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Recognizing National Disability Employment Awareness Month

This article was written by I. King Jordan Jr., Disability Programs Consultant at Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year I had the opportunity to take part in an excellent Disability Mentoring Day event sponsored by Bender Consulting. Attendees included previous mentees, current mentors and numerous supporters.  There were activities that brought together students and employers for informal sessions about career opportunities and mentoring with volunteers at public and private places of employment. One statement at the beginning of the program resonated with me. Joyce Bender, founder and CEO of Bender Consulting said, “We don’t need a disability employment awareness month—we have plenty of awareness. What we need is a disability employment month!”

In one way, Joyce Bender was absolutely right. We certainly need more jobs for people with disabilities. In another way, we still do need more awareness. There are many barriers that must be overcome in order for people with disabilities to achieve jobs.

One of the most important barriers is the lack of knowledge of what disabled people can do. Too often the focus is on the disability—what a person cannot do, instead of what that person can do. Negative attitudes about people with disabilities and ignorance about their abilities too often prevent a genuine interview, much less a job offer.

In 1990 the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed promising greater access and employment for people with disabilities. It was an exciting time and many of us looked forward with anticipation to the positive changes that would result from this very important law. We have been seriously disappointed.  The employment rate of people with disabilities has barely ticked upward in more than 30 years since the passage of this landmark legislation.

The board and leadership of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation are very much aware of the statistics that show how adults with disabilities are much more likely to be unemployed than those without disabilities. The Foundation is committed to supporting programs that will help people with disabilities achieve educational success and ultimately employment. Some of the grantees supported by the Foundation serve children in school programs, from preschool through college. Some of the grantees serve young adults and help them acquire first jobs or serve young adults who are employed.

While we can see progress among our grantees, it is clear that there is much more work to do in order to lower the unemployment rate of people with disabilities and help support the ultimate goal of parity between the employment of people with and people without disabilities. It will be good to focus on national disability employment. Focus on jobs, not just awareness.


For more information about the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s work in funding programs for people with disabilities, click here.

A Recipe for Success, Part 2

In honor of National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month, we bring you the second in a two-part series on the Johnson Scholarship Program. Now in its 26th year, the program provides scholarships for students with disabilities and a network of support services to enhance student success.

Research shows that there is a great gap between educational expectations and reality for students with disabilities.

A 2006 National Longitudinal Transition Study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Institute of Education Sciences showed that 85 percent of youth with disabilities plan to complete some form of post-secondary education (26 percent expected to complete a post-secondary vocational, technical or trade school; 34 percent expected to graduate from a two-year college; 25 percent expected to graduate from a four-year college). However, the same study also indicates that only one in 10 of these students actually complete any sort of post-secondary education (5 percent graduated from a post-secondary vocational, technical or trade school; 4 percent graduated from a two-year college; 1 percent graduated from a four-year college).

Group of students pointing towards Disability Resource CenterThe Johnson Scholarship Program helps to narrow the gap between expectation and attainment. Data kept by Florida Atlantic University finds that 66.1 percent of the students receiving at least one scholarship disbursement have graduated and another 20 percent are still enrolled in post-secondary education. The role of the Disability Support Services (DSS) office in helping students through this process cannot be overstated.

The good work of the DSS in delivering the scholarship program to students is enabled by its partnership with the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and the Florida Board of Governors’ office. The scholarship program depends upon a unique collaboration among the philanthropic, higher education and legislative sectors.

State university system of florida board of governors logoThe Board of Governors Office performs essential leadership functions. It serves as a liaison between the Foundation and the universities, disseminates information on best practices, and helps to standardize processes. It manages and distributes the scholarship money to the various SUSF schools and it also provides expertise on legislative and policy changes that might affect students with disabilities.

The Board of Governors scales the support of students with disabilities to a state level, providing a greater platform for advocacy and building allies across sector lines in Florida. Such allies are invaluable as students with disabilities graduate from college and pursue employment.

At the heart of the partnership among JSF, the Board of Governor’s Office and the campus DSS is a one-day annual meeting, convened by JSF. The purpose of this meeting is to review the performance of the scholarship program, discuss developments affecting students with disabilities and best practices and opportunities for learning and collaboration. Professionals from outside the SUSF are sometimes invited to attend the annual meeting and speak on issues relevant to students with disabilities and their educators.

Group photo of peopleThe underlying reason for JSF’s mission in education is to facilitate meaningful employment. Unfortunately, there is huge underemployment of people with disabilities, even those with university degrees. According to the Current Population Survey (CPS) data released in June 2017, the unemployment rates for people with disabilities is more than double the rate for people without disabilities. The under employment of students with disabilities has been a recurring topic of discussion at JSF Scholarship annual meetings.

