National Disability Employment Awareness Month

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is upon us, and we at the Learning Academy are very excited about it! Through our TLA Employment Services, we’ve set up job opportunities for hundreds of young adults on the autism spectrum, and look forward to serving many more. It’s our mission at TLA to close the gap in employment for those of all abilities. For this special time of the year, we’d like to discuss the history of the month, as well as the importance of inclusion in the workplace regarding neurodiverse abilities.

The NDEAM was established in 1988, a full 2 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act came into law. The history leading up to the declaration is a long and complex one, and the ADA website provides a fascinating timeline of events. However, there are a few that stand out in relation to the NDEAM which deserve some recognition. The month has its roots in the 1945 Public Law 176, which established the first week of October as the National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. This evolved over the years into the month we know today. Arguably the single greatest milestone in the fight for disability employment came in 1973, with the Rehabilitation Act. This landmark piece of legislation made it illegal for federal employers and contractors to discriminate against anyone on the basis of disability, physical or mental. Legislation like the Rehabilitation Act eventually led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, and disability employment has shown signs of improvement ever since.

Some of our job seekers and students will be participating in Disability Mentoring Day (DMD) this month where they will meet a mentor in a field of their choice. This national mentoring day is a large-scale national effort coordinated by AAPD to promote career development for students and job seekers with disabilities through hands-on career exploration and ongoing mentoring relationships.

At The Learning Academy, we recognize the potential that everyone on the autism spectrum possesses. However, as I’ve discussed in several of my previous blogs, employment remains a troubling issue in the ASD community. There are several reasons for this, and unfortunately it’s not a black and white issue. People on the spectrum may face several challenges and discrimination when finding employment. The fact that 1 in 5 adults on the spectrum is  unemployed needs to be remedied; that’s a fifth of an ever-expanding group that is not flourishing. As I’ve written about before, there are many potential advantages to hiring on the spectrum. If more employers can consider these factors, we may be able to close the gap of unemployment. At TLA we will continue doing our part to increase the number of employed adults with autism.

-Gage Sosso

For more on NDEM please visit: https://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/ndeam/index-2019.htm

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Student Feature: Possibilities

The Learning Academy at USF is such a marvelous section on the campus, and frankly, it is quite an adventure. As a new student, and as a Korean-American, I wanted to see the important impact of diversity and with this campus; I got that! As much as I love the campus and the new opportunities that come my way, I feel overwhelmed with joy and fear at the same time, it makes me wonder what may come my way, but I know great things are sure to come.

Just like what James O. Prochaska said, “Although we cannot initially change many aspects of ourselves in the world, we can exert some power over the courses of our own lives”, and I do believe in that. We all have a possibility to shine and grow as a wiser person, and just because we are different, it doesn’t matter what any other negative being said about us. We choose our own possibilities and outcomes. Below is a poem that I wrote that may help you to inspire yourself and your peers/coworkers/family:

At times people are bullied for being different in the society

It makes all of us worry with anxiety and it troubles us so

The tension grows uneasy as a hurling of insults punch you in the gut

But you are never alone; you have friends and family by your side

 

Bullies only taunt because of their insecurities underneath

They hide their true feelings of guilt and shame within themselves

It’s not the victim’s fault for being picked on or insulted

It was how the bully is taunted long before you were

 

Stand your ground with confidence and remain untouched

Stay positive and tell yourself that you are indeed special

You have loved ones by your side, protecting you everywhere you go

Do not be afraid, be strong and help those who are in desperate need

 

I know it is difficult, and it definitely tears a heart, I am sure

But, we were born to be strong and enduring to others

No matter how stressful that is, remember you are never alone

Believe in yourself, stay positive, and comfort those who are in need of the comfort itself

 

It’s not just in schools or educational buildings but work as well

Just because you’re different, it doesn’t mean you’re not good enough

It’s their own insecurity, not yours, so don’t fret, cry, or hide

Stand up for yourself and show them compassion you can inspire people around you if you believe in yourself

 

There are people who will always want to bring you down and crush your spirit

Yet, on the flipside, there are people who respect, love, and support you

If you think of the love that your family shares with you, then you should not worry at all

If you show compassion to people, people will respect you  in the same way as you treat them

 

So what is the whole purpose here? Well, it is simple

Always look forward to the life you live in rather than looking inward

All of the past experiences that you went through is now long gone

And when you learn to find peace and tranquility, then you can truly understand how  to save a life.

