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Off to Work We Go: Helping People with Disabilities Find Employment

To close out National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a salute to the professionals who help people with disabilities find paid work (and personal independence).

Thirty-two years after the Americans with Disabilities Act guaranteed equal rights to employment—with accommodations and without discrimination—the unemployment rate among Americans with disabilities is still over 80 percent. Hiring bias is only partly to blame. Many people with disabilities face obstacles long before job-hunting age:

  • The disability rate is higher in low-income communities, which have less access to special education and other resources.
  • Even in middle-class communities, education access is often an uphill battle. Despite legal guarantee of reasonable accommodations (including Individualized Education Plans), many teachers and administrators resist any change in “the way things are done.” (To be fair, public-education professionals work under constant stress—such as Board of Education demands for all-around maximum performance irrespective of circumstances—and see their share of unreasonable requests from overprotective parents.)
  • Many teachers, doctors, and other adults still hold biases about disability-imposed limitations—and children absorb “it’s a shame she’ll never be able to” attitudes.
  • Unless they receive coaching for transitioning into adulthood, even kids who were well-supported in their minority years can be left without resources once they age out of children’s services.

Improving Employment Odds

Thankfully, there are transition services to help young adults with disabilities enter the working world. Through Easter Seals Greater Houston, families can access Pre-ETS (Pre-Employment Transition Services) training and find help with skill assessments, job-search plans, and soft skills. Trainer-mentors can even accompany newly employed students to their first few weeks at work—although, notes coach Ron Taylor, “some employers think job coaches are not needed because the employers prefer to provide training themselves. I’ve also had employers ask if I work for them.”

Suzanne Sutherland, one of ESGH’s Pre-ETS Trainers, summarizes a “typical day” on the job: “Before driving to the school, I prepare materials for class—making copies, buying things if necessary—and read over the curriculum we plan to use that day. While teaching the students, I’ll make additional changes in curriculum as necessary. If there are six or fewer students in a class, only one trainer is needed; with seven or more, I share teaching duties with a second trainer. Some days we have only one school: other days there is a school in the morning and another in the afternoon.”

Sutherland hints at what many job coaches state outright: “typical day” is a broad term at best, a no-such-thing in many experiences. Every student is unique—whether they have “special” needs or not—and disability makes uniqueness more obvious. Comprehension difficulties, meltdowns, and medical emergencies can upset any well-planned schedule.

Hence, the essential characteristics of an effective trainer/coach are:

  • Organizational skills. The most “unpredictable” students—the ones most prone to outbursts and meltdowns—are the students who most need predictable routines and boundaries. Clearly defined expectations provide much-needed security.     
  • A healthy balance of planning and flexibility. “The most important duty is being prepared for every class,” says Sutherland, which means “deciding what to teach, being familiar with the curriculum, and obtaining materials. You also need to meet the students where they are, adjusting teaching materials and style as needed for the student’s functioning level.”
  • Patience and empathy. Since nothing can ever be 100 percent predictable, students with sensory and emotional issues need calm, understanding guidance when the unexpected does happen. Instructors prone to returning outburst for outburst need not apply.

“Training and coaching require more patience and vigilance,” says Sutherland, than when training students without disabilities. “You must constantly check to make sure you’re being understood, and adjust what is being presented until each student clearly demonstrates understanding.”

Taylor adds: “The most important duty of a job coach is to get the Consumer [learner] ready to execute his or her duties independently. A coach must train on the Consumer’s level.” And knowing the individual is even more important than knowing the disability: “Some ‘typical’ people need more explanation on things—for example, information tech—that a Consumer on the autism spectrum may perform with little help.”

Limitations and Possibilities

While many young adults with disabilities can learn to perform effectively in high-ranking positions, the sad truth is that there are limits. Parents are often disillusioned to learn that trainers are not miracle workers. It does happen, says Sutherland, that “a student is too low-functioning to comprehend what we are teaching, or to learn skills they can use in a standard workplace.”

If a job trainer assesses your child’s abilities at that level, it’s natural to react with anger or skepticism, especially if you have past experience with “professionals” making arbitrary assumptions about disability limitations. But please hear the trainer out before going on the defensive. If they’re at all worth their title, they want your child to achieve full potential as much as you do; and, looking at the situation objectively, they may see things you don’t. Including the possibility that your dreams for your child are totally different from the child’s true abilities and passions.

Where kids genuinely want to learn something, they usually do—even if it requires special accommodations plus extra trial-and-error. “My most rewarding recent experiences,” says Sutherland, were, “first, when a student referenced back to something I had said in an earlier class—they’re listening and learning!” and, second, when “a student who in the past has complained about some of our teaching styles, such as playing games to learn, expressed how much he had enjoyed the class that day. That particular day I had been able to work one on one with him and each of the other students, and he really got a lot out of our work together. That felt good.”

In the end, the student’s success is the trainer’s success, and vice versa. Says Taylor, “The most rewarding experience is to see someone employed with a company long term.”

P.S. Planning for Retirement

Besides being National Disability Employment Awareness Month, October was National Retirement Security Month; and while retirement may be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind when your child is barely eighteen and not even employed yet, it’s really never too early to start planning. Especially when someone has a disability that will require extra—and potentially expensive—accommodations throughout their life, and which impairs their own long-term planning skills.

Two key tips for starting now to ensure lifelong financial security for an adult child with a disability:

  • Consult a professional financial advisor for help making a savings and investment plan—including choices about any options included in job benefits.
  • Review your will with a lawyer who has special-needs experience. Especially, ask about special needs trusts and other ways to guard your child’s future disability benefits against limitations involving personal ownership of assets. (See also “Disability Benefits: How You Qualify” regarding Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.)

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