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Curriculum Highlights

Supported, Competitive and Customized Employment


Participants will be able to describe the importance of supported, competitive and customized employment opportunities.

Why This Topic Is Important

The Rehabilitation Act recognizes that “disability is a natural part of the human experience” and "in no way diminishes the right" of individuals to:

  • Live independently,
  • Enjoy self-determination,
  • Make choices,
  • Contribute to society,
  • Pursue meaningful careers, and
  • Enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of American society.

Real work for real pay is an important part of all of these dimensions of life. It means making choices and decisions. It means getting paid, and being more financially-independent. It means being a part of things, and being seen as being a part of things.

Work is an important part of defining who we are. "Hi—what's your name? What do you do?" That's an ordinary greeting when meeting a new person. Imagine what it would be like to have to answer, “Nothing…”

Through work, we contribute to our community and our society. Work gives us a reason to get up in the morning. It creates relationships with other people. When we do a job well, we’re proud.

Without work, it’s hard to be connected to other people. It’s hard to feel that you’re part of anything—where do you belong? People with disabilities have been denied opportunities to work; we need to figure out why. Once we know why, we can work to make changes.

Some people with disabilities may not choose to work competitively. Others may find themselves without a job from time to time. We need to figure out how everyone can still contribute to their communities. If other people do not recognize the contributions that people with disabilities make to the life of the community and the lives of all individuals, people with disabilities will continue to be vulnerable and at risk.

We need to focus on what work is and what it means for each of us. We need to look again at what the absence of work would mean for us or for another person. This is a remarkable era of inclusion and of breaking down some of the last great walls that segregate people with disabilities. Employment, choice, esteem, and empowerment are among the great victories we're just beginning to be able to celebrate together.

Concept Highlights

  • Employment gives workers self-esteem.
  • Employment can help workers feel happy and productive.
  • Most adults with developmental disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed.
  • Most adults with developmental disabilities are ready, willing, and able to work. Some need individual supports to do so.
  • Only one in every four Americans with disabilities has a full-time job.
  • Many adults with developmental disabilities have been in sheltered settings for most of their adult lives.
  • Employment issues such as wages, benefits, advancement, and retirement that are a natural part of the career development process are often not addressed for people with disabilities.
  • Employers generally feel that people with disabilities are good employees.
  • Workers with disabilities may be more reliable on the job than many workers without disabilities.
  • Supported employment is a way to help people with more significant disabilities be successful in jobs/careers.
  • Productive work helps people achieve greater self-reliance.
  • Employment enhances empowerment and choice.
  • People with disabilities who have paying jobs also pay taxes.


1. Willing Workers, Satisfied Employers, and a Supportive Public

A series of Lou Harris and Associates polls and surveys11 from 1991 discovered some important facts about employment, people with disabilities, employers and public attitudes.

  • More than 8 million Americans with disabilities, ages 16-64, want to work but cannot find employment.
  • Only one of every four people with disabilities who work have a full-time job.
  • Forty percent of people with disabilities over 16 did not finish high school.
  • Americans with disabilities are much more likely to be poor and much less likely to be able to find work than most Americans.
  • Harris concluded that lack of employment was a major indication of what it means to have a disability in America.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since those 1991 findings.

The Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability commissioned Harris Interactive to conduct the 2010 Survey of Americans with Disabilities.  Among the findings:

Employment represents the largest gap between the two groups. Of all working-age people with disabilities, only 21% say that they are employed, compared to 59% of people without disabilities – a gap of 38 percentage points. People with disabilities are still much more likely to be living in poverty. People with disabilities are less likely than those without disabilities to socialize with friends, relatives or neighbors, once again suggesting that there are significant barriers to participation in leisure activities for this population. The second-largest gap between people with and without disabilities is regarding Internet access. 85% of adults without disabilities access the Internet, whereas only 54% of adults with disabilities report the same – a gap of 31 percentage points.

Recent polls asked business managers about the employment and lack of employment among people with disabilities. The poll found that employers think:

  • People with disabilities are good employees,
  • The cost of job accommodation is not burdensome, and
  • There are not enough “qualified” people with disabilities to hire.

11Hopkins. K.R. (1991). Willing to act. A summary of Louis Harris and Associates survey findings on public attitudes toward people with disabilities.

