While most 16-year-old students are just starting to ask the question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Joshua Fields had the answer.
Fields knew from an early age that he could connect with his classmates who had Down syndrome or autism. With this calling in hand, he volunteered as a camp counselor for an overnight camp for young adults with and without Down Syndrome.
This experience was much more than what Fields had expected. “I remember how our campers woke up happy and grateful just to be starting another day with their friends at camp,” he says. “I left camp that summer truly inspired. It was like I was being pulled 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 address the stigma against people who weren’t considered ‘typical.’”
A graduate of Penn State, Fields co-founded The Next Step Programs in 2015 to break down barriers that prevent people with disabilities from finding educational and employment opportunities after high school. “As a person without a disability, I had access to so many opportunities,” Fields said, “but my friends didn’t have the same tools that I had to be successful.”
Fields partnered with Richard Price to create The Next Step Programs. Price is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and currently attending the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana pursuing a PHD in Special Education.
The Next Step Programs provides dynamic social development programming for people with disabilities as they transition from high school. TNS focuses on building the essential soft skills needed for employment and life post-high school, including social skills, independent living skills, advocacy, career exploration, fitness & healthy living.
The success stories are rolling in. Megan Kensil, a young woman with Down syndrome, joined the TNS staff in the summer of 2021 as their Program Consultant. “Meghan is a critical member of the TNS team,” explained Fields. “She works to support advocacy efforts and program operations as well as even keeps me on track with reminders about important upcoming events and dates.”
Another success story is the community that has developed at their Community and Social Learning programs. “Through this community, individuals with disabilities have been able to build important relationships with peers with and without disabilities that are essential for maintaining a lifetime of employment.”
This pilot program launched at the beginning of the pandemic originally served 11 students with disabilities. The program now serves over 55 students with disabilities at multiple programs weekly in the Philadelphia region.
The timing couldn’t be better for TNS, as the pandemic continues to transform the labor force. During the first months of 2021, millions resigned from their jobs, resulting in the Great Resignation. With “help wanted” signs hanging in every restaurant and store around the country, businesses are struggling to find qualified employees and are starting to think outside the box.
“I read time and time again how recruiters have tried everything and explored every avenue but are still coming up short,” explained Fields. “We have a population of individuals ready and capable of working, and we have businesses that need employees. With proper training and support, organizations can pivot recruiting strategies, update job descriptions, and create truly inclusive work environments.”
TNS also provides coaching and support for organizations and employers hoping to hire people with disabilities. “It is not sustainable to just prepare people with disabilities for employment,” said Fields. “We must also work with employers to ensure they have the proper training to support and accommodate employees with disabilities.”
Career assistance isn’t their only focus, as TNS offers support in all aspects of their lives. “The most important aspect of our programs is that we give students with disabilities the opportunity to ask questions, learn about topics relevant to their adult lives, and the ability to guide our sessions with topics they find relevant and interesting.”
“Each and every day, I am inspired by the families and self-advocates who have been paving the way for change,” said Fields. “Seeing how hard they fight for inclusion and equity motivates me to work hard each day to create opportunities for the disability community.”
“TNS believes in continuous improvement, and we strive towards constant innovation. The community is making more and more progress each day towards inclusion. We believe that we exist to continue growing and inspiring that need for innovation. Let’s build the world we see for tomorrow.”
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