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Youth in Transition Toolkit:


Activate families

Preparing for employment

Empower families to lead the employment process.

Some families may struggle to envision competitive integrated employment as part of their child's future, but you can show them that work is possible for all people regardless of disability. Answer questions and connect families to resources that will help them advocate for community employment.

LEARN: Develop your knowledge

Learn how to introduce the topic of employment to families.

Most families are interested in employment for their child. Some are willing to explore the idea while needing to understand how employment would affect their child's services. Others might push for employment harder than providers or educators. The goal is to communicate clearly the steps toward employment and any impact on the child's benefits or services, and then to connect families to resources and information.

For the few families who resist the idea of employment, think about connecting them to other families with children who are employed.

Families want what's best for their child and often face difficult choices when it comes to services, education and employment. Consider why families might be apprehensive about employment.

Families face a constant state of uncertainty when coordinating services and supports. 

In some cases, families are directed toward sheltered work or a day program without discussing the possibility of employment in the community. Though this can be comforting given the all-day supervision and opportunity to interact with peers, it deprives the person of meaningful work experience. In other cases, the prospect of employment may not be significant enough to risk disrupting the services already in place.

A disability might bring fear of a person's vulnerability in the community. Families might wonder if their youth will be OK in a work setting, on public transportation or around people who don't know them well. Sometimes families err on the side of caution and simply avoid risky situations.

To explore vulnerability concerns, see the safety section under Educate families in this toolkit.

We're making great progress, but society still operates under a paradigm that people with disabilities are unable to work in a meaningful way.

Years ago, families were encouraged to apply for benefits, seeing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or other benefits as a path to consistent support for their child. Some even rely on SSI benefits to support general household expenses.

Today, we know that a person can't support themselves on SSI benefits alone. Help families understand how benefits support work. Their youth will be able to keep  needed health care coverage, and they will most likely have more money when they work than if they're on benefits alone.

To help families see how benefits support work, check out the benefits planning section under Educate families in this toolkit.

To move past common misunderstandings about disability employment, help parents understand the following key concepts. 

Everyone can work!
Disabilities can impact people in many ways, including communication, mobility or cognitive functioning. Though some families might believe their child is too disabled to work, this tends not to be true. With high expectations and the right supports, people with all types of disabilities can be successful at work.

Work looks different for everyone.
Families might be concerned that their child can't work a 40-hour week or in a fast-paced environment doing difficult tasks. That's OK. For some youth, working 5 or 10 hours a week is a great start. Not all jobs will be appropriate right away, and effective employment programs can help customize jobs for all skill levels and interests. Encourage families to measure employment success on an individual basis.

Employment should be rooted in what your child wants to do.
Families want their child to find happiness and fulfillment in all areas of life. Unfortunately, people with significant disabilities too often have little say in what happens in their life. Help families see their role as supporting their child in setting a vision and then reaching their goals.

Traditionally, families of youth with significant disabilities were told there were limited options for services after high school. Families were encouraged to put youth into day programs or sheltered work without any real discussion about community employment. Today, despite changing times and attitudes, some families are still being told this is their best option.

Instead, encourage families to consider a new path to employment after high school. With this path:

  • Families and professionals set high expectations early on
  • Youth are encouraged to build skills and explore careers
  • Youth set their own vision for employment
  • Families and professionals identify supports for community-based employment
  • Youth have meaningful work experiences
  • Youth secure a job in the community (with or without supports)

The number of hours a person can work may vary. If needed, the new path to employment allows for a combination of community-based employment, day program, or other educational or recreational activities to round out the day. The key is including paid employment in the equation.

Employment First is a movement and framework for change focused on a singular premise: All people, including people with complex support needs, are presumed capable of competitive integrated employment. Employment First calls on public entities to work together to make meaningful employment, fair wages and career advancement a priority outcome for people with disabilities — rather than placement in a sheltered workshop or other segregated or noninclusive setting. 

To be considered competitive integrated employment, a job must:

  • Be gained and performed on an individual basis, not as part of a segregated group or enclave
  • Be integrated, with the employee with a disability working alongside and interacting with employees without disabilities
  • Be in the general workforce, with the job preexisting or customized for the employee with a disability and the employee on the payroll of the business (or self-employed)
  • Pay minimum wage or the prevailing wage for jobs in that sector

In contrast, a job does not qualify as competitive integrated employment if the person with a disability: 

  • Is bussed to a location with a group of other people with disabilities to do work
  • Is kept away from coworkers and not given an opportunity to be part of the work culture
  • Works but isn't recognized as having an official position within the business
  • Is paid through a service provider rather than the business itself
  • Earns less than minimum wage or gets paid drastically less than those without disabilities doing the same job

If families are uncertain about employment, it might help to point out the benefits of competitive integrated employment. For example, a true job paying real wages can provide:

  • Money for basic needs and recreation
  • An opportunity to spend time doing something productive
  • A feeling of contribution to the family and community
  • Social connections
  • An improved sense of well-being

As a professional, how often have you thought, "If only the family could see the possibilities I see?" Instead of butting heads with families, show the youth's strengths, skills and talents. You might: 

  • Use tools like the Charting the LifeCourse one-page profile (PDF) to document the youth's strengths and talents
  • Invite families to the work site to see their youth on the job
  • Record the youth doing a task that might surprise the family (such as assembling pizza boxes or making change)

Meaningful work experiences in high school are a strong predictor of employment success as an adult. The key is meaningful — in the community, doing or learning about actual tasks required for a specific job, and related to a youth's interests.

Examples of meaningful work experiences include:

  • Informational interviews. The youth meets with an employer or key staff member to ask specific questions about the business, industry or job.
  • Job shadowing. The youth observes someone doing work that might be of interest. For example, the youth might follow a shipping manager in a warehouse if they're interested in that type of work.
  • Volunteering. Volunteering can help youth discover strengths and talents while strengthening a resume. Be careful to approach volunteer opportunities as a step toward competitive integrated work rather than a substitute for work. Volunteering should be time-limited or done in addition to a paid job.
  • Internships. Internships are structured experiences where youths work at a business (paid or not) for a set time to learn and improve skills.
  • Paid entry-level job. Sometimes youth can enter the workforce directly. It isn't always necessary to wait for employment services to help youth find jobs.

Encourage families to use personal networks to find work opportunities for youth. These networks might include: 

  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Colleagues
  • Local businesses, clubs, civic organizations or places of worship
  • Places the youth frequents
  • Extended family

Better yet, all of these people have networks of their own — people who might know someone who works in a field of interest.

DO: Work with families

Use resources to activate families in their planning for employment.

Charting the LifeCourse's portfolio for family perspective on employment (PDF) combines several Charting the LifeCourse tools into a single resource that helps families explore the role employment can play in their child's life.

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