What Parents Need to Know About Supported Employment for Individuals with Multiple Disabilities

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Supported Employment (SE) is a program established by the federal government in the 1980s that enables individuals with severe disabilities to become employed. It is a complex system that blends resources from a variety of sources. The following information provides a general description of supported employment.

What Is Supported Employment?

It is a model of employment that provides people with severe disabilities the appropriate, ongoing support that is necessary for success in a competitive work environment. Most individuals in a supported employment program receive services from a community-based service provider. Generally, community-based service providers offer vocational assessment, locate or develop jobs, and provide job skills training. Most providers have job coaches who work at the job site and help the client learn job tasks, identify job modifications including assistive technology, and work with the employer to solve behavioral or social problems.

Example: Jim is developmentally delayed and has problems communicating with people. He rarely uses words and frequently acts out when he becomes frustrated or upset. A staff person assessed his vocational skills and located a job for him in a large retail store. Jim enjoys tearing things apart, and his task at work is to break down cardboard cartons and put them in the recycle container. He works three hours twice a week. Store employees put all cardboard boxes in a work area set aside for Jim. The job coach works with the employer and Jim to assist him with communicating with coworkers and to avoid situations that might frustrate or upset him.

Who Is Supported Employment Designed to Help?

It is for individuals with severe disabilities who need lifelong, ongoing support. An individual with vision loss who has additional, severe disabilities would, therefore, be eligible for supported employment. Most individuals with vision loss only need access to information and not direct support and therefore are not candidates for supported employment.

Example: Sally is blind, developmentally disabled, and is easily distracted. Because of these problems, she is not able to work without extensive training in job tasks and guidance to keep working. She works in the laundry department of a large hotel folding towels and sheets. Assistance is provided from a job coach in setting up her workstation each day and making sure that she stays on task. She folds laundry five days a week for three hours each day with pay at minimum wage.

Where Is Supported Employment Located?

Supported employment is never in a segregated setting with all coworkers being disabled. The federal government has defined what employment settings meet their definition of supported employment. Examples of employment settings for supported employment would be:

  1. In a competitive job with no other individuals with disabilities.

    Example: Sally from our first example enjoys working with cloth and continues to work at the hotel. No other employee has a disability, and so, this is an example of supported employment.

  2. Part of an enclave of no more than six individuals with disabilities.

    Example: Joe enjoys putting things together. He has low vision and autism with problems relating to others and staying on task. His job is at a factory assembling parts. Five other individuals who are disabled also work at the same factory assembling parts. Because he is employed in an integrated setting that has no more than six individuals who are disabled, he is considered to be in a supported employment program. Services are provided to all six employees by a job coach from a community-based service provider.

  3. Part of a mobile crew of no more than six individuals with disabilities who travel to different locations to provide a service such as cleaning or landscaping.

    Example: Gerry likes to be outdoors. He is visually impaired and developmentally delayed with Downs Syndrome. He is one of six disabled people who are on a mobile crew that provides landscaping services to local businesses. The community-based service provider supplies two job coaches who provide transportation to the various locations and assign work tasks to crew members.

  4. Self-employed business. An example would be a client who has set up a company that shreds documents for various businesses.

    Example: Claire enjoys operating a paper shredder and is cortically blind, developmentally delayed, and has cerebral palsy. The community-based service provider surveyed local businesses and established there was a need for a business to provide the shredding of confidential documents. Claire and her family worked with her vocational rehabilitation counselor to set up an independent business in her name. She was able to purchase a van and a commercial shredder that could travel to different business locations. A job coach drives the van and assists Claire in shredding documents. This is an example of supported employment that includes the creation of a job from exploring the needs of the local business community and is a strategy for creating employment options in rural settings.

When Is Supported Employment Appropriate?

Supported employment can begin as part of a vocational rehabilitation program once an individual has left the public school system. Vocational rehabilitation has a responsibility to provide supported employment services when appropriate. School systems play a role as they are mandated to formally plan for the transition from school into adult services. Schools should also take an active role in providing career education, skills training, and job sampling as part of their services.

Example: John is visually impaired and developmentally delayed. At age 14, his school began planning for his transition from school and included the vocational rehabilitation counselor from the state agency. As part of his transition work program, he experienced jobs in several different settings with his favorite being a greeter and a busboy at a local hamburger chain. He is very good at this job and enjoys the work. The work experience greatly benefited those involved in planning for John's employment as they can now focus their efforts on locating a job at a restaurant.

How Does Supported Employment Happen?

Supported employment begins with the assembling of a team of individuals who will explore options and create a plan for supported employment. The planning team should include the individual who is disabled, their family, school personnel, adult service providers, and members of the community who may be able to provide information and assistance. Vocational rehabilitation can begin the supported employment plan and will fund services for a designated length of time, usually one year. Supported employment requires that services be provided without disruption, and the plan must designate the source of extended support service funds. State agencies that typically provide such funding are developmental disability, intellectual disability, mental health, or similar agencies. When state agencies are not available to fund supported employment, extended services solutions have been found by creative use of other programs such as Supplemental Security Income.

During the planning process, a community-based service provider must be located to provide the actual supported employment services. Typically, the community-based service provider begins by providing intensive services in vocational assessment, job location, and job placement but might also include job skill training, assistive technology, necessary job modifications, and on-going support. Once a person has been placed on a job, his or her need for ongoing support may diminish over time. The goal is for the employer to eventually provide the "natural" supports available from coworkers.

Example: When Sue was nearing the end of her school's transition program, there were several meetings to plan for her adult life. A vocational rehabilitation counselor attended and worked with Sue and her family to formulate a plan for supported employment. As part of the planning process, Sue and her family selected a community-based service provider from those available in their community. Services provided to Sue by the selected community-based service provider included a vocational evaluation, job development, and job coaching. Funding began with the vocational rehabilitation program and then was picked up by the state developmental disability agency at the time period designated in her supported employment plan.

Sue has a job delivering documents to loan officers in the loan department at a major bank. A job coach spent the first weeks teaching her how to identify to whom a document should be delivered. Sue was soon able to perform her job but had difficulty knowing when to return from lunch and break time. The staff at the loan department solved this problem by giving her a beeper and provided the "natural" support of beeping her when it was time to return to her work station. The job coach faded services to checking in with the employer and Sue twice a month.

Why Is There Supported Employment?

Supported employment is the end point of the movement to retain individuals with severe disabilities within the communities in which they live. Previously, these same people might have spent their lives in segregated settings such as institutions. Supported employment is a means by which people can be successful in employment that fits their talents, interests, and abilities.

Example: Scott is visually impaired and developmentally delayed. He has received services throughout his life in his community and never placed in a segregated setting. At age 18, he participated in school graduation ceremonies with his peers but continued to receive services from his school district transition program. The transition program was located at a local mall, and Scott spent several years exploring different jobs and learning skills necessary for living independently. During his last year of eligibility for school services, a permanent job on a janitorial crew at a local hospital was located, and Scott then left the school system. A previously selected community-based service provider began working to support Scott in his new job. As Scott had extensive work experience in his three years with the school program, the majority of his support came from coworkers, and the community-based service provider performed bi-monthly consultations with his employer.

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