Finding a job in today's market is tough for just about anyone. For the disabled, it approaches the impossible: Nationally, only 21 percent of adults with disabilities are employed, and at St. Petersburg College, only 12 percent of disabled graduates in 2009 found work.
"I think we can turn that around," said Kelley Ferranti, who heads the college's Student Employment Project. Its goal is to find employment opportunities that match the skill sets, majors and aspirations of graduating students with disabilities.
The program covers all disabilities, from a student who uses a wheelchair to one with autism.
Ferranti treats disabled students no differently than others.
"All my students are just as qualified as any other student sitting in the classroom," she said. "They wouldn't be here if they weren't capable. I never want a company to hire one of my students because they have a disability. I want them to get the job because they are the best qualified."
Many of the students Ferranti works with have never held a job. Many don't believe they can. When Ferranti helps one land a job, her smile is as broad as the student's.
Recently, Ferranti placed a wheelchair-using student in an internship program.
"I'm so excited we got him out of the home. This is only the beginning for him," she said. "There's nothing better to see than a person in a wheelchair who realizes he can."
SPC's Student Employment Project is funded by a three-year, $200,000 grant from the Able Trust in Tallahassee. About 10 organizations applied for the grant. Only SPC and Stand Among Friends, an organization affiliated with Florida Atlantic University, qualified.
"We're a leader in this area," Ferranti said of SPC, "which I think is very exciting."
The sole mission of the Able Trust, a nonprofit public-private partnership, is to create opportunities for successful employment for individuals with disabilities. The trust awards between $1.2 million and $2 million in grants each year.
The grant SPC received recognizes and rewards "the courage … the kind of gumption it takes" for a student with disabilities to go to college, said Susanne Homant, president and chief operating officer of the trust.
"It's not easy to navigate a college campus when you're in a wheelchair. It's not easy to navigate the enrollment process and work with professors if you have a learning disability," she said. "And these are just two of the many disabilities we deal with."
SPC averages 1,300 known students with disabilities each year. Those are the students who disclose to the school that they have disabilities. Many don't disclose. These students have disabilities ranging from autism to hearing impairment and muscular dystrophy. Ferranti helps them with resumes, mock interviews and job searches. She also goes out into the community in search of mentors as well as internship and employment opportunities.
"I am always out there knocking on doors,'' she said. "I attend a lot of chamber of commerce events."
The grant also pays for items such as Demand Response Transportation vouchers or uniforms that students may need to be successful in their jobs.
Already, SPC is ahead of the goals set by the grant, specifically that Ferranti work with 60 students over the three-year period and place 15 students in full-time jobs in the first year. Nine months into the program, she has worked with 96 students and has made 16 placements, though some of those are internships and part-time jobs.
In most cases, the employer is unaware the student has a disability.
"We did a site visit last week," Homant said. "We were very pleased. St. Petersburg College does a wonderful job. They believe every student should have the same opportunity regardless. This will enhance the work they're already doing."