Holding engaging conversations about work: Interview companion guide

It's a common perception that work isn't an option for people with disabilities. However, many people with disabilities have great jobs. Competitive employment presents tremendous advantages to people with disabilities, including better mental, emotional, physical and financial health. Working has a positive effect on programs and communities as well.    

As a professional supporting people with disabilities, you know the people you work with and their capabilities. Even if you suspect that disability and its related circumstances exclude the possibility of regular employment, there are many reasons to explore employment as a potential path for everyone. 

Face common concerns

Here's a story you may know well. Mary tells you that she's had a lifelong disability and hasn't ever worked. She tells you she didn't think work was an option because of things her mom and others have always told her. Mary tells you that, even if she could work, there are other challenges. Her greatest concern is that working could jeopardize her benefits. Plus, she isn't sure how many hours she can tolerate working in a week and she doesn't know how she would get to and from a job. 

Concerns such as Mary's are common and understandable — and very real for many people. Too often, however, concerns about work are simply assumptions that have been accepted because testing or challenging them may seem difficult or risky. You can change that.

The key to success is to start with optimism. Assume that people with disabilities want to — and are capable of — work. With the right tools and support, you can open the door to work. You can also think about work in new and creative ways, such as self-employment or starting a business.

Shift your mindset

To help others shift the way they think about employment, consider whether you first need to shift your own thinking. As an assessor or service provider, you likely think in terms of service delivery or how you can ensure people are receiving the right services. You might think of employment as simply an additional service or an add-on to a person's situation.

For people without disabilities, work is a regular part of life. Work provides financial stability. It also molds a person's identity, routine, stability, purpose and sense of control. 

For people with disabilities, employment should also be considered a regular part of life. If you learn to think about employment as an option and a part of the person's identity, you can begin to help others see the possibility as well.   

Consider the advantages of work

People with disabilities report many advantages of working, including financial gains and other positive outcomes. Consider these quotes from people with disabilities who've gone to work: 

  • I was so lonely before. Since I started working at the sandwich shop, I have made some friends [and I] have more energy.
  • Now when I meet someone and they ask me what I do, I have something to say. I am an inventory specialist at the mall. I'm pretty proud of that.
  • When I go to work, I have people who share my interests — we're watching the same shows, reading some of the same books. It's really good to have someone to talk with about that stuff.
  • I'm learning some things I didn't know I could do.
  • It feels really good to get that paycheck and some appreciation.

Similarly, research supports the benefits of employment. "Nothing that I have studied has the same kind of impact on people that employment does," says noted researcher Robert Drake, M.D. "Medication, case management and psychotherapies tend to produce a small impact on people's overall adjustment. But the differences are often striking and dramatic with employment."

Working means: 

  • More income
  • More independence
  • Better health
  • New skills
  • New relationships

Address the benefits question

One of the major barriers to seeking employment is the benefits question. Even when you challenge the common perception that working could jeopardize public benefits, the complicated rules about benefits can be daunting.  

To get the facts and assess each situation, use resources such as Disability Benefits 101. Often, people with disabilities can become employed, retain benefits and come out ahead financially.

Consider some common questions and perceptions about working and benefits and how you might address them: 

  • If I work I'll lose my health care coverage. You might say: There are work incentives that help people maintain or access needed health care benefits while working. Lots of people work and keep their medical benefits.
  • If I work I'll be worse off financially. You might say: There are ways to be better off financially by working. While it's true that some costs may go up (like housing), many people earn enough money to be better off. There are tools to show how that's possible.
  • It's too risky to work — I might fail. You might say: There are work incentives to try working to see how it goes. There are resources to help people find and keep a job.

Look for factors that point to employment interests and needs

As you're working with people with disabilities, you might hear comments that indicate the person could benefit from employment. For example, "I'd like to have my own place," "I'm bored," or "I can't afford health care costs." Such comments can help open the discussion and potentially trigger new or renewed interest in work.

Consider this exchange:

Interviewer: Martin, what are some things you've done in the past that make you or your family proud? 

