They call it the school-to-couch pipeline… let’s partner to end it

By Braden Scheib
When I heard the words “school-to-couch pipeline,” I chose to leave the classroom and work with adults with Intellectual Disabilities and Autism (ID/A) in the community. Job seekers with ID/A are some of the most underemployed people in our society. However, the private school for students with severe disabilities I worked at had several students performing vocational tasks both within the building and in the community. The students who attend that school would have exposure to and instruction with job tasks that was second-to-none, but many would leave school and not find employment. I wanted to make a difference with what were described as less-than-stellar outcomes. I wanted to help end the school-to-couch pipeline. That was in 2013.

On March 10, 2016, Pennsylvania joined the “Employment First” movement for people with disabilities. Competitive, integrated employment should be the first and preferred outcome for Pennsylvanians with disabilities. The human services organization I worked for at the time as an Employment Planning Specialist chose to not renew its sheltered workshop certification, and that decision meant that the program participants had the option to enter a pathway to employment.

Tony works for Giant Eagle as a bakery counter clerk. Earlier this year, a customer commented on his excellent service – which resulted in him receiving a gift card.
In my role, I met with countless people with ID/A and their family members, caregivers, and other stakeholders to explore community-based employment opportunities. I experienced a wide range of opinions and emotions about the prospect of community employment – from all the stakeholders. Often, we would move forward and provide support, but that does not mean myself and my team did not witness palpable skepticism. Outcomes varied by individual job seekers. Some found nearly flawless, sustainable employment. Others experienced attrition and chose to discontinue community employment support/services. Each person I have worked with over the years is a part of who I am today in my role at Mainstay.
Earlier this year Lindsay became Mainstay’s first peer advocate. In her role she supports numerous teams including administration, quality, human resources, advancement & engagement, and more.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). And this October 27 marks five years since the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue. For me, these two events will always be linked.

October 27, 2018, was a Saturday. Cecil, one of the victims, was supposed to start a customized role with his family’s business on Wednesday, October 31. Cecil had aspired to work for his family’s business for as long as most knew him.

I officially met Cecil in 2014, but I knew who he was for years prior. Cecil’s cousin, who led the company, met with us to develop a plan for him to work in the business. He felt that Cecil and other job seekers with disabilities deserved a chance to work. My team started by referring some other job seekers with aptitudes and goals that aligned with the family’s business operations. With those successes, we were working together to make employment plans for more people, including Cecil.

This whole process for Cecil began nearly eighteen months before October 2018. His cousin, the company’s leadership team, and other members of the family were ready to change the script, and we collaborated to identify a customized role for Cecil. Cecil would smile ear-to-ear and shout to me every time he saw me in the weeks leading up to him getting to start working. He would write me notes that were further utterances of his excitement. The shock and pain that I experienced on that Saturday, October 27, and the grief that stays with me, have not been matched – and I hope it never will be.

I still have one of the notes Cecil wrote to me. I hold onto it as a reminder about all the good things that happened before October 27, 2018, and to give me hope when I feel discouraged.

While a case may seem be Sisyphean, my team and I are 100% committed to helping the people we support to thrive in through employment. Please join us in the effort.

Finding sustainable job matches for job seekers with disabilities can be challenging. Despite movements to improve accessibility, Employment Specialists like myself and my team still encounter cases that appear to be Sisyphean. But having seen the workplace culture go through a metamorphosis as we referred job seekers for different roles at a local family business, and knowing that we had removed barriers for one man to work somewhere that was so close to his heart, continues to steel my resolve. I remain on my mission to end the school-to-couch pipeline.

In 2023, NDEAM’s theme is “Advancing Access and Equity.” I know that those ideas are achievable. I have seen how this process mutually benefits supported employees and employers. I also know that it still takes a lot of effort and time to change prevailing mindsets about people with ID/A working alongside their peers who are non-disabled. But we can do it.

Like the proverb states, “It takes a village…” So, I am asking you… if you are an employer or have any connections with employers or businesses in the Pittsburgh region that would like to learn more or meet job seekers with disabilities, please reach out to me (BScheib@MainStayLifeServices.org) or our Employment Manager, John Kuhn (JKuhn@MainstayLifeServices.org).

We look forward to partnering with more Pittsburgh area businesses to advance access and equity of jobs for people with ID/A.

Braden Scheib, Associate Director of Employment Services
412-344-3640 x338