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

People with Disabilities in America’s Workforce:
Time for Fresh Thinking

The American economy is undergoing dramatic changes that will alter the employment landscape for generations to come. New and emerging fields are taking root and the need for skilled workers in these fields is growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects dramatic growth during the current decade in many industries and occupations in which people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have not typically been represented, including information technology, health care, scientific, and green jobs (2010). As the business community and the labor force respond to the changing economy, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities must be not only part of the economic conversation, they also must be active participants in filling the increased need for skilled workers.

As of January 2012 only 20% of people with disabilities were either working a paid job or seeking employment in the national labor force, compared to 69% of the general population (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). People with intellectual and developmental disabilities face some of the largest hurdles to entering the workforce and as a result experience the highest unemployment rate (Butterworth et al., 2011). When people with intellectual and developmental disabilities do obtain jobs, they are often entry-level positions in the service industries with low wages and few hours (Butterworth et al., 2011; Mank, Cioffi, & Yovanoff, 2003).

These challenges present opportunities for fresh thinking about how job seekers with disabilities can participate in the American workforce in new ways that present more options for meaningful, gainful employment. That fresh thinking calls for use of a suite of approaches and advancements that can facilitate opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to learn about and obtain advanced skills, find and create new types of employment, and enter careers of their choosing, including careers in emerging fields. The remainder of this article discusses strategies that can support these job seekers in pursuing new types of employment in the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Explore Careers

Many job seekers with intellectual and developmental disabilities are faced with the dilemma of choosing the type of work they want to perform with little knowledge about what is possible. Factors such as limited exposure to and experience with varied work opportunities, and stereotypes about the type of work they can perform, often channel job seekers down work paths that are unable to maximize their abilities and have limited opportunities for career development. Job seekers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and those who support their preparation for and participation in the world of work, must think beyond traditional job settings and explore new options. They must also identify, develop, and promote the skills, abilities, and interests they bring to the workforce.

Career exploration is great way to facilitate a deeper understanding about what is possible and what matches a job seeker’s attributes. Career exploration approaches span a spectrum. For some it can be a highly involved process and include strategies such as internships and job tryouts that provide not only opportunities to learn about a field generally, but also to develop skills and perform tasks in the workforce. Initiatives have sprung up to encourage young adults with disabilities to engage in career exploration activities in the same fields as their nondisabled peers. For example, Entry Point! is a program for people with apparent and non-apparent disabilities offered through the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the program provides internship opportunities in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and business. The National Business and Disability Council has an internship program for young adults with disabilities who are emerging leaders and seeking governmental or non-profit career experiences in Washington, D.C. Another example is the Camps to Careers program in Minnesota that offers young adults with and without disabilities the opportunity to come together to learn in-depth about a variety of growing fields and occupations, including renewable energy and health care.

Regardless of the approach, it is important that job seekers gain exposure to a variety of types of jobs and settings. Basing a job search or career exploration solely on the needs of the business community can be limiting since it often requires job seekers to adapt and fit within an existing employment structure, such as developing the required skills and acquiring the educational background they must have to be hired. For many this business-driven career exploration is not useful. This is why career exploration should also be conducted by using strategies to systematically understand the job seeker’s personal skills, interests, and optimal work situation. This allows for an understanding about the type of career that can be built and adapted around them.

Create Careers

Career development supports span a spectrum of approaches that facilitate the acquisition of employment, including competitive employment, supported employment, and customized employment. Each has strengths and limitations for particular individuals.

Competitive and supported employment practices use more traditional job job-seeking techniques for currently existing jobs, such as resumés, applications, and interviews. Job seekers receive support through this process and upon hiring. This approach responds directly to the business by providing a supply of job applicants to meet hiring needs.

At the other end of the support spectrum is customized employment, which derives from the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2012; Federal Register, 2002). This approach is distinctly different from the traditional supported employment strategies in that customized employment is non-comparative, which means a job seeker is not in competition with other job seekers. Instead employment is negotiated between the employer and the job seeker based on the business’ and job seeker’s employment needs and interests. Through customized employment a job that directly matches a job seeker’s known skills and meets a business need is negotiated with and created by an employer, a process known commonly as job carving or restructuring. Like the traditional employment approach, customized employment provides businesses with a supply of employees to meet specific business needs; however, it also recognizes that if a job is not readily available, other options exist. For example, resource ownership and self-employment provide unique opportunities for job seekers to determine not only what knowledge and skills they will utilize, but also how to bring their knowledge and skills to market, rather than relying on an existing business to decide (Griffin, Hammis, Geary, Crandell & Brooks-Lane, n.d.; Griffin-Hammis Associates LLC, n.d.).

While some professionals dedicate their employment support practice to one approach over another, most see the benefit of understanding and utilizing both traditional job search and customized employment strategies. By having the skills needed to effectively use both strategies the professional on the ground can adapt their approach to best meet the needs of an individual job seeker. Some, such as people with more complex disabilities, may require the more labor- and resource-intensive job customization or self-employment approaches to meet their individual needs and preferences, whereas others may prefer an existing job and employment situation and thus require traditional job search support.

Educate for Careers

Education is a vital link to participating and working in a quickly-changing economy. High school and transition programs have been, and continue to be, the primary launching pad for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities entering the workforce. Today, more than ever, it is important that employment preparation and skill development in these settings provide opportunities for gaining real work experience that directly links to new career pathways. It is also important to recognize that for many Americans, postsecondary education provides an avenue to develop knowledge and skills that lead to expanded career possibilities. Unfortunately, for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, postsecondary education has long been overlooked due to the historically limited access afforded to this population. Dramatic changes are underway. The 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (PL 110-315) provides great opportunity for people with disabilities. Today, across the country, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are enrolled in vocational and technical colleges, as well as two- and four-year programs, completing credentials and degrees. The Think College Web site with its database of postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities nationwide illustrates this new option for students, families, and educators to use to support participation in career preparation. Postsecondary opportunities are known to improve career possibilities, and increasing numbers of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can now pursue advanced education as a mechanism to advance their careers.

Make it Happen

Today, there is a growing expectation that all people with significant disabilities can and should be employed in the community (Kiernan, 2011; Wagner, Cameto, & Newman, 2003). There is no one-size-fits-all approach to make this happen. As we imagine how job seekers with intellectual and developmental disabilities fit within the new and emerging fields, we must recognize that the best jobs are those that match a person’s preferences, strengths, and needs. The best approach to creating new career paths for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is one that never loses sight of the individual job seeker. The strategies discussed in this article provide a snapshot of some of the many different options and approaches available to support individuals to learn about, personally develop, and begin careers of their choosing as participants in the American workforce of the 21st century.

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