Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Self-Advocates Helping Each Other Achieve Employment Goals


Cindy Sareault Thomas is a Project Director with the Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston

Everyone, regardless of disability or service systems, has the right to find meaningful and gainful employment. That’s the core principle underlying the Explore-Prepare-Act: Finding the Job You Want peer-to-peer training. Explore-Prepare-Act has been developed by, and for, individuals with intellectual disabilities living in Massachusetts to help them more effectively advocate for themselves to achieve their employment goals. It focuses on increasing the expectations individuals have for themselves, and on familiarizing them with the steps they can take, with or without support, to obtain employment now that the focus of service systems is moving from sheltered to integrated employment.

How It Began

The Explore-Prepare-Act peer-to-peer training curriculum was developed in 2011 in response to self-advocates who expressed frustration with employment services they were receiving and talked passionately about the challenges of moving out of sheltered workshops. They talked about the limited expectations that individuals sometimes have for themselves, as well as the limits often placed on them by family members and/or service providers. In response to this input, a work group was convened that included self-advocates and representatives from Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong, the Department of Developmental Services, and the Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts Boston. This group initially envisioned the development of materials and resources that could be used to support self-advocates who were seeking employment services and supports. Over time the decision was made to develop a video and related curriculum entitled, Explore-Prepare-Act: Finding the Job You Want. With support from Work Without Limits, a Massachusetts Employment Initiative funded through the Massachusetts Infrastructure and Comprehensive Employment Opportunities grant, the workgroup evolved into a project steering committee and a curriculum development team was formed and staffed primarily by self-advocates. In 2011, the video and curriculum were finalized and 14 self-advocates were hired as trainers along with five mentors.

What it Includes

The Explore-Prepare-Act curriculum is a two and one-half hour training divided into five modules: Introduction, Explore, Prepare, Act, and Wrap-up. Each module addresses an important step in finding employment, using presentations, interactive discussion, hands-on activities and multimedia presentations with clips from the Explore-Prepare-Act video (see

In Part 1, Introduction, trainers involve the audience in an interactive warm-up activity, show an introductory video clip of people with disabilities working in a variety of competitive jobs, and discuss the importance and meaning of employment. Part 2, Explore, helps participants learn how they might explore their own interests and skills and learn about jobs in their community. In Part 3, Prepare, trainers use video, discussion, and picture representations to teach participants about resumé development, professional attire, and social skills. Part 4, Act, teaches self-advocates to pursue the kinds of jobs they want, and to communicate their strengths and goals effectively. And Part 5, Wrap-up, includes a review of the job search components, Explore-Prepare-Act, and a written evaluation activity. 

The Role of Trainers and Mentors

The trainers for Explore-Prepare-Act are self-advocates with intellectual disabilities recruited from across the state of Massachusetts who have had experience working in integrated employment. Out of over 70 applicants, 14 individuals were chosen to become trainers. They come from various backgrounds and have a wide range of employment histories. In addition, a mentor was hired for each team to support trainers to learn the material, enhance their training skills, and assist with training logistics and transportation.

All trainers and mentors participated in a series of train-the-trainer sessions over an eight-week period in 2011. In the sessions they learned the fundamentals of training as well as the curriculum, adapted materials to meet their needs, and made suggestions to the project team for improvements to the curriculum. The train-the-trainer series included five days of statewide training meetings led by members of the project steering committee. Each day was structured to include: (1) Welcome and warm-up, (2) employment topic discussion, (3) team-building activity, (4) demonstration of one training module by the project team, and (5) an introduction to the next module in the training curriculum. Training teams practiced using new curriculum material between sessions. Each day of train-the-trainer activities promoted a sense of cohesion among regional training teams, as well as the statewide group as a whole.

Once fully trained, the regional Explore-Prepare-Act training teams comprised of two or three trainers connected with local self-advocacy groups and service providers in order to recruit groups of 10-15 interested job seekers with intellectual disabilities to participate in a pilot training. Mentors assisted in logistical coordination, preparation of training materials and transportation; however, a cornerstone of this project is the idea that the mentors do not provide training, and intervene during training sessions only at the request of the trainers. As of early 2012, the pilot training is complete, and training sessions for self-advocates seeking employment are now being offered statewide.

Self-Advocate Response

To date over 120 individuals with intellectual disabilities have participated in the Explore-Prepare-Act trainingEvaluation comments indicate that participants like the peer-to-peer approach, sharing personal stories, asking questions, the opportunity to learn about how to find a job, and the video clips and exercises. Many have indicated that the training is easy to understand, while some have said that they could use more support to help them fully participate. Most have indicated that they learned more about finding a job, the training made them think differently about their job goals, and they would use the steps they learned in their own job search.

In addition to the positive responses from participants, the self-advocates who are the trainers have identified ways in which they’ve benefited from being part of Explore-Prepare-Act. Trainer Andre William says, “All I have ever wanted to do was to help people change their lives. Doing Explore-Prepare-Act helps me do this. For me, being a trainer has been life changing. I was very reserved and shy, and being a trainer has helped me become more talkative. Now I can help people understand that they can get a job that they want.” Another trainer, Annmarie Devane, says, “I love doing this job! The people we are meeting with like the training. We teach them and they teach us. We are all learning from each other. I like being a example for others and helping them see that if I can get a job so can they.” And trainer Donna Jay points out the importance of the training, saying, “People who go to workshops need to know what other opportunities they can have. We shouldn’t be shy because everyone can go to work. Everyone can make money.”

What Comes Next

While Explore-Prepare-Act has been well received both in Massachusetts, where it’s being implemented, and nationally through two recent conference presentations, the project partners have identified the need for an evaluation strategy to assess the efficacy of this model. Ultimately, does participation in the training influence the action steps participants take to address their own employment goals? As a first step to encourage participants to act on what they have learned a “Dear Friend/Family” letter has been developed and will be added to the training packets given to participants. The letter provides an overview of the training and requests that the recipient either assist the participant in obtaining a job or help them access the support they may need to reach their employment goals. It is hoped that this will be a conversation-starter that will facilitate important discussions about employment between participants and their families, friends and/or support staff. Project partners are also currently looking at follow-up approaches that can be easily implemented in order to determine the impact training has on participants. Additionally, an evaluation is being developed to assess the impact that being employed as trainers has had on the Explore-Prepare-Act trainers themselves.