Martin: I had a project when I was in school where we took care of some rescued animals who had been hurt. I had a rabbit I named Jake. His paw was cut. I fed him and made sure he had enough to drink. I cleaned out his cage. That was important because I had to handle him very carefully so he didn't get scared. Anyway, he got better and I got an A. I really missed him after we let him go — but I felt great knowing he could go back to living in the woods.  

During your conversation, you've learned that Martin is typically a bit lonely and he doesn't feel much self-worth — and that he found a sense of purpose, pride and satisfaction when taking care of an animal and being recognized for his success. 

Martin hasn't ever had a job, but it's clear he has some skills and interests that might transfer to a work environment. There he can get that same sense of personal contribution, as well as some companionship.

Martin's challenges include: 

  • Loneliness
  • Low self-esteem

Martin's experience includes: 

  • Satisfaction with nurturing and caretaking
  • A love of animals
  • A positive outcome based on his efforts

Look to employment as a solution

How can Martin's response to the question about accomplishments help with the employment conversation? Let's listen in again.

Interviewer: It sounds as though you really like animals and are pretty good with them. Did you know there are jobs where you can help take care of animals and you can even get paid to do it?

Here the assessor is opening the topic, using Martin's past positive experience to help him imagine himself in a working role. As you ask personal history questions that explore work, volunteer and learning experiences, be careful to ask what worked well and what didn't work well.

Ask careful interview questions

Current circumstances

When you ask about personal preferences, strengths, social needs, responsibilities and obligations, use probing statements such as these: 

  • I like …
  • I wish …
  • I don't like it when …
  • I'm really good at …
  • I want to spend time with …
  • I'm responsible for …

Interviewer: What things do you try to make sure are in your life every day? What kinds of things do you like to do? Do you have hobbies? Do you like a lot of structure in your day? What things are you good at? Please tell me about your friends and family. Who spends time with you and helps you out? Is there someone that you need to take care of?

Martin: I get bored, so I try to go out of the house every day. That's hard to do in the winter, though. I like to find new people to talk to when I can. I like feeding the birds down at the park. Gets me out of the house, the birds know me, and sometimes I talk to Joe. He feeds the birds sometimes, too. I like to have breakfast by 8 every day, and I like to do some things in order — it's just easier that way. But some things I don't mind skipping now and then, or doing them after Mom comes home so she can help me and we can talk. She has to work and we don't get much time to talk. My brothers and sisters are all older and live somewhere else, so it's just me and Mom. She needs me to keep things cleaned up around the house. I am pretty good at keeping things neat. I am also never late — not when it's up to me.

Answers such as these can tell you something about what interests the person. They also identify daily needs and wants that may or may not be met. You can use this information to think about how an employment environment may provide solutions.

Life satisfaction

Interviewer: Do you like where you live? Do you like how you spend a typical weekday? Do you get to meet new people as much as you'd like? Are there things you used to do that you enjoyed, but can't do anymore?

Martin: I like living with my mom, but if I could ever afford it, I want to live on my own someday. A lot of days I get bored and wish there was more to do. I don't have enough people to talk to now that I'm out of school.

Comments about needing more money can often lead to employment discussions. Dissatisfaction with one's routine or social circumstances can also let you know that the person may be open to exploring employment. If you keep in mind that employment may be an option for each person you interview, you can listen for these critical clues.

Other interview questions

The following general questions, some of which are directly about employment and some not, can point to employment as a solution: 

  • Service-related rights and choices: Are you aware that you can work and keep your benefits?
  • Future planning: What would your best future look like? Where would you live? What would you do with your time?
  • Loss: Have you been laid off or let go? Have you had a job that ended? Have you had a job that you can no longer perform?
  • Safety: Do you think that earning money by working could allow you to move to a safer situation?

Be prepared to address questions and concerns

Your attitude and answers to questions about employment can help convey the message that employment is an option for everyone. Advocate for getting the right information to help people make more informed choices. Suggest referrals to resources and information that can help the process, such as Disability Benefits 101.

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