Learn How Internships for People with Disabilities Can Transform a Workplace

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The busiest time of day inside the mailroom of a UnitedHealthcare office outside of Houston is 10:30 a.m., during the daily UPS delivery drop-off. But that’s when Timothy Hinson is in his element, expertly using the postal machine while sorting and sending the packages and mail.  

He works here as an intern coordinated by Project SEARCH, which provides a robust school-to-work experience for 18- to 21-year-olds with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). With this internship, Timothy has found an opportunity to not only help his team but plan for his future.

“I want to learn how people get jobs,” Timothy said. “And how to make resumes, how to interview … and how to dress up for interviews.”

In Sugar Land, UnitedHealthcare works with the local school district to bring the best candidates on-board for year-long internships. But the Project SEARCH program, which exists in more than 400 workplace sites internationally, is about more than securing a job. For these interns, it’s a complete immersion. There’s on-site classroom instruction, job coaching and skill-based training. And they are not treated as “separate” from the other employees, but rather embedded into teams, in order to gain the social skills that will help them with future employment.

“It is a big step for our students to come here,” said Sandy Needler, rehabilitation employment manager for the Sugar Land site, who coordinates the Project SEARCH internships. “It takes a lot of courage. But the person you see at the end of the year is someone you might not recognize from the beginning of the year.”

The need to break down these barriers to employment for people with disabilities is acute. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the 2018 unemployment rate for people with a disability was 8%, more than twice the rate (3.7%) of those without a disability. What’s more, people with disabilities face other challenges with employment. They are more likely to work part time and, on average, they earn less than individuals without disabilities — at every level of education. 

To make sure the interns are as prepared as possible, Sandy works with Luquina Jones-Bates, technical operations manager for the Sugar Land site, to help the new interns settle in and get acclimated, while serving as mentors for the young men and women.

Laquina said working with Timothy has been a truly positive experience.

“Timothy is amazing,” she said. “His energy is so awesome. My team loves working with him. He goes and does things on his own, and then I’m like, ‘Gosh, we were just about to ask you to do that.’”

Internationally, about 70% of Project SEARCH interns are able to find employment from more than 400 workplace sites. Of the 28 interns who have participated at the Sugar Land site through 2017, 19 have found competitive employment.

“That’s part of that transformation,” Sandy said, “going from being a student on a campus to being an employee in a workplace.”

UnitedHealthcare’s commitment to Project SEARCH also extends beyond job skills. Interns learn about healthy living through the Health Matters curriculum, which was donated by UnitedHealthcare to more than 400 Project SEARCH sites around the country. Health Matters is a toolkit for people with developmental disabilities to learn more about wellness and nutrition. It gives each intern a roadmap for taking control of their own health and living a healthy life.

“Through Health Matters, we are able to take healthcare to a place that the Project SEARCH interns can grab onto and understand, and incorporate into their lives,” said Jillian Hamblin, chief operating officer for the Community Plan of Texas. “That includes having a job, and advocating for yourself. And these are not mutually exclusive. You need to find a pathway into adulthood that includes all of these things.”

The Project SEARCH experience has not only been transformative for the interns, but for the entire Sugar Land office, which has made it a priority to learn just as much from the interns, as they learn from their experience.

“Our culture has significantly improved. Through Project SEARCH, we’ve really been able to tap into that compassion and walk with the individuals we serve,” Jillian said. “We have seen improvements in how our call scripts are being developed. Now we have more hands-on experience in how we’re working with and talking to individuals with different abilities.”

The UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Texas has also hired former interns as full-time employees, recognizing the value they bring to their teams. Billeh Tubea is a fulfillment clerk who was a 2015 Project SEARCH intern. He was hired full time the following year and said the experiences that he had in his internship have served him well.

“My weaknesses build right up to my strengths,” Billeh said. “To be … proactive, and a fast worker, and a go-getter.”