The Adult Special Education programs of Douglas College
By Jean Manky, Contributor
Self-confidence. It’s something we’re all encouraged to possess, but which most of us are lacking—especially when we’re preparing for job interviews, or applying to a program that gets thousands of applications and only accepts 22 applicants. As a recent high school graduate said to me the other day, “believing in yourself is a poor substitute for straight-A’s on a grad certificate. “
Steven Cayer remembers taking his first post-secondary course in psychology, and the sinking feeling of falling behind. Having cerebral palsy and a speech impairment, Cayer always had a support worker to help him in high school—not so when he first arrived at Douglas. Navigating public transit in his wheelchair was difficult, but keeping up with assignments was nearly impossible. He was ready to give up when he found out about Douglas College’s Career and Employment Preparation program, one of the many programs the college offers for people with special needs or barriers to employment.
The Adult Special Education (ASE) programs at the New Westminster campus offer a thriving selection of courses. Basic Occupational Education (BOE) provides hands-on training in electronic and general assembly, food services, and retail and business services.
Consumer and Job Preparation teaches students with developmental disabilities about the world of work. Here, they can find further training, learn about the importance of volunteering, and develop basic social and personal skills. It also gives the students three separate work placements, so they can discover for themselves where their interests and abilities lie.
Donna Lowndes heads the Career and Employment Preparation (CAEP) program, the one Cayer took. “It’s not about skill acquisition like the other programs; it’s about gaining familiarity with the workplace,” she says. Here, students consider what they want to do, what they’re able to do, and what they need to learn in order to work in their chosen field.
Lowndes says that students often come into the program thinking they know exactly what they want. She remembers one young woman who loved baking. She’d finished high school, spent all her free time baking and decorating, and was determined to become the next Cake Boss. So the instructors got her in a location where she helped decorate cakes. At the end of the first week, Lowndes got in touch with the bakery where the woman was being trained and found out that they loved having her there. They wanted to hire her as soon as she got her baking certificate. There was only one problem: when Lowndes met with her to give her the good news, the student said she hated the job and the picky, complaining customers, and she never wanted to do that work again. Lowndes convinced her to finish her second week and get the valuable reference, but says that because of the experience, the woman saved herself a ton of time and money in a baking program she likely wouldn’t have enjoyed.
Many don’t change their minds so dramatically, though. Niki Grunenberg, a mature student, has never wavered in her desire to work with disadvantaged youth. She struggled all through her elementary and high school years with ADD and other learning disabilities. Fourteen years ago, she took college courses towards becoming a youth worker, but had to give up because they were too hard for her. She started working in retail, but never enjoyed it. In 2010, she started the CAEP program and unexpectedly discovered that—as the oldest member in the class and the only one with a longstanding job—the other students saw her as a role model. This reinforced Grunenberg’s determination to follow her dream to work with youth. With Lowndes’ help and that of Davi Bachra, instructional facilitator with CAEP, she was able to get the resources she needed and is now working towards her diploma in the Youth Justice program at Douglas. She’s also finally working in a job she loves, at an emergency group home for teens.
Lowndes says that all the assignments in the CAEP program “are geared to the objective of leaving the program with a career plan.” Some students will go straight into a job and some will go into a regular college program or other vocational training. “A small portion will feel that they’re not ready for either of those, so we’ll get them started in a volunteer position to develop essential skills and stamina as they work their way forward. We always make sure that students who leave our program have some kind of a connection when they exit.”
A while back, Rachel wanted to take the Early Childhood Education diploma program, but lacked the English requirements to get started. She came to the Adult Special Education department asking for help. She had a learning disability and struggled with English, but she knew that she wanted to work with kids. Instructors helped her get settled in at Kwantlen, where she finished the assistant program under the umbrella of special education. She was hired full-time as a relief worker for about two years, until licencing changed. She came right back to Douglas’ ASE for help. Lowndes says, “We got her some testing and found that she was just at that English level where she could take her ECE with some support, and that’s what she’s doing now.” She’s also working part-time in the field and making $20/hour.
Over a thousand employers have become involved in the work experience training. Daycares, veterinary offices, municipalities (grounds keeping services), restaurants, retail stores, and many more businesses have been working with them. ASE has ongoing connections with Winners Merchants, TD Canada Trust, Canada Safeway, Home Depot, Old Spaghetti Factory, Cadex Electronics Inc., Office Depot, Tri M Systems, and 3M Touch Systems, to name a few.
So what happened to Cayer after his painful introduction to college-level psychology? He visited Lowndes and the staff at CAEP and found help discovering what he wanted to do, how to get there, and how to prepare for a job interview. Cayer says, “They were cool; they helped me build my résumé and get the support I needed. They gave me confidence.” Today he’s taking two writing courses and he’s just been promoted to a senior columnist position at the Other Press, where he regularly writes reviews on movies and games. He’s not sure what he’ll be doing in the future, but his dream job is to be a graphic video game designer.
Grunenberg also has big ambitions for her future: “My dreams are to be a foster parent and travel to Africa to work and volunteer there. I would love to work in a rehabilitation centre for child soldiers, which is one reason why I took the Youth Justice program.” Like Cayer, she says, “the most important thing Career and Employment Preparation gave me was confidence.”
It’s no empty positive thinking spiel the Adult Special Education programs are pumping into their students. Lowndes says it’s always a rude awakening after the first work experience when the students encounter hard work and exhaustion at the end of the day. But the overwhelming support the students receive both in the classroom and as they begin their job training makes it possible for those who commit themselves to the program to possess a confidence that’s well-founded.