Shifting Expectations around Employment:
What can DSPs do?


Jolene Thibedeau Boyd, MS, CESP is Chief Service Officer at Community Involvement Programs in Minneapolis, MN. She can be reached at

Photograph of a young man with Downs Syndrome working as a barista.

The foundation of employment and day services was built more than 125 years ago. Sheltered workshops were created for people with visual impairments. The first sheltered workshops were meant to provide people more opportunities for community engagement through work. But these institutions always fell short of integration and inclusion. People were always separated from others without disabilities. However, this failure did not stop service providers from creating many similar programs. Many began in the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, in 1979, the Department of Labor reported that the number of sheltered workshops had increased from 85 in 1948 to 3,000 by 1976. This is a 30-fold increase!

At the same time, disability advocate and founder of the Independent Living Movement, Ed Roberts, called for a shift in the way disability was viewed. He wanted everyone to "develop high expectations for people with disabilities, allowing them to have control over their lives and to engage in meaningful aspects of life and participating in their communities by working." Working can be an important way that all of us earn a living and develop relationships with others. Opposite of Roberts’ vision, people who participate in facility-based settings and sheltered workshops may have limited opportunities to connect with their communities through work. In 2015, over 134,000 people served by IDD agencies in the US participated in sheltered workshops during the day. A large number of people have no work at all.

Recently, there has been a shift in expectations around employment. This is shown by the "Employment First" philosophy: "Expecting, encouraging, providing, creating, and rewarding integrated employment in the workforce as the first and preferred option of youth and adults with disabilities." The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have put this shift in expectations into policy. The policy states that home and community-based providers require that all licensed settings support greater access to the community. This includes supporting opportunities for employment in competitive and integrated businesses. In addition, the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law in 2014. WIOA was designed to increase successful employment opportunities through more access to education, training, and support services.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy defines customized employment as a flexible process designed to personalize the employment relationship between a job candidate and an employer in a way that meets the needs of both. It is based on an individualized match between the strengths, conditions, and interests of a job candidate and the identified business needs of an employer. Customized employment utilizes an individualized approach to employment planning and job development — one person at a time . . . one employer at a time.

Customized employment aligns well with the federal policies mentioned above. It gives people the chance to find jobs that fit their skills and interests. People are more likely to do well at their jobs, work at regular businesses, and earn competitive wages. By using customized employment, individuals are able to connect with others through the typical flow of daily working life.

Research helps show how much we need these policies and changes in our practices in supporting people with disabilities to find and keep community-based jobs. In a survey of over 16,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, only 19% of people had paid work in the community. Of the people who did not have a community job, nearly half of people said that they would like to have one. But only 30% of people had community employment as a goal in their service plan.

These numbers show there are lots of opportunities for DSPs to support people to find and keep a job that matches their skill set. This may require changes in day-to-day practices. What follows are a few suggestions that DSPs can use and suggest to their organization.

  • Embrace change. Although it is important to be thoughtful and take time to clear a path toward customized employment, don’t get stuck in planning. The time may never be "just right" for making change.
  • Start small. Customized employment is a person-by-person approach. Resist the urge to try new processes on a large scale. There will be new skills and processes to learn. Work on concrete steps and actions. This will keep you moving forward.
  • Start with someone who really wants a job. Rather than identifying someone who has little interest in employment or little team support, learn along with someone who is very motivated to find a job. Their enthusiasm and your commitment will be a great combination for going on the journey together. Then repeat the process as many times as needed.
  • Dig deeper with person-centered planning. Ask questions while developing person-centered descriptions that delve deeper into what is important to a person. Move past basic, formulaic questions. One helpful tool is the Personal Outcome Measures®. This tool explores how people use their environments. It asks whether or not people are currently included in their work settings. It helps identify how people are or are not included in their community, and how they would like to participate. It moves beyond identifying a person’s interests and skills. These questions are so helpful for finding an appropriate job.
  • Use tools with a proven track record. In addition to the Personal Outcome Measures, Discovering Personal GeniusTM is another successful approach. It uses processes for developing vocational profiles. For example, discovering a person’s ideal employment conditions. It also addresses doing informational interviews with small businesses. An informational interview is less formal than a job interview and allows the individual or employment consultant to ask questions about the business, products and services, and how the business needs are changing. A tour of the business is often part of an informational interview, and additional questions can be asked in a more conversational setting. Direct questions about available jobs are typically avoided during this process and there is no expectation of a job offer.
  • Measure progress. Once a person you support sets a goal, create a tracking tool to measure progress. This should be visual, so you can see the progress! For example, make an outline of a large thermometer on paper on the wall. Fill it in as you work toward the goal. The goal may be completing 20 informational interviews in a month. Or you can make it 100 informational interviews if you create a team. Or, make it a competition with others. For each person supported, track the amount of time it takes from beginning the process to the start of a new job. Track average wage per hour and average hours worked per week. Share these numbers with others in your organization, or even your Board of Directors.
  • Celebrate your success! Since you’re measuring your progress, it will be easy to see your successes. Make sure you take time to celebrate milestones along the way.
  • Recognize that you can’t be successful without others. Meet with other DSPs to compare notes. Talk through challenges you’ve faced. Ask support team members to brainstorm vocational themes. Share networks. Reach out to DSPs in other organizations who use similar practices.
  • Don’t give up. You might feel awkward on your first informational interviews. You will get better with practice. Use the tips and resources from Thought Sauce and keep trying.

Many frameworks for developing high-quality organizations and teams can be applied to employment service organizations. Some of these are the Baldridge Foundation, The Council on Quality and Leadership, Entrepreneurial Operating System®, and Jim Collins: Good to Great. However, the framework chosen is less important than the commitment to focusing beyond the minimum standard. Reaching for high quality will have a significant impact on people’s lives.


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  8. U.S. Department of Labor-Office of Disability Employment Policy. (n.d.) What Is Customized Employment [Web page]. Retrieved from .
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  12. Griffin-Hammis Associates [GHA]. (2012). Thought Sauce! Hot Ideas for Cool Employment. Florence, Montana: GHA/CSC.