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$900k grant will fund research and training to promote neuro-inclusive hiring

Helping young adults with intellectual disabilities succeed in the workplace often has as much to do with those around them as it does with their own abilities.

Supervisors with proper training and support can often mean the difference between positive and negative outcomes for individuals with intellectual disabilities, says Shanna Burke, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.

Burke recently received a $900,000 grant from the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities, that will, in part, be used to develop leadership training for human resource personnel and supervisors whose organizations offer internship or provide job shadowing opportunities for FIU Embrace students with intellectual disabilities.  

“Previous research has shown that some employers have concerns,” Burke says. “These concerns may arise out of a lack of experience as a supervisor to someone with intellectual disabilities. They might perceive that these employees don’t have a sense of job readiness. They may be worried about organizational costs to make accommodations.”.”

So this grant funding will create a leadership training series, led by Dr. Valentina Bruk-Lee and her HealthyWork lab, which will offer support to middle and upper-level management to expand supervisor skills and provide managers with strategies that focus on supporting employees with intellectual disabilities. The team also plans to offer technical assistance to supervisors and human resource professionals.

“People have different mannerisms. People have different ways of social interaction,” Burke explains how those with intellectual and developmental disabilities might behave in ways unlike others. For example, “A supervisor might really expect eye contact [from an employee], but for the person with a disability, that might be something that they struggle with. That might be part of the nature of their disability.”

Recognizing such differences will help a supervisor better understand what previously might have been viewed as disrespect or inattention, Burke explains.

The leadership training will be a new component of FIU Embrace, a university program that offers young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to participate in classes alongside neurotypical peers. Such students also have opportunities to participate in work internships, an important component of the program and one that prompted this grant submission.

Additionally, the grant will support education geared to boosting independent living skills among the target population and will fund universal instructional design models that will help faculty members make the classroom experience more productive and inclusive for all students.

Burke says that a few companies have made hiring individuals with intellectual and development disabilities an active part of their recruiting strategy, among them Walgreen’s and federal home loan giant Freddie Mac. It was reported that in a multi-year study of Walgreens employees those with disabilities had fewer safety incidents, half the turnover rate, and productivity levels equal to or exceeding those of employees without disabilities. Locally, Baptist Health, which partners with FIU Embrace, offers FIU Embrace students internships and has hired students into full and part employment.

“I think a lot of popular media shows that people are becoming more accepting and aware of neurodiversity,” Burke says. And for those still unsure about such hires, she hopes her work will turn them around. “I think part of the issue is simply a lack of knowledge and exposure.”

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