The Johnson Scholarship Program for students with disabilities is based upon a unique working relationship among JSF, the State of Florida, the SUSF and the university campuses, particularly the DSS at each campus. It is this partnership that has made the scholarship program successful. We have repeatedly noted that the real value of the program is in the work of the people involved (rather than the money).

Graphic saying "we're all able to do anything!"The program builds on infrastructure, expertise and resources that are already in place in the state of Florida.  The Board of Governors is the governing body for its 12 state universities and DSS are well established at each campus. The delivery of the Scholarship Program causes additional work for these partners but the incremental cost is small compared to the benefits.

The JSF SUSF Scholarship Program is a proven winner that is easily replicable in other states. The administrative machinery, DSS and a philanthropic sector are already in place. All that is required is an individual or group of individuals to champion the program.

For more information about Johnson Scholarship Foundation, visit

A Recipe for Success

In honor of National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month, we bring you the first in a two-part series on the Johnson Scholarship Program. Now in its 26th year, the program provides scholarships for students with disabilities and a network of support services to enhance student success.

What if scholarships weren’t really about the money?

As a private philanthropic foundation, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation invests to obtain the highest possible rate of return. The return on its scholarship grants is defined by the rate of successful matriculation and completion of post-secondary education.

JSF has learned that scholarships that include wraparound support are more likely to help a student to succeed. Money provides the financial stability and opportunity for post-secondary education, but it is not what gets a student through. Non-monetary supports attached to a scholarship contribute more to post-secondary success than money. This is especially true for students with disabilities.

state university system of florida board of governors logoJSF’s scholarship for people with disabilities attending a school within the State University System of Florida (SUSF) delivers both scholarship and non-monetary support by way of a collaboration of JSF, the SUSF and the Florida Legislature. Scholarships are awarded to students with disabilities who enroll at any one of the 12 SUSF campuses.

The program was founded in 1991. It began with an agreement between JSF’s founder, Theodore Johnson, and the State of Florida, which was expressed by an Act of the Legislature entitled “…The Johnson Scholarship Program.”  This Act provides for a scholarship program for students with disabilities to be funded by JSF. It also provides for a 50 percent state match for JSF grants and charges the Department of Education to administer the program.

Over the past 26 years JSF has made grants exceeding $9 million, which have all gone to student scholarships, together with the state match. However, the State’s commitment to administer the scholarship program has proven even more valuable than its matching funding.

Johnson Scholarship Foundation logoThe Florida Board of Governor’s office and each campus of the State University System form the backbone of a comprehensive student support system, which accompanies the scholarship. This is the secret sauce that makes the scholarship work. The award of the scholarship may capture a student’s attention, but the real magic of the scholarship lies in the mentoring and assistance that goes with it.

This is not to downplay the importance of money. Without it, JSF has no mission and there are no scholarships. Money is assuredly the main course. But it is the secret sauce that enables students to sit down and stay for dinner. And it is the secret sauce that students remember long afterward. Scholarships plus Supports equals Achievement ($ + S = A).

Secret sauce can be defined as the personal, non-monetary support, wrapped around the scholarship. The Disability Support Services (DSS) at each campus plays a critical role. It advertises the scholarship, receives the applications, leads the selection process, makes the award and provides ongoing support to scholarship recipients. JSF believes that the DSS’ ownership and control of this scholarship process and the support that they provide to each student throughout their college careers is central to the increased persistence and graduation rates of students with disabilities on each campus.

inclusion drives innovation posterThe scholarship program provides reciprocal benefits to the DSS offices, one of which is enhanced awareness of disability issues in other areas of the university. Ten of the 12 DSSs surveyed indicated that they use a selection committee to determine scholarship recipients. The selection committees are comprised of faculty and professionals drawn from various university departments. This increases knowledge of the special aspects and requirements of students with disabilities, thus producing allies for these students across campus. Another enhancement of the DSS profile within the university stems from a supplementary matching grant for scholarships that JSF offers to each SUSF campus. The local DSS office typically takes a leadership role in negotiating the grant and advocating for the matching funds within the university and the development office.

The most important reciprocal benefit that the scholarship provides is the enhanced opportunities for students to connect with the DSS staff and services. Eight out of 12 DSS offices report an increase in the use of services because the scholarship has heightened awareness of the office and the services it has to offer.

