Frontline Initiative: Direct Support Professionals Supporting People's Employment
Where Can I Learn More About Supporting People to Find Jobs?
Danielle Mahoehney, author
After graduating from college, I spent two years as a live-in direct support professional (DSP) in a group home where four people with intellectual and developmental disabilities lived. One of my favorite parts of my job was supporting the people I lived with as they explored their interests and learned new skills. There were many moments when a person I supported completely surprised me by picking up a skill that I did not expect they would be able to do. During my time as a live-in DSP, I began to understand that the people I supported were capable of moving about in the world much more independently than they were allowed to do in the licensed home or day support services where they spent their lives.
While preparing for an annual meeting of a person I supported in their home, I asked the program director about the person’s employment situation. This person had physical and intellectual disabilities, and she was a very quick learner who delighted in trying and mastering challenging tasks. At the time, she worked at a sheltered workshop for subminimum wage. She expressed boredom at the rarely-changing, menial tasks she did (when there was any work to do at all), and the $3 paychecks she would receive every two weeks meant she couldn’t get her hair and nails done as often as she wanted. I wondered why she didn’t have a “regular” job in the community that paid more, like one of her housemates did. The program director explained that this person had once tried a community job years before, folding napkins and preparing place settings at an Italian restaurant. However, it didn’t work out. The person didn’t like how her supervisor at that job talked to her, and, apparently, she talked back rudely to the supervisor. As far as her support team was concerned, a community job just wasn’t going to work for this person. I just nodded and continued completing the residential paperwork for the person’s annual meeting. I had no ideas about how to overcome the many obvious obstacles the person would have to finding a community job that would be a good fit for her.
Looking back at this moment, I cringe at my silent acceptance of the judgment that this person couldn’t work. With the right employment supports, I now believe she would have thrived in the right work environment with the right supervisor—and maybe she could make enough money to have her hair done weekly! But none of us on her support team had the background, knowledge, or training to envision what the “right” employment supports, “right” work environment, or “right” supervisor looked like for this person. It wasn’t until a few years later that I was introduced to concepts such as Employment First and customized employment.
Direct support professionals—even those who don’t directly support a person in employment, like employment consultants and job coaches do—can play a very important role in supporting a person to find and keep a community job. The first step to doing this is to understand at a basic level the practices and policies that support people with disabilities to find and keep competitive, integrated employment. Fortunately, there are many excellent resources that can help DSPs do that.
Direct support professionals (DSPs)—even those who don’t directly support a person in employment, like employment consultants and job coaches do—can play a very important role in supporting a person to find and keep a community job. The first step to doing this is to understand at a basic level the practices and policies that support people with disabilities to find and keep competitive, integrated employment. Fortunately, there are many excellent resources that can help DSPs do that.
Check out the Association of People Supporting Employment First . Consider joining this member-based organization, especially if you are a DSP who supports people to find and/or keep employment. They offer training opportunities, policy updates, and connections to other professionals who believe all people can work.
For more information and resources about best practices, explore ThinkWork at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion. ThinkWork is a hub for programs related to employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This site contains briefs, reports, and tools on employment-related topics, including supporting job seekers/employees, staff training and development, and engaging families.
If you want strengthen your skills in supporting people to find and keep jobs, search for customized employment training opportunities in your area. Customized employment is a process for supporting people with disabilities to achieve competitive, integrated employment by working with both the employer and the jobseeker to personalize a job in a way that meets the needs of both. There are also opportunities to take this training virtually. The College of Employment Services , which is a curriculum within DirectCourse , also provides excellent training modules to deepen your knowledge of employment services and practices.
One of the biggest barriers many people with disabilities face in finding employment is the low expectations of those around them. If no one believes the person can work, especially the people who are supposed to be supporting the person to pursue their interests and build skills, guess what? The person probably won’t find a job. All DSPs have the important role of expecting the person can work and providing the needed supports to make that happen.