Thursday, 26 July 2012

Ralph on the SEARCH for employment

Ralph Hemus, campaigning for the National Autistic Society, recently hosted a superb radio feature on FromeFM “Our Vision, Our Future” to promote an exciting programme to help young people with learning disabilities find paid jobs in his local area.

Project SEARCH, operating through Bath and North East Somerset Council, combines classroom teaching with practical work experience within the council including schools and partner organisations.

It is a training program for special needs students who have completed their academic requirements but would benefit from a workforce development program that includes employability skills and internships in a local but large business.

Ralph recently gained the job of Admin Officer at the council after his year on Project SEARCH. On his radio show, he introduces teachers and job coaches to talk about the programme, including his own coach Pauline, who spoke of the importance of letting young people with learning disabilities know that “work can be a positive experience”. Ralph also discusses his own experience as an intern, describing the benefits of reduced anxiety and gaining a better idea of what he wants to do through taking part in supported placements. Ralph's show also includes interviews with his fellow students, including 19 year old Chloe, who like Ralph has successfully got a paid job. “I think Project SEARCH helped me out a lot by giving me confidence”, Chloe said of the project, adding that she had not travelled on her own until taking part in Project SEARCH, and that her favourite thing about her new job as a receptionist was the opportunity to meet people.

Gaining paid employment was the unanimous wish of the young people interviewed, and many also emphasised that they wanted to live independently. Described by one of its coaches as “a mixture of fun and hard work”, Project SEARCH aims to make this possible by incorporating job skills and personal independence training with internship experience in a variety of fields, including administrative and clerical work, catering, maintenance support, customer service, and care work with children or the elderly. In order to support the specific needs of young people on the programme, students can access their job instructions in the form of tick lists, prompt cards or photographs as their needs require, and the work experience is supplemented by practical skills coaching.

It was not only the young people who reported good experiences in their involvement with Project SEARCH. Ralph has also worked to promote Project SEARCH to local employers, interviewing employer participants across businesses and services who described the interns as assets to their workplace. Heather Thomas at Keynsham Health Centre encouraged other local and national businesses to offer placements, explaining how helpful the Health Centre’s intern had been at carrying out administrative tasks during a particularly busy time. The Deputy Headteacher at Castle Primary School also spoke warmly of watching interns “really grow in confidence” and emphasised that to employers like her, “the benefits far outweigh any organisation that has to be done”.

Ralph’s guests closed the feature by thanking him for his hard work promoting a scheme that has not only benefited him but has encouraged many other young people and employers. The feature identified ongoing challenges, such as the high rate of unemployment amongst young and especially young disabled people, the lack of infrastructure in some areas making it difficult for interns to get to work and the challenge of changing employer attitudes. Despite these challenges, Ralph and the interns and staff at Project SEARCH have demonstrated that given the right support, young people with autism and / or learning disabilities can truly thrive in employment, bringing great benefit both to themselves and to their communities.

To listen to Ralph’s fantastic radio show online, go to and look for ‘Ralph’s Finest Hour – 2nd June 2012.

For more information on the National Autistic Society’s Undiscovered Workforce campaign, follow this link.

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