Businesses benefit from helping individuals with disabilities via transition-to-work program – Atlanta Business Chronicle

Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a research environment that fosters visionary thinking and innovation. It began in 1996, when Erin Riehle was director of Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department. Riehle felt that because the hospital served individuals with developmental disabilities as patients, it made sense that they should commit to hiring people in this group. She wondered if it would be possible to train people with developmental disabilities to fill some of the high-turnover, entry-level positions in her department. These jobs involved complex and systematic tasks, such as stocking supply cabinets.

To learn more about the feasibility of her idea, she turned to Great Oaks Career Campuses and the Hamilton County Board of Developmental Disability Services. Through this outreach, Erin met Susie Rutkowski, then the special education director at Great Oaks. Riehle and Rutkowski formed an instantaneous partnership, and together they turned the idea of filling a handful of jobs in Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department into a comprehensive, internationally recognized program model —Project SEARCH.

Project SEARCH is a nine-month internship program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is targeted for individuals whose goal is competitive employment. The program takes place in a health care, government, or business setting where total immersion in the workplace facilitates the teaching and learning process as well as the acquisition of employability and marketable work skills. Interns participate in three internships to explore a variety of career paths. The interns work with a team that includes their family, an instructor and local and state agencies to create an employment goal.

Benefits of the Project SEARCH model to students include:

  • An opportunity to participate in a variety of internships within the host hospital/business.
  • The chance to acquire competitive, transferable and marketable job skills .
  • Increased independence, confidence and self-esteem.
  • Work-based individualized coaching, instruction and feedback.
  • Linkages to vocational rehabilitation and other adult service agencies.

Benefits to businesses include:

  • Access to a new, diverse talent stream with skills that match labor needs.
  • Interns and employees with disabilities who serve as role models for customers.
  • Access to a demographic of the economy with intense buying power: people with disabilities represent one of the fastest-growing market segments in the United States.
  • Increased regional and national recognition through marketing of this unique program.
  • Increased performance and retention in high-turnover, entry-level positions.

Project SEARCH has grown from one original program site at Cincinnati Children’s to over 600 programs across 47 states and ten countries. Some of our Georgia business partners include Cartersville Medical Center, Emory Midtown Hospital, Navicent Health Macon, Northeast Georgia Health System, Shaw Industries Dalton, TSYS, Middle Georgia State University, Armstrong State University, University of West Georgia and the Chico’s Distribution Center.

“As the TSYS host site business liaison since 2016, I’ve witnessed tremendous growth in our interns over each nine-month program year,” said Pino Wells Davis, director of quality and community business partner, TSYS. “During the program, they establish a solid foundation to build upon by learning competitive and marketable job skills as well as life skills. Although TSYS is the host site, Project SEARCH belongs to and benefits our community. Not every business can be a host site, but every business can hire a graduate. If you’re looking for a great candidate, find a Project SEARCH graduate — because everyone can work.”

Learn more about Project Search at

The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) is a state leader in advocating alongside people with developmental disabilities. We advance social change, public policy and innovative practices that increase opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families to thrive where they live, learn, work, play and worship.

*According to GCDD.

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