Impact Feature Issue on Parenting Teens and Young Adults with Disabilities

Eight Effective Steps to Employment Success


Cary Griffin and Dave Hammis are Senior Partners in Griffin-Hammis Associates

Alicia* received her Certificate of Attendance from public school and faced unemployment. Luckily, the local community rehabilitation program leveraged Vocational Rehabilitation and Developmental Disabilities funds to assist her in finding a job. Alicia made no secret of her love for children, but her school program only offered training in office skills and short unpaid work experiences bussing tables at a restaurant. With assistance from an employment specialist, Alicia visited several day care centers but found no jobs for individuals without experience. Digging deeper into her interests revealed that she enjoyed using computers with basic math and reading software. Even with minimal reading and math skills, the software served as her guide, and her ability to use the programs and her enthusiasm led the employment specialist to suggest that Alicia become a computer tutor for children.

Alicia worked with her team locating a pre-school program that needed computer equipment and an instructor. Using personal funds set aside for employment she brought a new computer and software into a day care facility, becoming their newest employee. The business charges families extra for computer tutoring, and Alicia is paid for her work. Three years later, the initial investment in equipment and software, along with job coach support setting up the operation, has paid off, allowing Alicia the success she dreamed of, and increasing the profitability of the business.

Alicia’s story is not typical. Today, only 26% of adults with developmental disabilities are working (Hall, et al., 2006). However, with a bit of planning and an understanding of employment options, transition-aged youth can attain vocational success.

Alicia’s story serves as an inventive, but simple, approach to creating employment. Traditional competitive employment fails people with disabilities. There are many entry-level jobs available for people with disabilities, but career advancement and doing what one loves are less common for individuals with significant disabilities. Therefore, changing our understanding of employment and approach to getting jobs is necessary. The following eight steps are a starting point: 

  • Raise expectations. Families are often discouraged from having dreams and setting high expectations for their children with disabilities. Expecting children to grow-up and work is a crucial first step to success. Make certain that children have household chores, after-school jobs, and summer employment.
  • Follow expectations with action. One critical activity is saving for the future. Families should consider establishing an “employment fund” for their child just as they might for a sibling expected to attend college. This fund can be used for advanced training, buying tools, securing transportation or starting a business. 
  • Advocate for real work experience. Work experiences should be paid either by the school, an arrangement through a youth employment program sponsored by the local Work-force Center or One-Stop, Vocational Rehabilitation or the employer. These time-limited try-outs can help clarify the interests of the individual, and reveal the supports necessary for success, the best teaching approaches, and future options for work and study. Wages build a work ethic, garner peer status, and reinforce the connection between labor and reward.
  • Augment exploitable resources. The best jobs go to those who offer the greatest potential benefit to an employer. Having equipment or tools that enhance employability can help career advancement. Alicia’s talents were augmented by computer equipment. Using these assets, a new job was created. Using valued resources to secure employment is analogous to using a college degree to get a job.
  • Apply for Social Security. As graduation approaches, parents should investigate eligibility for the Social Security system programs. Social Security provides a variety of work incentives available to individuals with disabilities.
  • Arrange for a smooth transition. Many states have waiting lists for adult services, so graduating with work experience and a paid job are crucial. In addition, it is also critical to apply well before graduation to the state for case management services and for vocational supports at the local One-Stop center.
  • Consider self-employment. Business ownership is the fastest growing employment option in America and many people with disabilities have ideas and interests that easily translate into money-making opportunities. Consider starting early and remember how young most children are when they open their first lemonade stand.
  • Use the family network. Most people get their jobs through personal contacts. Families consume local goods and services and have friends and colleagues. Use these contacts to help your child locate appropriate work experiences and jobs.

* Alicia’s story is a composite of several people’s experiences

  • Hall, A., Butterworth, J., Winsor, J., Gilmore, D., & Metzel, D. (2006). Pushing the employment agenda: Case study research of high performing states in integrated employment. Manuscript in Preparation.