Upbound at Work is an outgrowth of Autism Alliance of Michigan, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization, which leads efforts to expand opportunities for people affected by autism. President and CEO Colleen Allen developed the program five years ago along with Chief Programming Officer Tammy Morris. Upbound at Work aims to connect those with disabilities seeking employment to companies so they are able to lead a successful career. Upbound at Work collaborates directly with disability services and career services on the University of Michigan campus.
The program started because companies who had hired an individual with autism often consulted Autism Alliance as mediators for instances where the employee’s job was in jeopardy and about to be terminated. Morris stated often, it was because of something as simple as miscommunication or misunderstanding. Additionally, Autism Alliance’s navigator calling program, that offered free case management to people who reached out seeking advice finding employment, helped launch the foundations of Upbound at Work.
“There were about 300 job seekers just in Michigan, so when we started we already had a base of about 300 job seekers,” Morris said.
Though Autism Alliance is the umbrella organization, Upbound at Work is not limited to assisting just those with autism. The organization maintains corporate contracts and partnerships with companies such as Ford, General Motors and Daimler so Upbound at Work can communicate with recruiters who specialize in helping people find employment. Upbound at Work seeks to bridge the gap between employers and job seekers.
Beyond initial outreach, Upbound at Work helps with the employment process every step of the way. Hetal Patel is one of the communication specialists who works one-on-one with job seekers in order to provide support for various areas, including problem solving, non-verbal communication skills, interviews and interpersonal skills. Patel works with the job seekers to provide an initial consultation and make goals; it is very much an individualized process.
“I enjoy being able to work through the various obstacles individuals seeking employment face and finding sustainable and suitable employment options that allow the use of individual strengths,” Patel said. “Seeing how the support we put in place is beneficial not only to the individual but the entire organization has been rewarding to see as well.”
Kelly Cole is the vocational rehabilitation manager specializing in rehabilitation counseling. As she transitioned from her role as a job navigator with Autism Alliance to helping with employment at Upbound at Work, she was able to work with job seekers to build their skills and strategize with them while also acting as a support network once they were hired. She explained how retention is important for long term growth.
“It’s so unique; everybody is so different,” Cole said. “Every single case is kind of like a brain teaser. It helps me check myself and treat everyone as an individual who wants to live independently and live their own lives. And once I get positive feedback and see the lives that are being changed, I am reminded of why I do what I do."
Such direct services, like professional skills coaching, have been working.
Ronald Larson, professor of chemical engineering at the University, explains the experience his son went through with Upbound at Work. Through his son, Andrew, graduated in 2014 with a B.S. in Computer Science, he had trouble interviewing and adjusting to expectations due to social and cognitive deficits. And after a while, he became discouraged, Larson said.
“Thanks to the help from many kind people, and most recently and especially Tammy and her team, Andrew is on a good track now, and his added confidence has given him a great boost in continuing to work towards higher life functionality,” Larson said. “So, we are delighted with Upbound at Work program, and how much it has helped our son.”
Morris explained how it has grown in the past couple years, as there are much more job seekers coming to the organization. From individuals with backgrounds in aerospace engineering to those versed in coding, such job seekers bring with them a range of diverse skill sets.
“I think it’s because of the awareness of the fact that companies are looking and welcoming,” Morris said. “They’re diverse individuals who are a little bit different so getting the message out that it’s okay.”
The organization aspires to raise awareness about these issues in order to create a more tolerant environment. Due to the competitive nature of the field, those with invisible disabilities are often hesitant to disclose their disability.
“The impact of having a job is life changing; it’s an entryway into everything,” said Morris.