Looking towards positive possibilities will help you find the right path into peace and tranquility

 

2020 Graduation Countdown Starts August 26th!

The class of 2020 will be heading into orientation next week and the graduation clock will begin. For all TLA students, graduation is a big deal. It’s the culmination of everything you’ve worked so hard for the past several months. I remember my own graduation; my whole family was there and for once in my life (up to that point), I felt genuinely proud of myself for achieving such a milestone. In fact, everyone’s family is invited to attend, as well as the mentors who helped make the experience such a special one. I am not a public speaker by any means, but the words of my speech flowed so freely it’s like I was at an intimate family gathering, not surrounded by strangers.

The journey to reach graduation is not always an easy one, but the destination is worth it. Along the way you learn valuable life skills, such as how to conduct yourself in a job interview, proper social behaviors, what you’re passionate about, and how to pursue your goals in a proactive way. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ve grown by the end… so many of our students enter the year feeling lost, afraid, hopeless, etc. I know I felt that way, as did many of my classmates. But the friends you make along the way, the experience you gain through your internship, and the maturity you acquire will allow you to realize the potential that was there inside you all along. You’ll enter graduation with your head held high.

But don’t take my word for it. These are some highlight quotes from the 2019 graduates on their special night:

“Back in August when TLA first began, graduation seemed so far away. Now, that day has finally come.”

“Although it was a little bit tough, I didn’t give up on myself.”

“When I first started this program, I would fold under the pressure of multitasking and time management. I now simultaneously complete assignments based on their difficult and due dates.”

“After 9 long months, I am proud to say because of the Learning Academy, I managed to find and get a full-time job.”

“I learned a lot like new job etiquette skills, interviewing, and just in general more about myself. I learned how I’m not afraid to take on new challenges and seek adventure.”

“I highly encourage you if you know someone like me, preparing for adulthood, please send them to the USF Learning Academy.”

“I learned to ask for help when I need it… It has helped me make new friends and connections.”

“I do not know what the future has in store for me, but with time, patience, and action I can make it a bright one.”

“The world can be pretty tough for people with autism, but if they have people who care about them, they will support them. People with autism deserve to have a better life.” 

When they started TLA, all these students felt the same way you do right now. But if you believe in yourself and focus on doing your best, you’ll be saying the same things come graduation. Please keep all that in mind as you begin this exciting new journey in your lives!

-Gage Sosso

 

Art Is for Everyone: Sterling’s Story

Last time I shared with you all the inspirational story of Emily, a recent TLA graduate who’s gone on to do great things. Today I’d like to do the same; this time with Sterling, an incredibly artistic student who graduated in 2019. Sterling interned at Arts4All Florida, a local nonprofit that promotes artists with disabilities. As with most, she had a great time at TLA, and her internship helped prove to her that art is for everyone, regardless of disability. She even got to explore her true passion of graphic design, working alongside a professional graphic designer who served as a mentor during Sterling’s time at Arts4All.

After graduation, she took the professional and personal skills she acquired and got a job at Staples, where she’s been working as a print/copy associate. It’s a great job for her, as it goes along with her field of study. The interview process was a challenge, but she persevered and nailed it using the skills learned in class. As she is adjusting to the routine of a new job, she’s also made many new friends and even bought her own phone! That’s a huge milestone for someone transitioning into the “adult world.” While she’s working, Sterling is also attending Hillsborough Community College (HCC), where she’s pursuing graphic design as her full-time career. She may attend USF at the St. Pete campus in the future. Planning, confidence, organization: these are some of the skills Sterling learned at TLA and she’s applying them in the real world.

Of course, no story is complete without some difficulty, and Sterling is no different. She was diagnosed back when Asperger’s was still separate from ASD, and like so many of us growing up she felt the struggle. Sensory issues, anxiety (both general and social), problems with coping… Sterling struggled with these things before attending TLA. However, it wasn’t all bad; being on the autism spectrum has also made her highly focused, passionate, and hardworking towards achieving her goals. As she’s grown older and experienced more of life, she’s come to accept and celebrate ASD as a part of herself. To quote Sterling: “anything is possible no matter the challenge. So ASD gave me a new perspective on life and made me stronger.” That’s an attitude we hope everyone who graduates TLA can have.

In the future, we all know Sterling is going to great places. Graphic design is a majorly sought-after profession right now, and with her mindset and (I’m sure) talent, I have no doubt she’ll make her dreams a reality.

 

-Gage Sosso

Limitless: Emily’s Not Done Yet

Recently, I attended the Learning Academy’s 10 year anniversary celebration, and it was such an amazing time. Catching up with old classmates, and getting to hear the inspirational stories of some of the speakers. In this important time for TLA, we want to give a few more of our graduates the spotlight, and share with you their success stories.

