Investing in Arkansas’ Future.

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Getting your first job is never easy. Getting a second one is impossible if you never had a chance at the first. One professor wants to see workplace success for all.

Poverty and disability perpetuate a cycle that further isolates and marginalizes people who have disabilities and come from low-income families. Fewer than one in 10 adolescents with disabilities who receive supplemental security income ever achieve competitive employment.

What does it take to improve the educational and career outcomes for low-income teenagers with disabilities? The U.S. Department of Education awarded a $32.4 million, five-year grant to University of Arkansas researchers and the Arkansas Department of Education to find out.

We call it the PROMISE Grant.

“Most of us in the competitive workplace had a first entry-level job or internship at the beginning of our work lives,” says Brent Thomas Williams, principal investigator for the grant. “That experience, good or bad, was instrumental in our later workplace success. Adolescents who receive Social Security disability benefits typically do not have a first job or internship experience. As such, they remain cut off from the world of work. The PROMISE Grant seeks to provide 1,000 adolescents who have disabilities and receive Social Security disability benefits with their first paid work experience.”

Williams is an associate professor of rehabilitation education and research in the university’s College of Education and Health Professions. He has spent his life training rehabilitation counselors and examining ways to improve the lives of people who have disabilities.

The PROMISE Grant is the first national study to investigate whether a correlation exists between initial paid work experiences and later competitive employment.

“The findings from this research could go a long way toward facilitating the independence and societal inclusion of adolescents with disabilities while reducing the financial encumbrance of the Social Security Administration,” Williams says. “This would benefit not only Arkansas, but the nation as a whole, now and for years to come.”

The PROMISE Grant will provide first-time, paid work experiences for 1,000 low-income Arkansas teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16 who have disabilities and receive supplemental security income. Case managers will also work with youth and their families to coordinate services provided by various state agencies. The teens’ experiences will be compared to those of a second group of 1,000 similar teens who will serve as the control group and will not receive the intervention. Based on the results of the program, four federal agencies may use the PROMISE Program as a model for future programs.

University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart congratulated the university’s College of Education and Health Professions and the state agencies for their collaboration on the research project.

“This grant will give us a significant boost in our goal of becoming a top 50 public research institution,” Gearhart said. “This is a wonderful example of a land-grant institution working with other groups to serve the people of Arkansas.”

University researchers will gather data on participants PROMISE Program and the control group over the course of the five years. The focus of the project will be to develop a model program to assist adolescents with disabilities to become independent adults.

The PROMISE Program is a joint initiative of four federal agencies: the departments of education, health and human services, labor and the Social Security Administration. Its underlying premise is that improved coordination between services can improve outcomes for youth and their families. Its goals also include decreasing reliance on supplemental security income and reducing the cost to the federal government. The grant was submitted through a partnership between the university, the Arkansas Department of Education and other state agencies.

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