While most 16-year-old kids are only beginning to explore the question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Joshua Fields had the solution.
Fields recognized from an early age that he could connect with his students who had Down syndrome or autism. With this calling in hand, he served as a camp counselor at an overnight camp for young people with and without Down Syndrome.
This event was far more than what Fields had imagined. “I recall how our kids woke up joyful and pleased simply to be beginning another day with their pals at camp,” he adds. “I left camp that summer very motivated. It seemed like I was being sucked into this community.”
Now 23 years old, Fields is the CEO and co-founder of The Next Step Programs and a veteran of the disability rights movement. “We wanted to challenge the stigma towards persons who weren’t deemed ‘typical.’”
A graduate of Penn State, Fields co-founded The Next Step Programs in 2015 to tear down obstacles that impede persons with disabilities from accessing educational and job opportunities beyond high school. “As a person without a handicap, I had access to so many opportunities,” Fields said, “but my peers didn’t have the same tools that I had to be successful.”
Fields teamed with Richard Price to produce The Next Step Programs. Price is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and now attending the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana seeking a PHD in Special Education.
The Next Step Programs offers innovative social development training for persons with disabilities as they transition from high school. TNS focuses on improving the critical soft skills required for jobs and life post-high school, including social skills, independent living skills, advocacy, career exploration, fitness & healthy living.
The success tales are coming in. Megan Kensil, a young lady with Down syndrome, joined the TNS workforce in the summer of 2021 as their Program Consultant. “Meghan is a crucial component of the TNS team,” stated Fields. “She helps to assist lobbying activities and programme operations as well as even keeping me on track with reminders about crucial forthcoming events and dates.”
Another success storey is the community that has created at their Community and Social Learning programmes. “Through this network, persons with disabilities have been able to form critical connections with peers with and without impairments that are necessary for continuing a lifetime of employment.”
This experimental programme created at the outset of the epidemic initially served 11 adolescents with impairments. The programme presently serves approximately 55 kids with disabilities in several sessions weekly in the Philadelphia area.
The timing couldn’t be better for TNS, as the epidemic continues to change the work market. During the early months of 2021, millions quit from their employment, culminating in the Great Resignation. With “help wanted” banners hanging in every restaurant and shop throughout the nation, companies are struggling to find suitable staff and are beginning to think outside the box.
“I read time and time again how recruiters have done everything and investigated every channel but are still coming up short,” stated Fields. “We have a population of folks eager and capable of working, and we have enterprises that require workers. With sufficient training and assistance, firms can pivot recruitment efforts, revise job descriptions, and establish genuinely inclusive work environments.”
TNS also offers coaching and assistance for organisations and companies looking to recruit persons with disabilities. “It is not viable to only train persons with impairments for employment,” said Fields. “We must also engage with companies to ensure they have the right training to assist and accommodate individuals with disabilities.”
Career aid isn’t their main emphasis, as TNS gives support in many parts of their life. “The most essential feature of our programmes is that we allow students with disabilities the chance to ask questions, learn about themes pertinent to their adult life, and the ability to steer our sessions with topics they find relevant and interesting.”
“Each and every day, I am impressed by the families and self-advocates who have been leading the path for change,” said Fields. “Seeing how hard they fight for inclusion and fairness drives me to work hard each day to provide possibilities for the disability community.”
“TNS believes in continual progress, and we strive towards perpetual innovation. The community is making more and more progress each day towards inclusivity. We feel that we exist to continue expanding and motivating that urge for innovation. Let’s develop the world we see for tomorrow.”