The first graduate I’d like to discuss is Emily, who interned at Bright Horizon Child Care Center right here on the USF campus. Her time at TLA was a positive one, as she got to explore her passion for teaching and gain some pivotal classroom experience. The skills she acquired at Bright Horizon allowed her to confidently enter the workforce. After graduation, Emily got a job at another child care center, but it was unfortunately not the perfect fit for her interests. Thankfully, Emily didn’t let this keep her down; instead, it only made her more determined.

Emily utilized TLA’s Employment Services (TLAES), and they helped change her life permanently. After a few months of searching, TLAES helped Emily land a job at Victory Christian Academy, where she’s been working ever since. She loves it there, and finds herself growing both personally and professionally. Outside of work, she lives with her parents, paying monthly rent and helping with other bills just like an apartment. She’s also paying for her Korean lessons, which will come into play very soon.

Emily is certainly in a good place now, but how did she get to this point, and where will she go from here? Her story is both an inspirational and heartwarming one. Born in New Hampshire at a time when autism support was lacking, her parents decided they needed to find some help for their child. So they moved to Florida, one of the premier autism friendly states in the country, when Emily was 7. It wasn’t until age 11 when she got the exact diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, and while that led to some bullying and hardship, she never let that stop her from staying true to herself. She sees ASD not as a disability, but as a gift, and enjoys sharing her story with others in hopes of educating them. “I’m weird, but I’m proud of it.” That’s what she’d always tell people growing up, and I wish I could’ve had the same attitude.

Going forward, Emily has a pretty amazing ambition. She wants to be an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in South Korea. She has a system in place right now that’s working for her: gain the classroom experience at Victory, learn Korean on the side, and go back to college to get her certifications. With her conviction, I have no doubt that Emily will achieve her goals and represent TLA well all the way in South Korea.

 

-Gage Sosso

TLA Graduate Creates Inclusive Panel and Sensory Spaces at Conventions Across South

It’s hard to imagine that a little over eight years ago I was finally given an answer to many of my questions. It was a word I knew of – autism. My familiarity was, well, the stereotype to be fully honest. The mere idea that I was on the spectrum was something I couldn’t fathom. I was different from my peers, yes, but I didn’t act like others I knew on the spectrum. I had ADHD, an anxiety disorder, and clinical depression by the first grade. This was all stuff I thought was normal. For nineteen years of my life I thought everyone around me was weird and I was normal.

I have known that I am on the autism spectrum for only a fraction of my life. At nineteen, I spent five days hospitalized out of my own volition. While I was in the hospital, my mom was searching for an answer. She said to me, in passing, “maybe you’re autistic”. It could be an answer to what she had been asking since I was a toddler, the word everyone previously told her I wasn’t: autistic.

Still nineteen, I spent time meeting with a doctor and going through the usual tests I was all too accustomed to at this point. However, at the end of one particular appointment I was finally given that answer that I waited too long to hear. An answer that made me cry because for the first time, I belonged. “You are on the autism spectrum and have Asperger’s Syndrome.” After so much of my life, of me and my mom fighting, of me not understanding and frequently struggling… here was my answer.

From that moment onward, my life began to finally take shape. I enrolled at The Learning Academy (TLA), a transition program for autistic adults to learn skills which help to get a job or go to college. I learned how to ask for accommodations and get the help you need. My year spent in TLA was life-changing. I was around peers who understood me; people who understood how I functioned. I made lasting friendships. I wouldn’t trade a single moment of that first day or whole year. I remember coming home and finally not feeling alone, different, or weird. I really was normal and among my friends.

Years of learning more about myself and more about those in the disability community helped lead me to a next step in life. Once again, my time at TLA helped me. I worked as a mentor to other autistic students in the program for three years following my graduation. I learned and found enjoyment in helping others like me. This need grew when one day I moved to Texas. I missed not being able to help. I missed the opportunity to talk to others and help guide them in whatever way I could; even if that guidance was simply to provide better answers. So, I came up with an idea. An idea I never expected to grow like it did: I would take my love of helping and apply it at my so-loved anime conventions.

The idea started with “I would love this, maybe others too?” and wound up being not only true, but a huge success.  My idea was to create a panel that was hosted by and for the disabled. It would be a place to gather, be safe, and talk about what it’s like for us at cons. It was a safe space to ask questions and make friends. The idea was met with much excitement from convention (con) staff and con patrons any place I took it. I never expected it to spread. I never thought cons across the South would want this. I didn’t think I would ever find myself traveling and being asked to go to cons to talk and help others. All those things my peers and I needed at cons became the panel, “Non-Visible, Nerds with Disabilities”.

