Supported employment enables individuals with developmental disabilities to work in their communities, with ongoing support from agencies. The model emphasizes placement in competitive jobs, which are positions that anyone could hold and pay the same wage regardless of disability status.
Agencies offer assistance in a variety of forms, including job searching, career development, and skills training to prepare individuals for employment. Many providers will also continue to support the individual after they begin work. The goal is to enable individuals to work as independently as possible, in a job that matches their skills, interests, and goals.
Supported employment programs first emerged around the 1970s, when advocacy groups and providers began to turn their attention to community integration for individuals with disabilities. In the 1980s, the supported employment model rapidly grew in availability throughout the US. In this decade, the federal government also began supporting these programs through funding measures.
The push for community inclusion eventually led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was a pivotal moment in preventing employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
First and foremost, supported employment is meant to provide greater autonomy and community integration to a person with disabilities. In a successful supported employment model, individuals can enjoy meaningful, long-term employment that matches their personal interests and needs.
This employment model is also important for the overall health of the economy and there are a variety of benefits of supported employment for businesses that participate. Research has proven that hiring individuals with disabilities fosters greater collaboration, creativity, and inclusivity throughout an organization. However, according to 2019 data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 19.3% of Americans with disabilities were actively employed. In comparison, the employment rate of Americans without a disability was 66.3% in the same year.
While not every individual with a disability wishes to participate in employment, it can be difficult for individuals who want to be employed to find and maintain their jobs. Barriers include a lack of understanding of supported employment among potential employers, unconscious biases that play out in the hiring process, and insufficient accommodations in the workplace.
Over the years, the employment model has taken on a variety of different forms. Agencies choose to form a network of partnerships with local businesses - connecting the individuals they serve with businesses that might employ them. This approach allows the individual to integrate fully into the community, working in a job alongside diverse employees and possibly interacting with customers depending on the position.
The partnership model also provides a wider variety of employment options, increasing the likelihood of connecting individuals to positions that match their interests. Over time, this model has proven to be one of the most sustainable supported employment models - offering the benefits of greater community integration while allowing the individual to fill a position that already exists in the labor market.
There are a growing number of opportunities for individuals to participate in self-employment. Agencies can partner with nonprofits and social enterprises that help market and sell handcrafted items made by individuals. Or, individuals can also take advantage of opportunities for entrepreneurship through digital platforms and social media. Since 2016, a couple of states have taken steps to include self-employment under their definition of competitive employment.
COVID-19 caused many agencies to temporarily close their social enterprises or pause their employment services. In the past few months, some agencies decided to pivot to providing some of their employment services remotely. While various states have issued guidance on how to bill for remote employment services, the long-term impact on funding and regulations remains unclear. Overall, providers are considering how to best re-open these services while prioritizing the safety of the individuals they serve.
Over the years, supported employment has also progressed towards a more holistic model of employment services. Agencies are dedicating more resources than ever to career development, interviewing skills, retention support, and employee advocacy. Beyond helping an individual obtain a job, agencies are focusing their efforts on ensuring that the experience is as sustainable and meaningful as possible through situational assessments, development, coaching, and other supports.
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