When starting a new job, almost everyone goes through an acclimation period when they adjust to their new surroundings. This period often includes things like additional training and hands-on instruction.

For people living with disabilities, though the need for that acclimation period isn’t any different, they're routinely faced with challenges in getting employers to take a chance on them and their needs.

Laura Pickard, an experienced special needs educator, identified this problem. That's why she launched a solution to combat it with Independent Grounds, a coffee cart and vocational training program for students with disabilities.

“They want an opportunity so badly," she said. “It’s an untapped, really great resource that the community is kind of missing out on."

Students, patients, faculty and staff at the Medical University of South Carolina are probably already familiar with Independent Grounds. Centrally located just outside of MUSC's College of Nursing, Independent Grounds gives students with disabilities the opportunity work and learn needed social and work skills to assist with their transition into the work force.

“It’s coffee with a purpose,” said Yuri Peterson, a customer and faculty member with the MUSC College of Pharmacy.

Independent Grounds intern James Magwood is all smiles as he hands customers their correct change for coffee purchases. 

"Everybody loves James," Pickard said. 

According to Chelsea VanHorn Stinnett, a program coordinator for the diverse learning needs program CarolinaLIFE, fewer people with disabilities are employed than their nondisabled peers. In a national study involving secondary students with disabilities, only 67 percent of those young adults who had exited high school within 8 years had been employed full-time.

“So programs like these are critical," Stinnett said.

For Pickard, this all started when she was volunteering and assisting two brothers on the autism spectrum when she was in high school. From there, she went on to earn degrees in special education and eventually became a principal of a special education day school in Maryland.

Though she attempted to start a version of Independent Grounds in the Washington, D.C., area, she said it never really took off.

“I was dragging my feet a bit,” she said.

That all changed for her in 2016 when her dad, John Pickard, was diagnosed with cancer. She moved back to Charleston to be with him. He eventually died from the disease. That's when she said she realized the familiar adage is true: Life is too short.

Deciding to remain in Charleston, Pickard began networking with the local special education community to get Independent Grounds started. This led to partnerships with MUSC, Counter Culture Coffee and James Island Charter High School.

After serving coffee at MUSC events and finding a carpenter for the cart, Independent Grounds eventually got its current designated spot outside of the College of Nursing in February. Now, 10 students are working with the program, most coming from James Island Charter High School. 

“It’s giving them the job skills that they need,” said Shelly Finley, the high school's employment specialist. “For many of these kids, this is going to be the final educational piece they’re going to have.”

Pickard said she settled on a coffee cart because of the unique social environment coffee shops foster. It gives students the opportunities to practice social skills while learning a job, she said.

While interning for Independent Grounds, students get to work with money, practice reading skills and gain customer service expertise.  

When a customer comes up, Pickard usually calls out to the students and talks them through serving the customer. 

“So that to me is the perfect place to have students practice job skills,” she said.

Pickard and Finely also take notes on the student’s strengths and weaknesses to reflect how they can improve moving forward. It's not just what they do at the coffee cart, Finely said. 

For Andrew Stubbs, a 26-year-old nonstudent intern with cerebral palsy, his mother said that the program is opportunity for people to be aware of individuals with his communication needs. She said for Andrew, who uses a speech generating device directed by his eyes, awareness is vital since finding work for him is a bit trickier. 

“It brings community awareness to individuals who can’t talk," Susan Stubbs said. “That’s my biggest thing — public awareness.”

Since the first day of regular service in February, Independent Grounds has had 13 students intern at the cart. They have been diagnosed with a range of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and individuals with intellectual, emotional and learning disabilities. 

Pickard said her current goal is to extend the cart's hours of service to accommodate more students looking to intern and to increase funding. Though coffee is sold, additional donations assist with operating costs and coffee costs.

According to Pickard, a $20 donation covers additional vocational training for one of the interns since the group organizes additional training luncheons to go over things such as tricky social skills and hygiene expectations.  

She said they also are seeking more local businesses to get involved and establish similar programs to increase the students' employment opportunities.

“These guys would be such an asset to any employer around," she said. “And with a little bit of accommodation and a little special training, they would be amazing employees.”