Supported Employment

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.

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Benefits of Supported Employment

For agencies continuing to provide supported employment services or are re-opening this service line, fostering a strong network of relationships with employers in the community is a key component of ensuring a positive, safe employment experience for the individuals they serve. If local businesses are seemingly reluctant to employ individuals with disabilities, awareness of the many benefits of supported employment can help change the conversation.

Diversity of Thought

Diversity among employees leads to greater creativity and better problem-solving, as well as more inclusive products. Employing individuals of varying abilities allows businesses to include a diverse range of people in decision-making, design, and production — ensuring that businesses will create products and services that meet the needs of all people.

Community Support

Supported employment has been proven to help businesses garner greater community support. Consumers are increasingly looking to make purchases from businesses that have been active in creating meaningful change in their communities. Participating in a supported employment program can be a long-term, sustainable way to create positive change in a community.

Creativity and Collaboration

Inclusive workplaces make the work environment better for everyone. Studies have shown that working alongside diverse individuals fosters greater collaboration, productivity, and happiness. According to an Accenture report in conjunction with Disability:IN, fostering a robust disabilities employment program can reduce turnover rates by up to 30% for the whole organization.

Support from Agencies

Many businesses may be unaware of the support that they can receive from agencies providing supported employment services. Many agencies offer training, ongoing support, career coaching, and job development to the individuals they serve. In the past few months, many agencies have modified their employment services to continue supporting individuals remotely.

There are numerous benefits of supported employment for both individuals and the businesses that employ them. Fostering strong partnerships with employers in the area will help agencies ensure the most safe, meaningful experience possible for the people they serve.

Origins of Supported Employment

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.

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The Importance of Supported Employment

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.

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Supported Employment Models

Partnerships

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.

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Social Enterprises

Agencies can also choose to run their own businesses that employ individuals with disabilities. Some examples of social enterprises include thrift stores, catering businesses, bakeries, and ice cream shops. The benefit of this model is that the agency can modify the employment environment to ensure that they are creating the best possible experience for the individuals working there. On the other hand, running a social enterprise includes its own unique challenges, involving all the operational work of running any business.

Self-Employment

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.

The Future of Supported 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.

Case Study

Supported Employment with CHCNJ: An Innovative Approach

The Center for Humanistic Change of New Jersey, at its establishment in the early 1980’s, operated as a small residential program serving individuals with disabilities. It ran three group homes and gradually expanded to provide additional services and supports within its northern New Jersey community. In the early 1990s, a shift occurred within the agency and within the sector as a whole. As Paul S. Kucinski, Associate Executive Director, described it, “As New Jersey began closing developmental centers, we were asked to serve four individuals needing assistance. We knew, based on history and the desires of those individuals, that traditional Day Programs that existed at the time would not suffice. So, we welcomed these individuals into our residential program and started providing new Day Hab services.”

From its start, CHCNJ centered its mission in every individual’s right and need to be actively, fully involved in their community. As the agency’s Day Habilitation programs expanded to meet participants’ needs, so did the scope of their philosophy in order to specifically highlight all peoples’ right to work as active, visible, productive members of the community. CHCNJ partnered with employers in the New Jersey communities they serve and built an employment program that allowed more individuals to work one-on-one with job coaches. In conjunction with this supported employment model, agency leadership continued to innovate and expand the scope of their programs.

In 2022, about 21% of people with disabilities were employed, a 2-percentage-point increase from 2021, BLS reports. The percentage of the population with disabilities that are employed is the highest since the BLS published this type of data in 2008. It marked a much higher employment share increase than there was among people without disabilities.

The tight labor market created new opportunities for workers with disabilities, the New York Times reports. “The doors are opening wider because there’s just more demand for labor,” Northwest Center President Gene Boes told the Times. His Seattle-based organization helps people with disabilities become more independent. The center also advocates for more accessible workplaces, which improve company performance as they create a better environment for workers with and without disabilities alike.

