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Career fair for students with disabilities, special learning plans draws scores to Auburn college

Sun Journal - 5/31/2024

May 30—AUBURN — The first career fair specifically for students with disabilities and individualized education plans drew more than 150 students from over 20 schools to Central Maine Community College on Thursday.

I Belong was the theme of the 2024 Maine Department of Education Youth Summit. A steering committee of disabled students helped organize the fair.

Titus O'Rourke, lead transition specialist with the Office of Special Services and Inclusive Education, said they hope to hold it at a different state community college every year. It is designed a little different than a traditional career fair and aims to show students the avenues that are available to them, she said.

"Career fairs are usually a booth with a lot of papers and swag, and the students go in and collect their booty and brochures and forget about it the next day," O'Rourke said. "What I want to ensure is that I create opportunities to elevate their voice and engage them in career exploration."

Advocate Derek Schmitz spoke at the beginning of the fair, inspiring his peers to support each other, answer questions for each other and celebrate each other's success. He talked about the isolation that some can feel when they think there is no one else like them. He encouraged students to find friends they can relate to, and he tried to instill in them self-worth.

"We deserve to be listened to when we tell someone what we need and how those needs should be met," Schmitz said. "And we deserve to be seen as our full, authentic, disabled self and accepted for it."

Businesses and organizations set up tables around the campus for student to participate in demonstrations. Among them were the U.S. Marine Corps and Jackson Laboratory, an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution in Bar Harbor.

ReVision Energy, a solar company, had a basic electric circuit board and building kits, climate educator Stacy Brown said. Students could put together an electric circuit board to power a small electric car through solar power, while others sorted parts from building kits to go on trucks used at construction sites.

Inclusion and equity are ingrained in ReVision's solar and green energy mission, Brown said. She showed students there are many types of jobs they can pursue in the field of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. It is only a matter of finding the right position, she said.

Joshua Ellis, 16, a member of the steering committee, shared his passion for auto mechanics. The Winthrop High School sophomore said he is a high-functioning autistic individual who has too much energy to enjoy the traditional classroom setting. Working on cars lets him learn with his hands, he said.

Some people doubt his and other disabled people's abilities, but he likes to prove them wrong and many times does, he said.

Lewiston High School junior Jared LeFort, 18, enjoyed the wildlife activities at the Center For Wildlife table. An instructor helped him demonstrate how to handle an injured wild animal. LeFort said he hopes to work there, or somewhere else with animals, after high school.

Camren Dubay of Dirigo High School in Dixfield, who is legally blind, was also a member of the steering committee. Members made several recommendations to better accommodate students, such as having staff wear the same shirt.

He said he joined the committee because he wanted to help and to advocate for his peers.

As one with an individualized education plan, Dubay said he likes the career fair because it helps students with disabilities learn about what type of work or schooling is available to them after high school. He said he hopes to work in information technology after high school.

An individualized education plan creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Students with disabilities and individualized education plans tend to enter postsecondary education or the workforce less frequently after high school graduation compared to other students, O'Rourke said. Her office has been on a mission to incentivize and remove barriers for those students to seek postsecondary education or jobs after graduation.

Investing in students with disabilities and individualized education plans helps get them into the workforce, which is better for the economy and reduces the unemployment rate, she said.

"Ensuring that they have these opportunities, these post-secondary opportunities, to explore from a very young age will allow them to ... believe in their power to belong, in their right to belong — just like their (general education) peers," she said.

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