The labor market is “woefully behind” when it comes to including young people with learning disabilities (LD) in internship programs, according to one of the co-founders of BroadFutures, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
The organizations has spent the past ten years helping young LD students prepare for paid internships through a curriculum that works on professionalism, communication, and stress tolerance. After the training, BroadFutures works with dozens of employers to help place the students.
Carolyn Jeppsen is the CEO, president, and one the co-founders of the nonprofit.
“The inspiration was the same for all three co-founders. We were all parents of children with disabilities, specifically learning and related disabilities, which is how they were described at the time. They now would be described as neurodiversity,” says Jeppsen
“It came out of being parents and watching that young people were pretty well supported when they were in school. Once they graduated from school, their disabilities don’t go away, but a lot of those supports do.”
One out of every five people in the United States is identified as having a learning or attention issue. And data shows that among LD youth, only 46% are able to obtain regular paid employment within two years of graduating from high school.
That’s where BroadFutures is trying to make a difference.
Paid Internship Opportunities
The organization offers summer and winter sessions that begin with a two-week training program to prepare participants for their internships. The initial training focuses on “workplace readiness, and social-emotional learning,” according to the website. After the student is placed in an internship, there are regular Friday check-ins throughout the internship.
She continues, “Our admissions decisions are need-blind. We decide if someone is appropriate for our program. Then we say, ‘Here are our fees, or if you want, apply for scholarship.’ We give scaled scholarships and we have never had to turn down anyone.”
Cost for the program ranges from $8,500 to $9,500 per person. For those that can afford to pay, the fees range from about $5,500 in the summer and $6,800 in the winter.
“We’re losing money on every person in our program. We raise funds to make up that difference. More importantly, we raise funds to ensure that everyone who is qualified can participate in our program,” explains Jeppsen.
The paid Internships typically last for two to three months with each program participant receiving support from a peer mentor and a coach.
Since the start of its programming in 2014, BroadFutures has worked with 300 internship participants.
Ninety percent of the interns move on to employment – either full- or part-time or continue their higher education at two- or four-year schools.
BroadFutures has about 55 employer partners who offer internships at various times depending on their needs.
One partner is American Institutes for Research (AIR) which describes itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance to solve challenges in the U.S. and around the world.
“We do this work because when we look to the future, we see opportunities to close gaps that are rooted in injustice,” says Victoria Geis, senior human capital partner, AIR.
As a BroadFutures employer partner, AIR has had a half dozen of the organization’s interns since 2018, with a break for a period of time due to the pandemic.
Geis notes the first BroadFutures intern at AIR in 2018 was fully prepared and is now an employee.
“You couldn’t have asked for a more outstanding intern in terms of readiness, in terms of dressing for the job he wanted, in terms of advocating for himself, in terms of where he needed to work, and how he needed to work in a respectful and appropriate way.”
“I wanted to move our internships into our client services side, to our research and technical assistance side, because I want to see interns from BroadFutures turn into employees over time.”
She also credits AIR’s managers for their supervisory skills. “You approach people as individuals not as a blob of interns. ‘I’m going to recognize that your experience and your experience are very different.’”
“We need the minds, the perspectives, the experiences to progress. And what it does to our culture, what it does to our workplace, how it demonstrates our commitment, how we create greater synergy amongst our staff.”
Jeppsen is seeing some progress among employers, “There’s still a long way to go, but I think there’s been a huge shift. One is that disability is part of the diversity conversation. Employers see an untapped talent pool.”
She continues, “Do all employers know how to support disabled talent, not necessarily. But there is much more of an openness to learn about what we need to put in place to support diverse talent, what we need to put in place to recruit diverse talent, and even very inspired employers are thinking about what we need to do to promote talent.”
Internships as the Pathway to One Man’s Passion
“I wanted to develop my skills in the workforce as someone who is neurologically different,” says Coleman Beaty. “BroadFutures really stood out to me because they do a lot of very high-profile internships.”
Beaty who attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland heard about BroadFutures from an alumnus of his California high school.
After his junior year of college, Beaty did an internship with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Majoring in political science and history, Beaty graduated from college in December 2021 and the following month embarked on an alumni internship by way of BroadFutures. This time with Brookings Institution where he did research and fact-checking for the foreign policy program.
He says of his internships, “For me, obviously, working at these very prestigious think tanks, I wanted to learn about foreign policy, international development, international trade.”
Beaty has been in his current position as a research assistant with the Global Situation Room – based in Virginia – for nine months. “We have various clients that need various research tasks and then PR process processes like media lists, journalist outreach.”
Beaty adds, “BroadFutures communication [curriculum] has really helped me because I was never really a people person.”
As far as long-term goals, Beaty says, “I eventually want to become a foreign service officer and work as a diplomat in the State Department. “Every boss that I’ve had for the past three years has been an FSO. It fascinates me. I love diplomacy. I love research. I love foreign policy. I love travel.”