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Cones By Design, A Unique Employment Enterprise

One of these major developments was the 1993 establishment of Cones by Design, a gourmet ice cream shop serving seasonal flavors and custom ice cream cakes seven days a week, year round. CHCNJ built Cones by Design as more than just a store, but rather a space in which CHCNJ’s mission could be embodied by staff, volunteers, and customers alike. For staff and volunteers, it’s a place to learn new skills, build community relationships, and a place where individuals with developmental disabilities can work as an active, visible, productive member of the community. The training and service models allow workers to learn as many skills as possible, by design. “Many individuals that work at Cones By Design see this as a place to work forever. Others learn skills and can take those skills to other places,” said Mr. Kucinski.

The success of Cones By Design served as somewhat of a roadmap for building Re-Designs Thrift Shoppe, another employment-based enterprise started by CHCNJ in 2012. Like their ice cream shop, the thrift store centers the agency’s values through a skills development and supported employment program, constructed to promote independence community integration for the individuals they serve.

Managing and Addressing Change During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a variety of disruptions for service providers, creating a swift and considerable shift in the ways they can support their communities. In-person supported employment programs face a unique set of challenges while navigating how to safely operate as well as decisions about whether they are able to continue to do so during this time. A large-scale shift to remote work across the US has come into conflict with the necessity of in-person performance for some roles, such as the service positions in food service and retail that CHCNJ’s enterprises provide.

This also calls attention to the importance of social development, through work, that physical distancing challenges. Central to the models of Cones by Design and Re-Designs Thrift Shoppe are the values and mission of CHCNJ. They operate, above all, to support the engagement and growth of individuals with disabilities in their New Jersey community. Relationship-building, social interaction, and visibility are important tenets of this mission that are deeply challenged in a working model that must also prioritize distance for safety. For agencies like CHCNJ, the challenges of the pandemic require a reevaluation of how to most effectively meet the needs of the individuals they serve during this time, and preparation for adaptation as they move forward.

Research

The Industries Hiring the Most Workers with Disabilities

Written by: Halle Young, Data Work By Paxtyn Merten

People with disabilities are significantly less likely to be employed than the general population, with an unemployment rate roughly double that of workers without disabilities as of 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Slowly, those trends are beginning to shift.

In 2022, about 21% of people with disabilities were employed, a 2-percentage-point increase from 2021, BLS reports. The percentage of the population with disabilities that are employed is the highest since the BLS published this type of data in 2008. It marked a much higher employment share increase than there was among people without disabilities.

The tight labor market created new opportunities for workers with disabilities, the New York Times reports. “The doors are opening wider because there’s just more demand for labor,” Northwest Center President Gene Boes told the Times. His Seattle-based organization helps people with disabilities become more independent. The center also advocates for more accessible workplaces, which improve company performance as they create a better environment for workers with and without disabilities alike.

The growth of remote work also benefited workers with disabilities in an outsized way, removing a major barrier to entry at remote-capable jobs.

Foothold Technology analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics data to determine which industries employ the highest share of the workforce of people with disabilities. The data was collected as part of the Current Population Survey, which samples 60,000 households in the United States monthly. Interviewers questioned households about blindness, deafness, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and mobility challenges. Any “yes” answer counted that respondent as disabled in this dataset.

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Industries employing the largest shares of workers with and without disabilities

Workers with disabilities are more likely to be employed in four industries versus workers without disabilities: retail, leisure and hospitality, agriculture, and public administration.

Six large retail chains—Walmart, Target, CVS Health, Kroger Co., Meijer, and Walgreens— earned spots on the list of 2021 Disability Equality Index Best Places to Work. Companies qualify for the list based on factors such as employment practices, community engagement, and culture and leadership. Timothy Williams, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Meijer, credited passionate team members with helping the company grow and innovate.

About 30% of workers with disabilities are employed part time, double the rate of workers without disabilities. BLS also reports the proportion of workers who work part time for economic reasons, such as being unable to find a full-time job or having hours reduced, also was higher for workers with disabilities than workers without disabilities.

Many people with disabilities rely on public benefits systems, like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid, which have low-income limits. While full-time employment may provide higher income, it may risk access to these crucial payments.

People with disabilities are less likely to have attained a bachelor’s degree than people without disabilities. And the higher a worker’s education level, the lower their chance of being unemployed.

To help bridge the gap, the Labor Department in August 2023 opened up $69 million in grants toward creating programs to help marginalized, young adults with disabilities join the workforce.

Additional writing and story editing by Ashleigh Graf. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

Our software provides the ability to track all types of supported employment services and programs.