Tags: Education, Featured Story, Special Needs
Photos courtesy Mahea Maui, Taft College Foundation
The town of Taft, with its population of fewer than 10,000 residents, isn’t an area always associated with international acclaim. However, Taft College’s dedicated staff will take the stage at the Zero Project Conference hosted in Vienna, Austria, this February to present what’s working well, how differently-abled individuals are exceeding expectations, and the ways in which the school’s Transition to Independent Living (TIL) Program is making a lasting difference.
Conference participation within this renowned group is an incredible honor that underscores the importance of the program’s approach to guiding its participants into all that awaits beyond classroom doors: full lives that include employment and positive contributions to Taft, family, and society.
About the Conference: What’s Happening in Vienna
The Zero Project’s mission is “working for a world with zero barriers.” The Essl Foundation, a philanthropic legacy-based group, funds related work which is focused on “finding and sharing models that improve the daily lives and legal rights of all persons with disabilities.” The Zero Project designates its current efforts according to topics selected from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Past themes have included employment, accessibility, and inclusivity in areas like politics and education.
The conference in Vienna will take place at the United Nations Office, with an audience comprised of experts who serve students with disabilities through research, teaching, and policy branches throughout the world. Best practices are shared among the conference’s 600 by-invitation-only participants from more than 70 countries.
Sheri Horn-Bunk, Executive Director, Taft College Foundation and TIL Program Director Aaron Markovits will share the success they see through their students and learn from peers who are also working to make communities more inclusive.
About the TIL Program: What’s Happening in Taft
Taft College’s TIL Program is a two year post-secondary experience for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Life skills like budgeting and basic finance, cooking, housekeeping, personal wellness, and conflict resolution are examples of what they learn inside and outside of the classroom.
“What makes the TIL Program unique is its residential component. There are very few like it in the country, where students actually move in and live on campus for the first year then move off campus for their second year,” explained Markovits. “The goal is for students who haven’t had the opportunity to be successful in their own place in the past to gain the skills they need.”
The program takes applications year-round and consists of 22 months of guided instruction. Varying levels of peer and staff involvement correspond with students’ increasing abilities to care for themselves through a combination of in-class instruction and practical application. Markovits describes the curriculum as a paradigm that “builds on itself” to help students adapt. There are also days off-site to help with real-world situations like navigating the grocery store and accessing public transportation.
Making success possible
Although there isn’t a formal cap on attendees’ age, the average TIL Program student is within the typical college student range, 18 to 25. Participants in their 40s have also attended and benefited from the skills they hone through participation. Although the TIL Program isn’t an academic program in itself, some students also enroll in other classes and all are encouraged to meet with a counselor to declare an education plan. All students participate in a paid internship, too.
“What also stands out about the TIL Program is that students complete a vocational assessment for feedback on what they’re good at, so they can use that to determine what sort of career they might want to pursue,” said Markovits.
The program started in 1995 with funding from Kern Regional Center, which continues to make students’ success possible. Participants across the autism spectrum or with other cognitive or physical disabilities are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Students also must have a personal income equivalent to the minimum rate for independent living according to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) standards. They are also required to be able to care for themselves without attendant care and cannot have a criminal record or history of violence, among other requirements. Although the staff ratio is three to one, there is no 24/7 supervision on-site; instead, students must have the ability to care for themselves without direct intervention in non-emergency situations.
Students begin their first year with a room of their own on campus. They have a suite-mate and share living spaces but also enjoy privacy within the intentionally-designed living space. They earn grades based on a scale or range for the functional living side that puts into practice what they learn in the classroom setting, with midterms and finals like any other student, Markovits explained. A meal plan is part of that first year’s set-up, as students are not yet expected to have cooking and related safety skills and therefore do not have access to a kitchen.
Housing off campus during participants’ second year, however, presents a different set of challenges, including the ability to cook for themselves, figure out a budget and manage bill pay, including rent paid to Taft College. Two to four students share a rental home.
Horn-Bunk describes the living situation in Taft as a unique one, given that the students are known around town and often describe feeling safe, valued, and able. Those comforts are aspects of life she hopes they encounter in the areas where they choose to live after completing the TIL Program.
“It’s a really different set-up here, because people drive out from all over the state and they look around and west Kern County seems quite rural,” she said. “It might take people some time to see that this community is really accepting of them but that’s what we have here. Everyone in town knows the TIL Program students.”
Although the students are certainly known in Taft, Horn-Bunk describes participants as “California’s hidden population,” a reference to the fact that more could be done to help them integrate within their own communities, schools, and professional settings.
Horn-Bunk sees the value of each individual through her work as executive director, an informed viewpoint that has led her to co-author what’s known informally as “The TIL Bill.” The document points out that 22 percent of the state’s population is considered disabled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A public policy consideration Horn-Bunk hopes will receive Senate approval, it not only outlines the program but also challenges other schools and communities to come up with their own version of transitional independent living based on a model that has been proven optimal, and now has international recognition.
Horn-Bunk and Markovits agree that the ways in which students succeed after completing the TIL Program stand out within national statistics about the general underemployment of individuals with disabilities. A 10-year survey allows the directors to track how students are doing for the decade after program completion, including if they’re continuing their studies and where they’re working.
Checking in with students once each year has revealed that 17 percent of students attend community college classes or training programs and 75 percent of graduates work in some capacity. All earn at least minimum wage, with some at high rates of pay.
Statistics vary on the national average for adults with disabilities in the workforce but the Department of Labor estimates that only about 20 percent of disabled adults are consistently employed.
TIL Program graduates are also more likely to have private health insurance and better overall health metrics, including lower rates of smoking.
“When this program started 24 years ago, there was nothing like this around,” said Horn-Bunk. “We measure our success by their success, which is one of the reasons we do the 10-year survey.” Success stories from the program include a student employed at Google and others who have found salaried employment that allows them to live on their own.
Markovits confirmed that inclusivity within work and school settings is becoming more common.
“We’re finally seeing the beginning of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities having more opportunities. It used to be that this segment of our society was severely underemployed, with jobs in just three primary areas: janitorial, food service, and some landscaping. Now, there is a much wider variety of industries and we see people go on to productive career paths that make the most of their unique abilities,” he concluded. “As a society, we’re just now learning how to better serve people but also how they can be most productive and happy. Taft is a small community, but we’re seeing something here that works. Why wouldn’t we want to put that to use in other places?”
Find more information
A tour is an ideal first step for families interested in the TIL Program. Schedule with a staffer and find out more about requirements at http://www.taftcollege.edu/til/.