The enhanced relationship between the DSS and scholarship recipient gives the DSS access to the recipient’s academic progress. Some schools take advantage of this to determine when they need to offer appropriate guidance, support or to consider or reconsider accommodations. Even the act of applying for the scholarship can help students form social and support networks.

Ability Not Disability Graphic

The benefits of mentoring and support for post-secondary students, particularly those at risk, seem self-evident. Anecdotal evidence abounds. However, there is not much reported research. In Mentoring Individuals with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Review of the Literature, Brown, Takahashi, and Roberts find distinct themes in the research that was available:

Within these 10 articles, however, several themes did emerge, including: a) the positive role of technology; b) the desire to use current mentees to become future mentors; c) a focus on specific disability groups, such as learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, and disabilities perceived as mild; d) the usefulness of mentoring for academic, career, and social skills; and e) the value of establishing long-term mentoring relationships.

The DSS at each SUSF campus responds to most of the themes identified by the authors. These offices typically provide adaptive technology, expertise and focus on specific disability groups, academic and social mentoring and long-term relationships. The JSF Scholarship Program also strengthens long-term relationships between the DSS and scholarship recipients. In addition to the annual application and award process, local DSS offices organize recognition events attended by students, parents and faculty. Many times, JSF representatives are in attendance as well.

Next week: Bridging the gap between educational expectations and reality for students with  disabilities.

Focus on Ability, Not Disabilty

Every year in October the country observes National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).  Each year NDEAM establishes a theme and this year that is “inclusion works.”   The notion that inclusion does work speaks directly to what we do at the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Twenty of our grant recipient partners are programs that support various aspects of inclusion for people with disabilities along the entire age spectrum.  We know from working with these programs that inclusion works.

Unfortunately, too many people do not yet realize or acknowledge this fact.  Too many people have preconceived notions of the limitations that disability presents and not enough awareness of the abilities of those of us who have disabilities.

For me, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is very personal.  As a deaf man and as the former president of Gallaudet University, I have been very close to issues related to disability for more than 50 years.  About 10 years ago I was invited to join the Board of Directors of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and my work with disability issues immediately grew by leaps and bounds.

At the Foundation we think of ourselves as investors.  In the area of disability, we invest in programs that work directly with individuals to help them transition from one level of education to the next and finally to the world of work.  We have learned two very significant things doing this.

First, and this is where disability is highly personal to me, we have learned that the mostpeople shaking hands across a table difficult barrier people with disabilities face is not a physical one, but is the barrier of
negative attitudes.
  Ignorance is a frequently misused or overused word, but related to disability, it is true that by and large most people are ignorant.  Most people, when they think about individuals with disabilities, think first about what those people cannot do.  By doing this, they actually create a barrier which makes it more difficult for people with disabilities to achieve.  When we can focus instead on what people with disabilities can do instead of what they cannot do, it becomes much easier for them to achieve.

The second thing we have learned relates directly to the first.  Over time and after significant investment in scholarships for people with disabilities we now know that while those scholarships are very important in helping people with disabilities access higher education, as important or maybe even more important is what we have called group photo with people wearing name tagselsewhere a “secret sauce.”  Let me describe briefly one of the Foundation’s core programs and the importance of secret sauce.

Since the Foundation began, we have provided over 4,250 scholarships to nearly 2,500 students with disabilities at all 12 of the universities in the State University System of Florida. This totals to more than $9 million of JSF funds granted to these students over the past 25 years. Many of the students who receive scholarship support say that without it they would not have been able to attend university.  Along with the scholarship dollars that they receive, however, is a different and maybe more important support.  They receive the personal support and attention of the staff people who work in the offices of disability support services.  This support is what we have called the secret sauce, but it’s a very simple concept.

The staff people who work in the disability services offices “get it.”  When they see a student who has a disability they focus immediately on what that student can do.  Instead of presenting an attitudinal barrier, their positive attitudes help students succeed.  They help them succeed in class and in life.  They help them persist in their education from year to year and they help them transition to the world of work.graphc reading "We're all able to do anything!"

This is why this is so personal to me.  For most of my life I have had to deal with negative attitudes related to my deafness.  Since joining JSF, I’ve been privileged to help address and change those attitudes for many hundreds of young people.  We at the Foundation have seen so many successful transitions to work, but what has given me most personal satisfaction has been the overall growth in the recognition of the abilities of people with disabilities.

I encourage you to take the time during this month to reflect on your own personal perception of disability. Last week’s blog focused on the fact that we have a long way to go. We definitely do. And change can start with you.