Jim Strawn says when it comes to students with disabilities, he focuses on their abilities.

“I have worked with folks with disabilities most of my adult life and really believe everyone has positive, unique abilities they can bring to the community,” Strawn said. “Really, we all have disabilities and hurdles to overcome to reach our goals. We have abilities, and I tell all students to focus on those, find your niche and use it to your best ability to be a productive citizen in your community.”

On Wednesday, the Marshall University Office of Disability Services, the West Virginia Autism Center at Marshall University and UniCare Health Plan of West Virginia hosted a Disability Mentoring Day to offer employment resources to students and job seekers with disabilities.

Strawn participated in panel discussions focusing on career development for individuals with disabilities through a day of career exploration, as well as discussion focusing on social media featuring experts and employers who use social media for vetting candidates.

Rebecca Hansen, the program coordinator for the College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and the West Virginia Autism Training Center, said this was the first Disability Mentoring Day at Marshall University.

“This will be an annual event in which attendees will be hearing from leaders and experts in workforce preparedness and have the opportunity to connect to organizations that offer employment resources,” she said.

The event also featured a $7,500 donation to the West Virginia Autism Center at Marshall. The collaboration of Marshall University and UniCare has created positive career paths for individuals with disabilities, officials said.

“We believe in a diverse workforce and believe by supporting this it supports the workforce and our economy,” said Barbara Wessels, community health program consultant for UniCare.

“We’re celebrating Disability Awareness Month and we wanted to partner with Marshall and the West Virginia Autism Training Center to support and encourage students with disabilities and help prepare them for life after college,” said Shaun Collins, senior human resources business partner for UniCare.

Dr. Marc Ellison, the executive director of the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall, talked to students about preparing for a life of quality.

“For years, what society did to support those with autism and other disabilities was to hide them away, put them in institutions, tell them what school they can attend and tell them where they can live,” Ellison said. “Today, we are changing all of that.”

Ellison says the way to truly support those with disabilities is to help them develop skills, help them make networking connections across the communities, help them have better access to employment and help them find information that lets them make informed choices.

“Making informed choices is the most important part of being successful in life,” Ellison said. “These students need to gather all the information they can and prepare their lives by making informed choices.”

Ellison is a licensed professional counselor who has worked for more than 30 years to provide person-centered support, services and advocacy to individuals who live with autism spectrum disorder, their families and those who support them.

“The goal is helping people to become empowered to participate in society, to help them make their own decisions and not to rely on other people and help them make the informed choices that lead to a better quality of life,” he said.

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