How to Build a Supported Employment Program

Employers expect their employees to have reliable transportation, strong communication and collaboration skills, and strict attention to detail. These expectations can be difficult for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to meet, and when paired with pervasive discrimination, make it challenging for them to find and maintain a job on their own. Fortunately, properly implemented supported employment programs can bridge the gap, helping individuals with IDD navigate these challenges and identify a career they can thrive in.

In order to build an effective supported employment program, health and human services (HHS) organizations must first understand what supported employment for the disabled is and how different approaches can lead to success.

What is the supported employment model?

The supported employment model is designed to help individuals with IDD find, secure, and maintain employment in a competitive job setting alongside members of their community — including those with and without IDD. In a supported employment program, a direct support professional (DSP) works directly with the client during the entire employment process, helping them find and apply for work, interview, and, once they’re hired, perform their responsibilities successfully.

Supported employment is often provided alongside other HHS offerings, like counseling or therapy. It is an evidence-based practice, meaning it implements findings from accredited employment studies to continuously improve its practices and equip DSPs with an empirically-derived, statistically-sound approach. It also means there is a significant degree of standardization across supported employment programs, with programs at numerous HHS organizations sharing many of the same features.

Supported employment programs have many benefits, both for the individuals who participate in them and for the HHS organizations that offer them. Supported employment programs allow HHS organizations to expand their services, helping individuals with IDD attain higher-paying, more satisfying employment. They also help individuals with IDD gain economic independence and, in many cases, escape poverty.

Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities live in poverty at almost twice the rate of those without disabilities. In fact, individuals with disabilities make up only 12% of the U.S. working-age population but account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty. Supported employment can help these individuals improve their economic circumstances and even reduce or eliminate their need to rely on social services.

Skills taught through supported employment programs

While supported employment programs can take different forms depending on the needs of the individuals enrolled in them, they all focus on empowering individuals with the basic skills they need to find and maintain employment. These non-technical skills — which are often referred to as soft skills, employability skills, or job-readiness skills — are those that employers generally expect from the employees they hire. Supported employment programs will focus on teaching:

  • Social and Interpersonal Skills: Communication, teamwork, cooperation, positive attitude, conflict resolution, active listening, professionalism, and problem solving are just a few of many social and interpersonal skills an employer will look for when interviewing potential candidates.
  • Independent Living Skills: Independent living skills include time management, appropriate cell phone usage, coordinating transportation, meal preparation, appropriate dress, and more.

How to build a supported employment program

Building a supported employment program starts with the creation of a vision that both HHS providers and individuals with IDD can get behind. The vision should emphasize the organization’s conviction that people with IDD can attain competitive employment and articulate how supported employment makes this possible.

Once they have a strong understanding of their mission and vision, HHS organizations can then follow these steps for building a comprehensive supported employment program:

1. Establish instruction processes

HHS administrators are encouraged to think concretely about the ways in which they will support their clients with the full suite of supported employment services they need to succeed. Integrating with mental health treatment (where appropriate) is one way to do this, as is implementing systematic instruction.

Systematic instruction is the process of breaking tasks down into smaller, itemized steps. For example, we may think of picking up groceries as one task, but it actually consists of many smaller tasks, including making a list, finding the items in the store, comparing brands based on quality and price, and then making a choice. Breaking larger tasks apart can help individuals with IDD perform them more effectively and independently.

System instruction also focuses on environmental elements at play for each client. Environmental elements of a grocery store that might prove difficult for people with IDD include interacting with customers or store employees and handling harsh lighting and loud noises. Systematic instruction takes all of these challenges and more into account for each specific workplace environment, helping prepare individuals with IDD for success in their new role.

2. Develop a training program

Through training webinars, online courses, and in-person workshops, HHS administrators empower their employees with the skills and insights they need to successfully deploy supported employment services. Administrators may also choose to conduct employee assessments as part of their training programs. These assessments check for understanding and allow providers to demonstrate their skills before they begin working directly with individuals with IDD.

But professional development doesn’t end once the initial training is complete. Ongoing employee training and support is the key to a successful supported employment program, allowing employees to stay up to date on best practices and hone their skills.

3. Monitor outcomes

After their supported employment program is implemented, HHS administrators must closely monitor it to determine whether or not it is operating effectively. If individuals with IDD are continuing to struggle to find and maintain employment, it’s important to identify why and assess what adjustments could be made.

Get help building your supported employment program

Building a supported employment program can be challenging, but it is well worth the investment. By offering supported employment programs, HHS organizations can expand their offerings and transform the lives of individuals with IDD.

Nellie Galindo

Product Marketing Manager, Relias

Nellie Galindo received her Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked with individuals with disabilities in several different settings, including working as a direct service provider for individuals with mental illness and leading a youth program for young adults with disabilities. She has facilitated and created trainings for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy, healthy relationships, sexual health education, and violence and abuse prevention. Galindo has worked in state government helping individuals with disabilities obtain accessible health information in their communities, as well as utilizing the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure equal access to healthcare services.

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