Courtney Jarrett’s face is one of the first that students with disabilities see when they arrive at Ball State.
As associate director of Disability Services, she’s on the front lines of helping them find the resources and accommodations they’ll need during their years on campus.
But Jarrett knew when it came to preparing those same students for the professional world, there was more Ball State could do.
Together, she and Larry Markle, director of Disability Services, created the Ball State Initiative for Disability Employment, which combined the efforts and expertise of three Ball State programs: Disability Services, the Career Center and the Disability Project.
In 2015, the initiative became one of 16 recipients of an internal Academic Excellence Grant. Among its primary objectives was the hiring of a disability specialist who would specialize in career coaching and programming for the university’s approximately 900 students with disabilities. That number has grown from 524 students — a 71 percent increase — since 2005.
The new position is how Renee Haack, ’06, found herself back at her alma mater. Since July, Haack has served as Ball State’s first disability career specialist.
So far, she loves the experience.
“I like to say if our Disability Services office is the green flag that signals ‘Let’s go,’ I’m the checkered flag at the finish line, helping our students with disabilities answer the question of ‘Where do I go from here?’”
‘It became my calling’
Haack, who herself is hard of hearing, spent the past 10 years working as a special education teacher.
At each middle and high school that employed her, including the Indiana School for the Deaf, she eventually found her way into a role like the job she now holds at Ball State.
“Whether it was work-study or helping students develop career skills, I really loved helping people find jobs. It became my calling.”
Nationwide, the need at colleges and universities for a professional in a position like Haack’s has never been greater. According to a 2011 study, as many as 50 percent of college graduates with physical disabilities are underemployed.
“Students want to work. They don’t want to leave college without positive prospects for employment,” Haack said. “Sitting at home unemployed is not an option.”
While the Career Center has always provided career assistance to students with disabilities, having someone specifically focused on their needs has been a welcome change, Markle said.
“All the typical career development activities apply to students with disabilities, but in many cases, they experience issues others don’t have to consider, such as when to disclose a disability and how to ask for workplace accommodations. Also, for those with physical disabilities, issues like Medicaid and Social Security funding come into play.”
More students getting hired
Already Haack’s time on the job is paying off. She’s helped a record number of students with disabilities line up summer internships at Eskenazi Health through an existing campus-community partnership with the Indianapolis-based health care provider.
“Last year we had five student interns placed with them, and this year we’ll have 11. It’s great that I can be more hands-on when it comes to this type of outreach.”
One student who’s benefited from Haack’s guidance is Lizzie Ford, a junior psychology major who’s been using a wheelchair she was 6.
“Renee does so much for us, making us more aware of how to be marketable for jobs and sharing resources that we should take advantage of,” said Ford, who as a campus tour guide makes a point of introducing Haack to prospective students with disabilities.
Along with her one-on-ones with students, Haack has been growing the university’s network of potential employers for students with disabilities and working with consultants who study job data for Ball State graduates with disabilities.
This July, she’ll be a featured speaker at the annual conference of the National Association of College Employers, discussing innovative strategies to bridge the gap between disability and career services.
With distinctions such as the nation’s first faculty mentorship program, Ball State has been on the cutting edge of services for students with disabilities.
Haack hopes the university will help further that tradition by making her position permanent after the grant’s three-year funding cycle ends in 2019. “Ball State has always been known as an accessible campus … To keep those best practices coming, to keep bettering ourselves, I think this role is a great example of that.”
Jarrett said having her at Ball State has been a blessing — “I can’t tell you the number of students I’ve already referred to her” — and sees Haack as the latest member of a welcoming team bolstering the university’s status as a national leader in educating students with disabilities.
“When people think of Disability Services, they think of Larry and I, but really there are so many of us who make this office what it is. We couldn’t do this work all by ourselves.”