Feature Issue on Transition in a Global Context for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities
School-To-Work Initiative: Braided Funding and Customized Employment for Students with Significant Disabilities
Customized employment strategies provide exposure to a broad array of interests.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA, 2014) defines customized employment as an individualized employment approach designed for people with significant disabilities to achieve competitive integrated employment. The foundation of customized employment is the discovery process, a flexible strategy to identify an individual’s strengths, interests, and support needs. Through discovery, an employment provider can identify job tasks that align with the individual’s strengths and interests; preferred work environments; and appropriate support strategies. Discovery allows for individuals with significant disabilities to explore careers in community-based settings, demonstrate their strengths, and find their interests through hands-on experiences. This flexible exploration is essential for transition-age youth, who may have limited exposure to the wide variety of occupations and limited experience in a work setting. Consider a transition-age youth who is at home doing a favorite hobby, making latch-hook rugs. During this discovery activity, the employment specialist notices the youth is excellent at sorting yarn by color and keeping the yarn organized, and has identified two transferable skills to explore further.
The Utah School-to-Work Interagency Transition Initiative (USITI) implemented a customized employment model from 2016 to 2022. Using a multi-agency, collaborative approach, the project coordinated employment services for transition-age youth with significant disabilities who would benefit from the discovery process to achieve competitive integrated employment. Knowing that interagency collaboration is an evidence-based predictor for postsecondary employment and education success (Mazzotti et al., 2021), USITI developed and facilitated school-to-work transition teams made up of partners from multiple service agencies. USITI developed eight project demonstration sites with 10 interagency teams. To date, the partners have coordinated services and funding to support 97 students on their individual paths to employment using customized strategies.
Team members include educators and school administrators, vocational rehabilitation counselors, WIOA youth counselors, state developmental disability service providers, adult service providers, support coordinators, and USITI project staff. Some teams have included independent living center staff and Utah Parent Network representatives. Monthly team meetings ensured that customized employment strategies were coordinated and provided students a range of opportunities to explore and connections to service agencies.
The USITI project was guided by three principles: Transition to employment should be individualized; success is based on students’ strengths and interests, not a prescribed transition checklist; and all students can achieve competitive integrated employed with person-centered and individualized supports. By following these principles within a collaborative team, we have supported students with the most significant disabilities to exit secondary education with a variety of meaningful, individualized work experiences leading to careers and other positive post-school outcomes.
USITI began in 2016 with Partnerships in Employment grants awarded by the Administration of Community Living (ACL). The funding supported the hiring of a program coordinator to oversee the day-to-day support and development of the interagency teams; technical assistance and training to interagency team members, and stipends to compensate educators and direct support professionals for their time beyond their contracted time and/or normal job duties.
The USITI was implemented in urban and rural settings by multiple agencies and school districts, focusing on postsecondary students 18 to 22 years old in transition programs.
Interagency Team Leader
Each team identified a leader, typically a transition educator, but some were paraeducators or other school personnel. The team leader had consistent interaction with the students and their families and was expected to be a champion for each student. Team leaders believed in USITI’s guiding principles and were often required to creatively address and resolve difficult challenges.
During monthly meetings, each team member shared information about the students whose supports were being coordinated. Typically, community rehabilitation providers compile all of the information learned during the discovery process. Educators create positive personal profiles, which are electronic portfolios highlighting a student’s strengths, interests, accommodations, support strategies, and work experiences. This profile continues to grow as students gain additional skills and experiences.
Sharing information with other agencies was a new practice for some team members, but through the process they learned collaboration improved service coordination for the student.
Braided funding was defined by Koyanagi, et al., (2003) as “the use of financial resources from various sources to pay for a service package for an individual, with tracking and accountability for each resource maintained at the administrative level. The funds remain in separate strands but are joined at the end of the braid.” Over the past decade, braided funding has been discussed and implemented by many researchers, including Citron et al., (2006). We found that braided funding required additional coordination and frequent communication among collaborating agencies. The monthly collaborative team meetings assisted in facilitating this coordination and maintaining communication between agencies and students and families.
Over the years, we refined our process to successfully braid funding and by sharing our process, we hope to assist others. The first step involved a transition teacher identifying students who would benefit from coordinated employment services using customized employment, then referring them to our school team leader. Next, if they were not already, the student(s) would be referred to the vocational rehabilitation counselor (VRC). During monthly team meetings, we would follow-up with the VRC to determine where students were in the vocational rehabilitation (VR) application and plan development process. This follow-up allowed for school staff to talk to students and families and support them through the VR process if they were having difficulties. Our conversations and follow-up ensured that students did not fall through the cracks. Upon completion of VR intake and development of the individualized plan for employment (IPE), the VRC authorized the funding of the discovery process, to be completed by an adult service provider specializing in customized employment services.
Simultaneously, the student may be referred to and enrolled in the WIOA Youth Program through the Department of Workforce Services. During the discovery process, the employment specialist recognized that students would benefit from a paid internship experience. The workplace experience would identify or refine the students’ employment goal and provide specific work-related skills and experience. It would also illuminate the employer’s expectations and the soft skills needed to interact with customers and co-workers. WIOA funds and VR funds were used to support the paid internship. WIOA reimbursed the employer for the youth’s internship wages and VR funds the job coaching support the student needs to complete the internship as part of the discovery process. During this time, if the student required additional soft skills training, age-appropriate instruction could be provided by the independent living center. The interagency team members coordinated supports and provided a broad range of services and opportunities needed to identify and achieve their employment goal. The coordinated employment experiences may not only result in a job, but also the beginning of a meaningful career path.
USITI project staff created a toolkit for school communities interested in replicating the USITI model. It focused on strategies and best practices for developing partnerships among multiple disability-related agencies to coordinate employment services for transitioning young adults with developmental disabilities from school to employment. The toolkit may be found at https://ceiutah.com/toolkit/.
Students’ and parents’ feedback and our project evaluation have resulted in several recommendations to improve our USITI model. First is to improve the speed in which students are determined eligible for services. Because students had to apply to each funding source separately, they had to attend multiple appointments and repeat their lived experience and goals for the future multiple times to multiple agencies. Once within an agency, they frequently provided the same information to each staff person they met. Many students became disengaged in this process and decided they were not interested in services or secured employment independently. We recommend that a universal application process be created.
We also suggest the transition to employment start earlier than the last year or two before a student exits school. Coordinating services and finding meaningful customized employment experiences for students with significant disabilities takes time. Starting earlier may influence and raise student and parent expectations for competitive integrated employment. Students would also have adequate time to receive services while they still have the support of the education system. This support would lead to improved employment outcomes for students with significant disabilities.
Citron, T., Brooks-Lane, N., Crandell, D., Brady, K., Cooper, M., & Revell, G. (2008). A revolution in the employment process of individuals with disabilities: Customized employment as the catalyst for system change. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 28(3), 169-179. https://bit.ly/3PuqOWa
Koyanagi, C., Boudreaux, R., Lind, E., & Carty, L. (2003). Mix and match: Using federal programs to support interagency systems of care for children with mental health care needs. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
Mazzotti, V. L., Rowe, D. A., Kwiatek, S., Voggt, A., Chang, W. H., Fowler, C. H., ... & Test, D. W. (2021). Secondary transition predictors of postschool success: An update to the research base. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 44(1), 47-64.
Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, 29 U.S.C. § 3101 et seq (2014).