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$32M Grant Will Help Young Arkansans with Disabilities

University of Arkansas, State Education Department awarded funding.
FAYETTEVILLE, AR (News release) - The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a $32 million, five-year grant to the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas Department of Education to fund a program aimed at improving the education and career outcomes of low-income Arkansas teenagers with disabilities.

The federal research grant is the largest the university has received in its history.

The federal program is aimed at youths who receive Supplemental Security Income. It is known as PROMISE, an acronym for “Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income.” Brent T. Williams, associate professor of rehabilitation education and research at the University of Arkansas, is the principal investigator of the PROMISE grant and will oversee the project.

University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart congratulated the college and state agencies for their collaboration on the research project.

“This grant will give us a significant boost in our goal of becoming a top 50 public research institution,” Gearhart said. “This is a wonderful example of a land-grant institution working with other groups to serve the people of Arkansas.”

Tom Kimbrell, Arkansas commissioner of education, said, “We are pleased to be a partner in this effort to provide much-needed services to low-income Arkansas youth who have disabilities. The funds will help these Arkansans find meaningful education and career opportunities that will aid them in becoming self-sufficient in today’s economy.”

A total of 2,000 adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16 who receive SSI will be recruited for the project. The youth will be divided into two groups, with half receiving the intervention of job coaching and benefits counseling, and the other half serving as a control group that does not receive the intervention.

University researchers will gather data on the participants over the course of the five years. Tom Smith, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, said the focus of the project will be to develop a model program to assist adolescents with disabilities to become independent adults.

“We are extremely excited to work with the Arkansas Department of Education, Gov. Mike Beebe’s office and numerous state agencies on this project,” Smith said.

The PROMISE program is a joint initiative of four federal agencies: the departments of education, health and human services, labor and the Social Security Administration. Its underlying premise is that improved coordination between services can improve outcomes for youth and their families. Its goals also include decreasing reliance on SSI and reducing the cost to the federal government. The grant was submitted through a partnership between the university, the Arkansas Department of Education and other state agencies.

“Most of us in the competitive workplace had a first entry-level job or internship at the beginning of our work lives,” Williams said. “That experience, good or bad, was instrumental in our later workplace success. Adolescents who receive Social Security disability benefits typically do not have a first job or internship experience. As such, they remain cut off from the world of work. The PROMISE grant seeks to provide 1,000 adolescents with disabilities who receive Social Security disability benefits with their first paid work experience.”

The PROMISE grant is the first national study to investigate the strength of the possible correlation between initial paid work experiences and later competitive employment, Williams said. Poverty and disability perpetuate a cycle that further isolates and marginalizes people with disabilities from low-income families, he said. Fewer than one in 10 adolescents with disabilities who receive SSI ever achieve competitive employment, he said.

“The findings from this research could go a long way toward facilitating the independence and societal inclusion of adolescents with disabilities while reducing the financial encumbrance of the Social Security Administration,” Williams said. “This would benefit not only Arkansas, but the nation as a whole, now and for years to come.”

Carri George and Karan Burnette, employees of two other units administratively based in the College of Education and Health Professions, wrote the grant proposal assisted by Williams. George is a research associate with the Center for the Utilization of Rehabilitation Resources for Education, Networking, Training and Service in Hot Springs, and Burnette is associate director of Partners for Inclusive Communities in North Little Rock.

An employee of the Arkansas Department of Education will serve as a liaison coordinating the participation of public school personnel.

Arkansas was one of five individual states that received funding. The other four were California, Maryland, New York and Wisconsin. A consortium of six states – Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Arizona – also received funding.

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