By | October 9, 2019

For many of us, our jobs give us a sense of purpose and an opportunity to contribute to our communities. The same is true for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Supported employment has helped countless adults with IDD and other disabilities work in their communities alongside peers without disabilities. Thanks to this important service, many people have been able to earn money and avoid or get out of poverty, which traps millions of people with disabilities who rely solely on government benefits for their income.

However, the astronomically high unemployment rate for people with disabilities persists, in part because supported employment does not work for all individuals. In the supported employment model, the individual must be able to do the job as outlined in the job description, with assistance from a job coach or support worker if needed, and must compete with other applicants for the position. This model leaves out many people who have a lot to offer an employer but who may not be able to meet all of a job’s qualifications or who may excel at some parts of a job but struggle with others.

Increasing Employment Opportunities

Customized employment takes the supported employment model and adds new tools and practices to increase employment opportunities. According to the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment website, customized employment is “an employment strategy which matches the skills and preferences of the individual with the specific business needs of the employer.”

The process begins with an in-depth examination of the job seeker’s skills, talents and interests. Our partner, Griffin-Hammis Associates, the leader in employment supports education and training, calls this process Discovering Personal Genius. After getting to know the job seeker, the employment support team determines the vocational themes, ecological fit and ideal conditions for employment, and they identify the contributions the job seeker could bring to a business.

Then the team looks for an employer who could benefit from the individual’s skills. Griffin-Hammis recommends that support agencies focus on building employment partnerships with local businesses, as opposed to national chains. Small, privately owned businesses often have the ability to craft a specific job for a specific individual without having to deal with a legal team and human resources department.

This is not a charity-based model; it is built around what most businesses focus on—making a profit. The team is looking to craft a position that allows the job seeker to use their talents to help the company make money.

A Negotiated, Noncompetitive Job

Using the information about the job seeker’s skills and interests, the job developer works with a local employer to negotiate a noncompetitive job. Let’s take an example from the Griffin-Hammis publication, Customized Employment: Stories and Lessons from the Field.

Customized employment enabled Albert, a man with autism, to get a job with a janitorial contracting company. He was assigned to do cleaning work in a department store after hours. The typical job description required workers to do multiple tasks throughout the store, including “completing floor maintenance, vacuuming, window cleaning, trash disposal and dressing room maintenance.”

Because Albert required consistency in his work and needed time to adjust to his surroundings, his job developer negotiated a modified job description for Albert. He worked on only one floor and had specific tasks on that floor. He also was responsible for cleaning the mops, buckets, vacuum cleaners and brooms that the rest of the crew had used.

The customized employment model allowed Albert’s team to create a position that put his strengths to work and benefited his employer. Because of his preference for doing solitary tasks, Albert didn’t mind cleaning his coworkers’ mops and other supplies, and doing so freed up his coworkers to do other tasks. Having Albert on the team was a win all around.

There are several ways to make a living in the world. Therefore, thinking in terms of job descriptions and job openings can be limiting. Customized employment starts with a wide open view of job creation and restructuring. Try to negotiate with employers while highlighting skills that match their customers’ needs, instead of looking at the same job openings everyone else is pursuing.

Diane Morris

Diane has been researching, writing and advocating on issues facing people with IDD and autism for 15 years -- from the time her two sons were diagnosed with autism. She has more than twenty years of communications experience and previously worked at a disability rights non-profit.

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