A new center in UMD’s College of Education will strive to improve career and educational opportunities for youths with disabilities, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and university officials announced on Monday.

The Center for Transition and Career Innovation will examine the impact of job coaching and accommodations, along with other factors, on high-school-aged students and will work with schools and other entities to improve services.

“This partnership with the state will further Maryland’s position as a national leader in transition from school to workforce,” Hogan said at a reception at the State House in Annapolis to mark the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The new UMD center, co-directed by College of Education researchers Ellen S. Fabian and Richard Luecking, will help foster collaborative partnerships among state agencies, the university and employers that support inclusive employment practices and conduct research on how to best improve outcomes for those with physical, sensory, developmental and intellectual disabilities.

“Even though we’ve made some progress, youth with disabilities continue to lag behind their peers in terms of post-school employment and post-school enrollment in secondary institutions,” Fabian said. “Until you can close that gap, that disparity is going to persist throughout their lives, leading to lower earning, poorer jobs and more dependence as opposed to independence.”

The employment rate for people with disabilities is in the low 30s, as opposed to about 77-78 percent for people who are not disabled, noted Steve Blank, a workforce development director at Seeking Employment, Equality, and Community for People with Developmental Disabilities (SEEC), a nonprofit agency in Silver Spring, Md.

“This initiative reflects how the state and the university are working together to improve the lives of Maryland youth with disabilities, while bolstering the preparation of the state’s workforce—two very important goals that go hand in hand,” said College of Education Dean Jennifer King Rice.

Several Maryland business owners spoke of the mutual advantages to employer and employee in hiring people with disabilities.

Sarah Dwyer, owner of Choquette Artisan Chocolates & Confections in Bethesda, said that three-quarters of her staff are people with disabilities or, as she prefers, “differing abilities.”

“It is not charity on my part at all [to hire people with disabilities],” Dwyer said. “[These employees are] loyal, punctual perfectionists who untie my bows to make them perfect.”

Neill Christopher, vice president of Acadia Windows & Doors in Baltimore, said the company hired a woman who had recently graduated from the Maryland School for the Blind to remove the weather stripping—“the fuzzy stuff”—from windows. The employee navigates the factory by counting steps, but changes in the warehouse’s manufacturing environment and layout presented a challenge.

“One of the guys … said, ‘Why don’t you go to Home Depot and buy some of that sticky-backed sandpaper and put it on the floor, and she could follow that with her cane?’” said Christopher. “Reasonable accommodation: $3.85.”

Andy Eisenhaur, an SEEC client, participated in an internship program that helped suss out his skills and what work environment would best suit him. He now works full-time for Montgomery Parks, unpacking boxes, ordering parts and helping manage deliveries. He is being trained to operate a forklift and improve his computer skills.

“I have a job that will allow me to live an independent life,” Eisenhaur said. “I live at home now, but I have a dream to live on my own someday and because of this job, I can soon have that dream.”