The Harkin Summit: Innovating for Inclusion

Doubling Disability Employment In A Changing Landscape

The 2018 Harkin Summit was preluded with a panel on the role of higher education in advancing integrated employment for people with disabilities. This discussion was focused on what universities and businesses are doing to prepare for students with disabilities to have a more active role in employment around the globe, and using higher education institutions to help bridge the gap in the number of people employed with disabilities around the world.

The program began with Maegan Shanks, the Program Assistant for the International Development MA Program at Gallaudet University. Inspired through her own trip to Costa Rica as an individual with hearing-impairments, she works with Mobility International USA, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of students with disabilities participating in international exchange programs by teaching students how to build confidence, problem solve, effectively communicate, and much more. Mobility International USA now tells the stories of more than 100 individuals with all types of disabilities who have enjoyed international exchange programs, and the organization provides over 200 resources and 100 disability-specific tip sheets to students.

Tara Cunningham, the Chief Executive Officer of Specialisterne USA, shared details of how her organization is helping promote educational opportunities for people with autism.  The organization has found that people with autism have strengths that the world would benefit from if the employment sector included them. Every year, 50,000 students with autism graduate high school, and only 17 percent of those students go on to higher education. After graduating college, 84 percent of those students remain unemployed. Specialisterne USA works with corporations to improve their recruitment pool by expanding it to include people with autism in addition to hosting a Workforce Readiness and Preparation (WRaP) to help students with autism learn the skills they need to find employment.

Wendy Coduti, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling and Special Education at Penn State University, continued the conversation on autism and employment. She discussed WorkLink, a program to help students get hands-on career experience before they leave school, and a course she teaches at Penn State called Employment Strategies for People with Disabilities. This course brings together students of several disciplines to help them understand the challenges and solutions to employing people with disabilities. She pushes students by asking them to recall that they went to school with people with intellectual disabilities from K-12 grades and why that stopped at college.

Kathryn Johnson, the Director of Confucius Institute at St. Cloud State University spoke about her experiences in China working with people with disabilities in higher education. In China, 85 million people are officially disabled in China and only 9 million of those individuals are employed. Johnson and the Confucius Institute work to open doors to understand how to find, train, and hire people with disabilities with the focus on mobilizing knowledge to make connections between research and policy in order to improve outcomes in organizations within the context and culture of China.

Dr. Li Zhiyao, President of Changchun University in Changchun, Jilin Province, China described the increased inclusion in Chinese universities for people with disabilities. With the development of higher special education system promoting employment, the Changchun University’s focus is on comprehensive and practical capabilities for students and innovative curriculum. Now, more than 4,000 students with disabilities have graduated from the university and are professionals in many fields including medical and academic.

This panel brought together a wide range of professionals to help initiate the conversation on including people with disabilities in higher education and employment, serving as an energetic start to the 2018 Harkin Summit.

Written by Alex Hassel