VR job training shows promise helping disabled workers find jobs

Friday, June 1, 2018 - 5:06pm

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File Photo/Daily

Adults and children with mental disabilities may soon have a better shot at finding jobs, thanks to a research project that uses virtual reality job interview training to develop their skills.

The training has been in development for eight years and is just beginning to be tested and applied in real-world scenarios. Matt Smith, an associate professor at the School of Social Work, joined the project in its early stages to help evaluate the training after a prototype was developed. Smith has been working on the project for seven years now, and its promise is only becoming clearer as his research continues.

At the center of the program is a virtual character named Molly Porter, who is driven by a living algorithm that determines her questions, responses and behavior. The researchers refer to the training as the “Molly training.” An interview with Molly takes roughly 20 minutes, and trainees receive an overall score as well as eight scores for individual learning objectives when they finish. They use these scores to measure their progress over repeated interviews with Molly.

Smith and the team researched the effects of the Molly training on five disadvantaged groups, including those with severe mental illness, mood disorders, autism, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. In preliminary testing, their subjects were twice as likely to get jobs or internships after the training than a control group that did not undergo the training.

Now, the training is being evaluated in four different initiatives with funding drawn from a variety of sources. One project, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, is evaluating whether the Molly training is effective for adults receiving mental health unemployment services. Another, funded by the Kessler Foundation, focuses on high school students with a range of disabilities. These students typically receive federally mandated “transition services” that help them in the transition from high school to either college or the workforce, and the Molly training could be an effective addition to these services.

A third project, funded by the NIMH and the University’s School of Social Work, works on adapting the Molly training for different groups of people. And the fourth project is funded by the University’s Poverty Solutions initiative. Its goal is to evaluate the potential of working with Certified Peer Support Specialists on Molly training. The Peers, as they are called, have lived mental health experiences and received treatment, and they act as advocates for other individuals suffering from mental health problems.

Smith hopes the training will be used with as many groups as it can help. He expressed his belief that the tool could be applied in, among other situations, re-entry services for people with prior criminal convictions. He suggested that the training could help to reduce recidivism — the tendency of a criminal to commit more crimes — by making it easier for former criminals to find jobs.

“We really want to make the tool accessible and evaluate if this tool can help other groups, too,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, job interviewing is something everybody has to do. Whether you’re somebody with a certain type of disability or whether you’re somebody that has no disability, it causes anxiety. And it’s a skill set that needs practice.”

Although the training is still in the process of being evaluated, its success in laboratory conditions appears to have translated to tangible success for preliminary trainees. In their project to deliver the training to high school students, 30 percent found employment and 20 percent found internships in the first four months following the training. This was consistent with the team’s prior research, suggesting that the training could be immensely helpful for adults and young people alike.

Educators who have worked with the training testify to its positive impact. Meredith Schindler is the executive director of the Ann Arbor Academy, an independent school where a third of the students have autism. These students have worked started using the Molly training at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.

“The Molly training is designed to help people speak more effectively about their ability to work well on a team — that they’re a hard worker,” Smith said. “If they’d had gaps in their work history, it helps them learn how to frame their responses in a positive way.”

Schindler expressed a similar sentiment. She noted that adults with mental disabilities generally make excellent employees, and that their primary challenge is getting their foot in the door with employers wary of hiring disabled people. According to Schindler, the Molly training has helped her students develop the skills necessary to face this challenge.

“We’ve definitely seen an improvement in kids’ social skills,” Schindler said. “And I think it’s definitely partially due to what they’re getting with the training. You see more confidence and you see a better ability to handle some questions.”

Karen Steffan is the coordinator of vocational services at the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education in Illinois. She oversees a variety of work programs for high school students and coordinates educational programs for around 4000 students with disabilities. Like Schindler, she has seen a marked improvement in the skills of students using the Molly training.

“It was new to all of us,” Steffan said. “We all had our learning curve on it. But it captures your interest and certainly allows you to stay engaged with it. … It fits in every environment we tested it in. It was convenient for people. It was timely for people. It was engaging. And it gave you immediate results.”

Feedback like this is encouraging for Smith and his team, who are hopeful about the program’s potential and eager to apply it wherever it can help. Likewise, for disabled people and their advocates, Smith’s work is a source of hope for the future.

“I’m really delighted that Matt has reached out to local schools and just with the commitment that he has to this really underserved portion of society that doesn’t really get a lot of attention past high school education,” Schindler said. “People forget about adults with autism and adults with other learning challenges. And I’m just delighted that this is such a concrete step to help people be self-determining.”