The panel’s success lead to taking another large step: creating a Quiet Room. Our group built a space at cons intended to be quiet, allow for stimming (self-stimulatory behavior), calming down, relaxing, and doing whatever someone needed – judgement free. I have been overwhelmed by the support and love from the events who have allowed us in.

As I approach year three of my panel, I am so happy to be joined by new faces and in communication with other panels who wish to do joint work (such as “Social Debugging”, another panel at anime cons). The formerly little idea has helped countless others, built friendships, and brought awareness to events so that we, those with autism or any disability, not only have a voice, but we have the accommodations we need met. Venues are listening and helping. I never thought a single idea and small group of people, something that started so small, could help in such a large way.

As I look back on my life, I am by no means where I expected to be. I have held a job I love for four years, created a panel that has reached over 10 conventions across the United States, and built an online following that has reached almost 600 likes. I never in my life thought I, or those around me, could make a difference like this. Now, I can’t imagine my life being any different and have a heart full of love for all those who have helped me every step of the way.

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Thank you, Breanne, for sharing your story at our 10 year celebration. We are so proud to call you a TLA grad! We can’t wait to see what is next for you. 

 

 

Advice for Incoming Students from the Class of 2019

Graduation is here for The Learning Academy’s Class of 2019!

 Observing the class from their first day to their last is unbelievable. Students, who at the beginning of the year, weren’t sure of their career path or confident in their job skills can now profoundly teach others. On the last day, we reflected on how nervous (and eager) students were for orientation, meeting their classmates/mentors, and of course, the first day of class. Over the past year, we have seen the students build confidence in their rich abilities.

On graduation night, our students give a speech reflecting on their accomplishments and describing their future plans. While our students were practicing their speeches on the last day of class, we asked them for any advice to the incoming class of 2020.

Here is a list of advice from our Class of 2019:

 

“Be everywhere on time.” Throughout the year students learn how to time manage and it’s important to always be punctual. Reliability is a professional skill to practice at all times.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions… but not too many!” Learning to advocate for yourself is a huge piece of developing independence. Understanding when you need help and how to ask is a great soft skill. If you feel you need to understand something in a different way, don’t be afraid to ask our staff, your mentor, advisor or peer. We are here to help and accommodate each students learning needs.

“Anything can change. Be flexible.”Our students learn And practice flexibility throughout the year. Remember to be flexible and ask for assistance if you need it.  

“Be open to advice from teachers, advisors and mentors.” Applying what your supports teach you is a necessary skill to have. They are there to help and will always take your thoughts into consideration. Listen to what people have to say so you can make an informed choice.

“Stay determined to graduate. Be positive and think about the future.” There is no doubt pushing yourself to learn new skills is tough. But so, so worth it! Always use your support systems if you feel you are falling behind.

 “Stay confident.” Confidence is huge. It is not developed over night and will continue to grow throughout the year as you learn more about yourself, your career and being independent. You’ve got this!

On Mentoring, 

“Mentoring is one of the best parts. That part is there to help you.”  Your mentors will be there to help you learn campus, practice new skills and support you overall. Use them as a resource!

“Get to know your mentors.”  Your mentors are an unmatched support system you will get to know well throughout the year. Don’t be afraid to rely on them for that extra help. You will be involved in the mentor selection process. Make sure it’s a good fit!

On making acquaintances in the class,

“It’s scary at first, but you will make friends. It gets easier!” We have all been in a new situation where we are unfamiliar with our peers. Take a deep breath and just start with a wave or hello, whatever you are comfortable with. You will be surprised how easily you will bond with your peers.

  “Don’t be afraid of people. Everyone wants to help you.”  This goes for fellow students, instructors and staff. We are all here to help you and assist you where we can. Your peers are also there for support and assistance. If you ever need help, remember one of your classmates may have the answer. This is also a great way to begin making relationships with your peers. Advocate for your needs when applicable.  

“Be nice to each other. Find common ground.” It’s pretty simple: be nice! An easy way to make friends in your class is to find common ground. You’d be surprised how many students have the same interests as you. You can ask easy questions about hobbies, where someone is from, or favorite foods/places to eat. Something also important is to remember everyone in the class is different. Every student learns differently than you. Be kind and courteous to your fellow students, after all you’d want them to be kind to you.

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We hope this helps any students preparing for our upcoming Class of 2020. We are very excited to have you!

 The Learning Academy Staff