Frontline Initiative: Direct Support Professionals Supporting People's Employment

Employment: Learning from Our History and Building Strong Practices


John Butterworth is a Researcher and Trainer at the Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston in Boston, Massachusetts. John can be reached at

Middle-aged man sitting outside with short graying hair wearing round wire-rimmed glasses. He is wearing a red and blue plaid tab collar shirt, grinning and looking at the camera.

John Butterworth, author

While people with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD) have always been interested in working, the modern focus on employment began in the 1970s with the work of Marc Gold. Marc was an advocate and teacher who believed that all people with disabilities should have the opportunity to live a full life like anyone else. Marc demonstrated that individuals with significant support skills could learn complex tasks quickly using systematic instruction, an approach he called Try Another Way . He applied this approach to supporting people in employment. But Marc’s true gift was changing our expectations and making it clear that we are accountable for providing high-quality instruction and support.

Marc Gold’s teachings spurred work by other pioneers. It led to the development of supported employment as a signature model for supporting individuals to enter jobs. Supported employment, done well, is based on the understanding that there are no prerequisites for employment. Support and teaching can be extended to the workplace. Three principles captured this early on: (1) We should practice zero reject and provide employment supports to anyone who wants to work; (2) There are no prerequisites for employment, and we can find or create a good job match for any jobseeker; and (3) We should support the person to start a job and teach and support them to learn the skills and behaviors they need in that job, rather than practice the predominant assumption that people need to learn skills and behaviors before they look for work. Supported employment brings training and support to the worksite. Supports are available for as long as an individual is employed.

1980s: Expanding Supported Employment

During the 1980s, employment demonstration projects began to multiply across the country. Supported employment was first defined in the Developmental Disabilities Act Amendments of 1984 and then implemented as a new service in the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986. The Rehabilitation Act established dedicated funding for supported employment. It also supported five-year, state-level systems change projects across the nation over a ten-year period, ending in the late 1990s. Since then, our understanding of employment support has continued to evolve. Individuals with significant support needs now work in the competitive labor market, own their own businesses, and pursue careers.

The core skills and values of supported employment have been refined through research. A set of competencies have been validated and implemented through training endorsed by the Association of Community Rehabilitation Educators (ACRE) and the APSE Certified Employment Support Professional (CESP) credential. We have expanded our knowledge of career-planning and discovery, refined our ability to customize jobs by negotiating or creating positions that are a precise match to the gifts and skills of jobseekers, and supported individual business plans. There is a growing movement away from group models of employment, such as sheltered workshops and group-supported jobs like enclaves and mobile work crews. A growing number of states have eliminated the use of subminimum wage (paying people less than minimum wage, based on presumptions about their ability and productivity) through legislation or policy.

1988 to 2000: Increases in Services and People in Employment

With all these investments, the vision in the early 1990s was that employment would become the dominant outcome for people with IDD. Between 1988 and 2000, the number of people receiving support for integrated employment from state IDD agencies did increase from 33,000 to over 100,000, and the percentage of people receiving integrated employment supports grew from 11% of all people receiving a day or employment service to 24% (Winsor et al., 2022). But at the same time, the total number of people receiving services grew to over 450,000, meaning that more people entered facility-based or non-work services than competitive integrated jobs.

2000 to 2012: Gaps in Employment Policies

After the Rehabilitation Services Administration supported employment systems change grants ended, growth in employment stalled. The number of people supported in integrated jobs didn’t grow between 2000 and 2012, and the percent in integrated employment actually dropped to 18% (Winsor et al., 2022).

2012 to Today: Continued Advocacy for Employment Opportunities

Thanks to the strong voices of advocates demanding employment opportunities and changes in state and federal policy, employment participation is growing again: The number of people receiving integrated employment services rose to over 140,000 in 2020 (Institute for Community Inclusion, n.d.). Most states have adopted Employment First policies and strategy. The national organization APSE defines Employment First as follows:

Employment First means that employment in the general workforce should be the first and preferred option for individuals with disabilities receiving assistance from publicly funded systems. Simply put, Employment First means real jobs, real wages.

With a renewed focus on employment, there is now more attention on strengthening policy, funding, investments in training and capacity building, and collaboration between state agencies such as education, vocational rehabilitation, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. There were large drops in employment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but states are recovering to where they were in early 2020 and during the past few years, the employment of people with disabilities has grown faster than employment of people without disabilities.

First and foremost, we know that the individuals we support want to work. The National Core Indicators project asks individuals who don’t have an integrated community job if they want one. In 2020–2021, half of those individuals said yes, they want a community job (NCI-IDD, n.d.). But we struggle to turn that interest into concrete action. Among those who want a job, only 37% reported that they have a goal in their support plan that addresses employment (NCI-IDD, unpublished data).

How Can You Help?

Give individuals opportunities to explore activities and jobs. Talk about what work they would want to do. Listen carefully, and make sure there are specific plans in place for job exploration and discovery that lead to a job search.

A team of board members from Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) collected input on what job seekers want from employment professionals (Barrows et al., 2016). They said, “We want employment professionals who see us as real people, without judgment” (p. 3). Based on the input they received, the SABE board members identified seven themes for employment professionals to focus on:

  1. Get to know me;
  2. Teach me to do my job;
  3. Help keep me balanced so my emotions do not interfere with my work performance;
  4. Make adjustments to the job site for ongoing success;
  5. Be a good role model;
  6. Recognize the importance of peer-to-peer connections; and
  7. Know that we may run into ongoing barriers and keep supporting me!

Read The Truth Comes from Us for detailed recommendations under each of those themes.

Build Your Skills

These skills and values identified by self-advocates are embedded in ACRE-certified training and in the APSE CESP credential. Pursuing one or both credentials is a first step toward strengthening your skills as an employment professional. In addition, our research suggests that ongoing feedback, coaching, and mentoring is an essential part of moving training to implementation of best practice (Butterworth et al., 2020). Employment support professionals who engage in continuous feedback and coaching helped people find jobs more quickly than people who did not, and the job seekers they supported entered jobs with more work hours and better wages. One way to join with other employment support professionals in a learning community is to engage in state or national organizations like APSE and its chapters.


Barrows, M., Billehus, J., Britton, J., Hall, A. C., Huereña, J., LeBlanc, N., McVay, E., & Topper, K. (2016). The truth comes from us: Supporting workers with developmental disabilities . University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion. PDF .

Butterworth, J., Migliore, A., Nye-Lengerman, K., Lyons, O., Gunty, A., Eastman, J., & Foos, P. (2020). Using data-enabled performance feedback and guidance to assist employment consultants in their work with job seekers: An experimental study PDF . Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 53, 189-203.

Institute for Community Inclusion (n.d.). Build a chart.,

Migliore, A., Nye-Lengerman, K., Lyons, O., & Butterworth, J. (2018). Strengthening employment services for job seekers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Bringing Employment First to Scale , Issue 15. University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.

NCI-IDD. (n.d.). National Core Indicators®--Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 2020-21 In-Person Survey (IPS): Work. National Core Indicators. PDF

Winsor, J., Butterworth, J., Migliore, A., Domin, D., Zalewska, A., Shepard, J. , & Kamau, E. (2022). StateData: The national report on employment services and outcomes through 2019 . University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.


APSE. National association and state chapters that support employment first:

Association of Community Rehabilitation Educators:

Institute for Community Inclusion. Employment research and training: