Norman Stromsoy – CEO of DFN Charitable Foundation

In the UK only 6% of people with a learning disability are in any form of employment and DFN Project SEARCH Internship Programme aims to change that figure for the better. The programme is already having huge success in the UK with over 60% of participants achieving their goal of securing paid employment with plans to expand to enable many more individuals and young adults to benefit from our model.

COINS Foundation has committed grants over the next five years to assist the DFN Project SEARCH programme and will also be promoting the Programme within the Construction sector in addition to offering placements at COINS Global.

It all began in 1996, when Erin Riehle was Director of Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department. Erin felt that, because the hospital served patients with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions, it made sense that they should commit to recruiting people from this group. She wondered if it would be possible to train people with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions to fill some of the high-turnover, entry-level posts in her department, which involved complex and systematic tasks such as stocking supply cabinets. As a starting point, Erin presented her ideas to Susie Rutkowski, who was then the special education director at Great Oaks Career Campuses. Erin and Susie formed a partnership that was instantaneous, and together they launched Project SEARCH.

Since its inception, Project SEARCH has grown from a single programme site at Cincinnati Children’s to a large and continuously expanding international network of sites. Project SEARCH’s primary objective is to secure competitive employment for people with disabilities, where there are currently 57 programmes operating in the UK. In June 2018, the DFN foundation entered into a master franchise arrangement with Project SEARCH to deliver programmes in the UK, Ireland and Iberia with plans for significant expansion. The plan is to make DFN Project SEARCH available to everybody with a learning disability and/or autism spectrum condition who might need it.

Despite the number of people with learning disabilities in employment being woefully low at just 6%, research has also shown that over 75% of people with learning disabilities want to be employed. People with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions learn much better when they have the opportunity to complete tasks repetitively over the working week – our aim is to both use this knowledge to assist in the learning process as well as to promote this to other companies to increase awareness.

The programme is an academic year long transition programme for students with learning disabilities who are in their final year of school or college. It is aimed at students whose goal is competitive employment and who need to learn in the context of a prestigious business with a variety of internship possibilities. Interns participate in three department rotations building skills and developing their career paths and are supported by a team that includes their family, instructor and supported employment specialists to create an employment goal. Together the team develops the support the student needs for their successful transition from education to work through extensive practice, continuous feedback and acquisition of skills.

Grace and Laura became friends during their time at Project SEARCH in Cardiff University, after which they both got jobs. Grace works for the Department of Medical Education at Cardiff University as an assistant technician. Her job involves de-rigging the training rooms, restocking the simulation cupboards, cleaning and maintaining training mannequins and creating simulation drugs for students’ practice sessions.

Project SEARCH helped us get confidence to find work. Working in the University gave us the opportunity to learn different tasks. If I didn’t have my job I would be bored stiff, at home on my Playstation 4. I like meeting new people, being welcome and being part of the team.

Grace - Project Search graduate

Laura has a job working in the finance department at Cardiff Council as an administrative assistant processing invoices and payments within the Council’s finance department.

We learned how to get to work on our own. We now save our money for holidays, rent and going out for hot chocolates together! I’m happy to get my own money, I am planning to move out into supported accommodation soon.

Laura - Project Search graduate

The success of DFN Project Search is reliant on a close and successful partnership between; the school or college, host businesses, supported employment agency, local authorities and families. Without this integration, the programme cannot function effectively from start to finish, it’s important that the interns receive the level of support that is necessary to help them to learn and thrive and that paid employment positions can be found on completion.

The DFN Project SEARCH model gives the interns a place to learn and grow to their full potential in a supportive environment. Grace and Laura are now two of 879 young adults employed over 16 hours a week in the UK through a Project SEARCH programme – we are looking forward to helping many more young adults like them into the world of work.