NCDET: Empowering Those with Disabilities
Throughout the coming months, we will be highlighting Outreach’s diverse programs. This feature is the next installment in the series of department profiles.
Dr. Annie Baghdayan, director for the National Center for Disability Education and Training, has made significant strides in NCDET’s programing since assuming the role of director eight months ago. Between networking within the community and raising funds to meet her goal of doubling NCDET’s programs in the next five years, NCDET’s existing programs are flourishing under her leadership and making huge impacts in the field.
NCDET’s program Add Us In equips job seekers with disabilities to find prospective employment and provides incentives for the employees to remain in their jobs.
“We’ve had employers who have never hired individuals with disabilities, and once they have hired someone they are very pleased with, they often come back to us and tell us they have another position open,” Baghdayan said.
Chelinos, a popular Mexican restaurant chain in the area, documented the hiring process of an individual with disabilities through the Add Us In program. “They wanted to spread the word about it, telling others, and to tell other businesses to give the disabled a chance and hire them,” Baghdayan said. “It’s been interesting to see the impact that Chelinos has had on other businesses. They were able to share their experiences from their perspective, and other businesses have now been able to understand the benefits.”
Project Search provides similar services, placing those with disabilities in internships that can later become paid jobs. “In the beginning, these individuals say, ’Nobody’s going to hire me; there’s no appropriate job for me,’ but through the internship they are offered a job, and their perspective totally changes,” said Baghdayan. “Now they say, ‘I have a job and I am needed and respected.’ This experience completely changes their quality of life.”
Two other NCDET programs, the Certified Employment Support Professionals and the Oklahoma Work Incentives Planning and Assistance, provide opportunities for continuing education and ensure that workers understand their long-term benefit situations.
“We are hopefully raising awareness in the community by stressing to businesses that although these people have disabilities, they also have abilities, and that’s important to remember,” Baghdayan said.
Baghdayan believes that now, more than ever, the general public needs to understand how to interact with people with disabilities. “One in 68 people is diagnosed with autism,” Baghdayan said. “More and more people are going to have contact with individuals with autism, whether they know it or not. Whether it’s in a job, or in the classroom, we need to prepare our future professionals and educators to relate with them.”
Baghdayan has gone to great lengths to educate herself on disabilities in order to educate others. When Baghdayan’s university in Lebanon did not offer graduate studies in special education, she acted upon the recommendation of a man who later became her husband to check out the graduate programs at the University of Oklahoma. Her master’s degree in special education eventually led to a doctorate and an entirely new life in a different country along the way.
The success stories continue to drive Baghdayan’s work. She recounts the transformation of a three-year-old boy with severe disabilities. Before coming to school, he was unable to speak or perform simple tasks independently. Within six weeks of working with the boy, Baghdayan had taught him 50 words he could use to express himself and his needs, and he achieved a previously impossible level of independence. “I saw him grow from a kid who was probably regarded as having severe and profound disabilities to very high-functioning person with disabilities, indistinguishable from his peers in school,” she said. “Every individual can learn, but we have to know how to teach them.”
Baghdayan credits the influence and reputation of Outreach for NCDET’s continued success.
“It’s the mission of Outreach, and the mission of every department, to raise awareness and to reach out and let others know who we are and what we do,” said Baghdayan. “It’s amazing the impact that the university has on others, and I feel like we are fortunate to be housed in Outreach because as soon as we say we are part of that entity, it gives us more credibility and respect. We are a little department, but people are ready to have a conversation with us because of what Outreach is and what Outreach does.”
To learn more about the National Center for Disability Education and Training, visit the website at http://ncdet.ou.edu/en/.