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Alabama's FAST project.

Ready. Aim. Fire... Identify. Prepare. Integrate. These are synonymous terms in Huntsville, Alabama. They symbolize both the high tech industries surrounding the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center and the approach those industries are using to recruit and employ people with disabilities. Recruiting from a qualified applicant pool is not something that happens by chance in Huntsville. Employers have come to rely on their partnership with the FAST (Future Assets, Student Talents) Project to meet their human resource needs.

The FAST Project was initiated by the Vocational Rehabilitation Service of the Alabama Division of Rehabilitation Services and the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities more than 7 years ago. The idea for FAST was based on the High School/Hi Tech Program in California that provided disabled students with early exposure to professions in the science and technology-related fields. This early exposure from the employers, encouragement from school systems, and support from Vocational Rehabilitation Service has proven to be the motivation that many students who have disabilities need to further their education and seek employment in professional jobs.

The Premise

FAST is based on the belief that students with disabilities can become highly educated and trained professionals to compete in the work force. This is based on the conviction that barriers to work can be broken down by exposure to interesting and diverse careers; support, encouragement, and advice from professionals who provide shadowing opportunities; and collaboration by agencies affecting the student's postsecondary education opportunities.

Career Opportunities

As the 21st century approaches, it is becoming more obvious that the labor market demand for high technology professions like engineering is increasing at a faster rate than the supply. Nevertheless, according to a report by the President' s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, engineering is exceeded only by teaching as the largest profession. Additionally, employment in fields related to computers and electronic components is expected to increase by 12 percent in the next decade.

Concurrently, the mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act and ensuing disability awareness will alter the prevailing attitude towards people with disabilities in the workplace. More than any time in history, employers are recruiting qualified applicants with disabilities to fulfill the human resource needs in their companies.

The Impetus

While in high school, FAST students are paired with different business and industry groups that provide career exploration and hands-on job experience through (1) jobsite mentoring and shadowing, (2) industry tours, (3) summer employment, (4) co-op opportunities, and (5) scholarship offers. "The most important thing that FAST activities show the students is that they have a choice," said Project Coordinator Melody Goforth. "They are not limited anymore to some preconceived career category. They can achieve and work in any career. The activities open up a new world for them."

One of the most successful and positive activities offered by FAST is the Mentor Program. This program matches professionals with FAST students for one-to-one social and career exploration. Approximately 70 percent of FAST's current mentors are professionals with disabilities. Successful Mentor Program matches tend to result from the careful review of professional and student hobbies, talents, personalities, and work interests. Students may more readily relate to these mentors because of the special care taken in determining these matches. Often, mentors act as caring listeners and help students resolve personal/social problems as well as provide career information.

The Professional Shadowing Program also matches students with professionals. This FAST activity provides students with two different shadowing experiences each year. The student spends a few hours in the professional' s work environment learning job duties and gaining a better understanding and awareness of the career. In many cases, the shadowing opportunity demonstrates to the student that job accommodations are achievable. Often, students found that a career that was assumed to be impractical because of a physical limitation was actually easily accommodated or, through actually performing specific tasks, found that no accommodation was needed.

Industry tours and summer job opportunities heighten awareness of different career opportunities, and co-op opportunities lead to gainful employment for many students. Consequently, the activities provided through the FAST program expose, motivate, encourage, and prepare talented students with disabilities for college and professional employment.

Collaboration is the Key

The partnership and linkages of businesses, vocational rehabilitation, schools, community organizations, and volunteers are the keys that open the door to opportunity for more than 60 FAST students each year. Companies like Martin Marietta, NASA, IBM, and AVEX Electronics provide contributions and in-kind support amounting to some $40,000 each year, while the United Way funds part-time Coordinator Melody Goforth's salary. From the onset, FAST has been a team effort. "Everyone feels that this is their program," stated Ms. Goforth. "that' s okay with me. I think that's how we keep moving and surviving. People support things they help create, and everyone is benefitting at no great financial cost to anyone... that's the beauty of FAST."

"The most important thing that FAST activities show the students is that they have a choice."

Ms. Palmer is Communication Coordinator, Division of Rehabilitation Services, State of Alabama Department of Education, Montgomery, AL.
COPYRIGHT 1992 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:AMERICA 2000; Future Assets, Student Talents
Author:Palmer, LynnAnn
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Previous Article:Community resource utilization in rehabilitation: the shape of the future.
Next Article:Approaching Equality: Education of the Deaf.

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