People with disabilities are more often unemployed or underemployed than those without disabilities. The United States Department of Labor details this problem here. People with disabilities often want a job, but are unable to find competitive employment.
What is “Competitive Integrated Employment”? CIE is full or part-time work at minimum wage or higher, with wages and benefits similar to those without disabilities for the same work, and fully integrated with people who do not have disabilities. Ideally, the workplace would have 51% or more non-disabled people also working there.
In 2014, President Obama signed a law which limits what we call “sheltered workshops.” This was celebrated by many disability advocates because students were often paid by “piece rate.” Government regulations for how that is figured can be found here. There are many disadvantages to this system, most of which involve the fact that people with disabilities end up being paid far below the minimum wage. This makes it impossible for many with disabilities to become financially independent, forcing them to be reliant on government assistance programs.
As you can imagine, I am a big fan of moving away from sheltered workshops and moving towards community employment. A while back, I wrote a blog post about why students with disabilities should not have “school jobs.” That blog post went a little bit crazy and got a lot of attention.
So you may be wondering, if students with disabilities should not have school jobs, then how do we prepare them for community employment?
When thinking through preparing kids with disabilities for anything, I always like to think through how we prepare kids without disabilities for something and then think through the levels of support that we can incorporate in order for them to be successful. It is imperative that we do not “lower the bar” for our goals without first analyzing the support system. I’m not saying that we should have unrealistic expectations, I’m just saying that we need to first, presume competence.
Always Presume Competence.
When we are considering community employment, we need to consider the community. Where could students get jobs after high school?
Consider the students’ interests. What is their passion?
I’m going to use my son, Trenton, as an example as I walk you through my thought process.
For our community, we live in a rural area, so jobs aren’t as diverse as they would be if we lived in the city. He has a passion for horses. (Also girls, but I can’t match an employable skill to his gift of charm, other than he is quite charismatic so he would do well in a situation where he interacts regularly with other people!) He also loves ketchup and babies. (not together 😉 )
What skills does that student currently have that we can build on?
For Trenton, he has quite a few skills with animals, as we live on a farm. We bought him some sheep last spring so he could learn some ag skills with smaller animals. He can brush them and walk them independently. He can also walk a horse if the halter is already on. He can get on and ride a horse if someone else put the saddle on.
He can also feed babies bottles and with some guidance, he can probably change a diaper. He can read picture books with small children and play games with them.
What challenges prevent the student from completing the jobs independently?
Working with animals: Trenton has absolutely no fear when it comes to horses. He trusts them completely and with the right horse, he would be ok, but a horse that might be a little skittish, if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time he could get seriously hurt. He also lacks basic knowledge of grooming, feeding, and appropriate care.
Babies/ Toddlers: He would need assistance with working with babies. He would struggle with redirecting a toddler that was misbehaving.
What support can be provided to work past those challenges?
Horses/ Animals: Picture schedules or outlines of how to care for them. For example, if they should be brushed with a certain comb then another comb, then place the saddle on, take pictures of each step, laminate it and place it in the stable with the horse he is caring for. He would need repeated step by step instruction in each area or task and the level of support from a job coach could be gradually reduced.
Babies/ Toddlers: When writing this post, I had the idea of working in a daycare in mind. In daycare settings, especially in the rooms with the younger children, there are usually several people working there. He would have to have specific jobs and those expectations would have to be modeled repeatedly. For example, if he is to be playing games with them, it would help him to have a few choices to offer the little kids (legos, dolls, kitchen) and he would have to know the rules of that activity. Having a picture schedule or picture cue cards available in the area regarding expectations would not only be helpful to him, but for the younger children as well.
What can we do in classrooms to support these job skills?
Ummm… everything. It helps when a student is passionate about a few things, like my son is. It’s harder when a student is interested in EVERYTHING, like I was as a kid. Incorporate the student’s interests into their curriculum. When a writing task is required, let the student write about something they are interested in. Trenton could research how to groom a horse, what a horse eats, etc. He could also research toy stores and find new toys on the market.
It could even be incorporated into content classes! In American History class, if the class is doing a research paper on the civil war, he could make a power point presentation (because he requires modified work in order to be included in content area courses) on the role of horses in the civil war and why they were important. He could share images of how the saddles of that time are different or similar to saddles used today. (I actually have no idea on this and would be quite interested in the answer to that!) He could even be graded on a rubric similar to his peers, but that is an entirely different blog post.
Exploring career opportunities should not REPLACE academics, it should COMPLIMENT them. There are many academic standards that can be met through career exploration.
What about actual job experience?
Most high schools have some sort of career exploration class. That is the perfect time for a student to do an “Internship.” That internship could include a school-based internship where they shadow and assist a school employee in their job. (This is acceptable if the entire student body is offered this opportunity, not just one group.)
It could also be a community-based internship where they go out into the community to learn how to perform a certain task. (Again, this is ok if it is offered to the entire student body, and most schools offer some sort of work-study type of program at the high school level.)
How do we find community employment?
I want to point out that the definition of Competitive Integrated Employment does NOT say that the jobs can’t be facilitated. It does not say that a job coach can’t be involved in the support process. This takes buy-in from your community, which will take you as a bridge builder between the schools and the businesses. Go out and observe and see where there is a need and your students have an interest.
I feel like this is a significant paradigm shift for some people. The beauty of the increase of academic inclusion with kids today is that someday they will be employers. As they received their education alongside peers with disabilities, they will see stims as normal. They will see modifications as “normal,” just a part of everyday life. These kids without disabilities will not question making accommodations in their businesses to include others who process their environment differently than them. As I type those words, my heart is filled with hope for the future of our kids.
But, wait, my student is more significantly impacted by their disability than your child, what do I do?
I understand that completely. If your child can do one thing, it can be shaped to be an employable skill. I recently was part of a conference where the presenters said just that thing. They had a student that loved stickers. That student is now employed by a candy company that has boutique style packaging. The job is that the student places the sticker on the packaging. Maybe eventually that can be shaped into more of a job. If not, the student is still employed in the community with non-disabled peers.
*Note: I mentioned above that my son also loves ketchup. He loves to EAT ketchup, but not so much MAKE ketchup. It was part of our process of elimination for job skills. LOL…. but, I do want to share our process with you! If you click on the link below, I will email you the picture based recipe we used to make ketchup for his 4H project for the fair this year!
All images were from Smarty Symbols, an online image source that I would HIGHLY recommend for creating materials for students with disabilities.