2. Supported Employment

According to Michael Shafer, supported employment is based upon the philosophy ... that all individuals are capable of engaging in meaningful and remunerative vocation activity ... that individuals with severe disabilities should be provided only with rehabilitative services that support the opportunity to engage in meaningful and socially valued vocational activity ... and that employment opportunities should be made available only in integrated settings.

SUPPORTED EMPLOYMENT means providing on-the-job support so that someone can find and keep a job. It is an approach that has helped people who used to be thought of as too severely disabled to work. Supported employment makes it possible for persons with severe disabilities to work at typical jobs in the community. It provides the specialized training and support services they need to be successfully employed.

In 1985,12 Paul Wehman and his colleagues in Virginia placed 145 people with disabilities into competitive employment. They worked in integrated work places for at least minimum wage. There were no wage subsidies. They were on the job for an average of 15 – 112 months. Many were considered too disabled to be employed. Individual support extended the abilities of those workers so they could do the job. Forget the labels – focus on the job and what it takes for the person to do the job.

The challenge is to use our creativity to help people find and hold competitive jobs of their choice.

Factors that make supported employment successful include:

  • A process to figure out what each individual has as skills and passion. (the discovery process)
  • A match between the person and the job. (job match)
  • Training for the individual.
  • Changes to the work site that help the individual do the job. (work site accommodations)
  • Support that makes sense for the individual. (individualized supports)
  • As much support as it takes, for as long as it takes. (follow-along and ongoing supports)

12Psychology Today, March 1985.

3. Job Coaches and Natural Supports

Supported employment often involves an individual placement. In this approach, one individual is placed in a job in a community business or industry. A job coach (or employment training specialist) provides training to the individual on the job site in job skills and work related behaviors, including social skills. When the individual's performance reaches the employer's standards, training and on site support is gradually faded. Intervention is increased when needed, for instance, when job duties are increased or the person is promoted to a new job. There is ongoing communication from time to time with the employee and employer.

4. Direct Employment and Career Planning

In the regular employment world, employees directly hire their workers, place them on their payroll, and provide them with benefits (health insurance, sick and vacation time, training and development opportunities, continuing education reimbursements). Businesses that are successful recognize and value their employees, and encourage them to improve/strengthen their work skills. These employees in turn contribute to a more stable work force, and experience personal growth and development. They are on a career path.

These same opportunities should be available for people with disabilities. Career planning is an essential component of employment.

A planning tool that organizes necessary resources to support a person in employment, emphasizes a lifelong approach, and recognizes that personal priorities can and do change throughout life. Career planning is characterized by:

  • Personal preferences, interest and needs.
  • Focus on the quality of an individual's employment, recognizing that each of us defines the quality of our life using different priorities.
  • Concern with a variety of personal life outcomes that employment creates within and outside the work place.
  • A lifelong process. It recognizes that the relative importance of specific outcomes will change as a person changes.
  • A support circle of those people who know a person well.
  • Interrelationships with all parts of a person's life.

5. The Importance of Public Policy

In 1989, Michael Shafer noted the following:

Philosophically, the importance of productive work as a means of achieving social equality and financial independence has now been recognized to apply to individuals with severe (disabilities) …

The U.S. Senate spoke powerfully about the rights of people with disabilities to work:

The committee intends that references to the terms "inclusion and integration" reinforce the principle that individuals with disabilities, regardless of the nature, type, or severity of disability, should have the same opportunity as their nondisabled peers to experience and enjoy working, leisure time activities, and other like experiences in our society. (Senate Report 102-357, The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992 P.L.102-569).

It is well-documented by the Institute on Community Inclusion that people with disabilities have a significantly lower rate of employment than people without disabilities (36 percent versus 74 percent according to the 2006 American Community Survey (ACS) … People with disabilities constitute 6.5 percent of all working-age individuals who are employed in the United States.

The majority of adults with developmental disabilities still work in segregated, sheltered employment settings, as opposed to integrated settings in the competitive labor force. Despite the continued reliance on these programs, critics have consistently questioned the effectiveness of segregated employment settings. These issues continue into the 21st Century and Partners must continue to strive for best practices and work with each other to open employment doors.