Skip navigation

Calls to Action

NIH Project SEARCH: Strengthening Our Workplace & Community

As part of our National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) series, the theme for this week is “Collaborative Public & Private Partnerships for Employment.” This blog details the successful partnership of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Washington, D.C. with two local service providers, SEEC and The Ivymount School & Programs. These partners explain how the Project SEARCH model at their site provides a wide range of work experiences for adults with autism and other disabilities.

This blog was compiled by Maureen E. Gormley, MPH, MA, RN and Denise Ford, MS, RD, PMP from NIH Clinical Center, Steve Blanks from SEEC, and Lu Merrick from The Ivymount School & Programs.


In 2010, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Washington, D.C. partnered with the Ivymount School, which provides school and community-based services for children and young adults with special needs in the metropolitan area, and SEEC, a local nonprofit that provides community-based employment, to create new internship opportunities for young adults with intellectual disabilities including autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

NIH Project SEARCH, a 30-week unpaid internship program, was conceived as a way to provide total workplace immersion for individuals with disabilities, so that each intern can acquire work experience along with competitive, marketable, and transferrable skills. During the internship, Ivymount and SEEC’s on-site staff members provide personalized supports for the interns who serve in a variety of positions throughout the 240-bed research hospital on the NIH campus, including hospitality services, patient transport, data processing, and education and training.

We believe NIH is the perfect place for this type of collaborative public-private partnership for employment of individuals with intellectual disabilities. As a federal workplace, this type of program supports the president’s goal of increasing the employment rate of workers with disabilities. NIH has 27 institutes and centers that conduct a variety of work, providing NIH Project SEARCH interns with many opportunities to explore a wide range of complex jobs and career paths.

We have been asked by leaders of other organizations how we have implemented this type of program so successfully at the NIH. The secret to our success is our focus on placing interns in positions that best match their strengths and interests.  Project SEARCH uses a business-led model that is rooted in the understanding that the talents and interests of people with disabilities are as varied and individualized as they are within any group.  Additionally, this program would not thrive without the hard work and support of all of our partners – the dedicated staff members from the Ivymount School and SEEC provide invaluable on-campus training and mentoring to the interns throughout the 30-week internship. This shared responsibility is what ensures that each intern has the best chance of obtaining paid employment upon completion of the program. The ultimate goal of every Project SEARCH is workforce transition and gainful employment. We want to help these young adults find careers that are meaningful and long lasting.

In the two years since its inception, more than eight NIH Project SEARCH graduates have secured permanent positions at the Clinical Center. Project SEARCH has also expanded NIH-wide to support 10 interns at seven institutes and centers across the campus.

We are very proud of this program – and especially of our interns – and we believe that they are making our community a better place for everyone. There are many misperceptions about people with intellectual disabilities and their abilities to contribute in the workforce. However, this program has provided us with a platform to show that intellectual disabilities do not have to be a barrier to successful employment and meaningful, long-term careers.

At the NIH, Project SEARCH interns are embraced by the workplace culture. Consistently, NIH worksites report that the hard work, dependability, and genuine spirit of the interns bring out the best in workplace staff.  In many ways, while the interns are learning during their 30-week program at the NIH, they are also very much teaching us.

To learn more about NIH Project SEARCH, view the video online:

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.