After Graduation: Employment or College?


Employment or College?

After Graduation

Whether your child goes on to a postsecondary education or not, he or she will need to transition into the “real world.” Depending on the level of their abilities, this may mean finding employment, enrolling them in a day program, or locating full-time housing. All three of these present their own challenges; ideally, you have already discussed these three prospects with your child’s IEP team during their high school years. Hopefully through these discussions, you became better prepared and understand your state or local landscape when it comes to searching for a day program or full-time housing. Before looking into these two options, though, understanding the employment landscape is necessary.

In February 2014 the Special Olympics commissioned the University of Massachusetts Boston to conduct a study on adults with intellectual disabilities in the workforce. The research sheds some helpful light onto the possible work scenarios for your child.

“Our research shows that unemployment among people with intellectual disabilities is more than twice as high as for the general population. It’s critically important to know what the employment options are for someone with intellectual disabilities. Once this knowledge is gained, it is easier to align an individual’s desires and needs with what is available. It will also help with the transition period, allowing a high school and family to begin preparation or this post-graduation decision.”

—Tim Shriver, Chairman of the Board, Special Olympics International

Click image to enlarge

When looking for employment with your child, you need to think about what kind of job your child would be
successful at as well as the level of support he/she will need to secure and maintain a job. There are five basic
levels of employment support for individuals with developmental disabilities.

  • Competitive Employment:a full-time or part-time job paid at market wages with no long-term support. The employer hires the individual based on their skillset and needs of the business.
  • Supported Employment: a job in which the employee receives ongoing support that is funded through state developmental disabilities or vocational rehabilitation agencies. This job can be an individual or group setting, depending on the support level needed. This type of position also meets the employer’s business needs and can still include “job carving,” where a job is created to meet the unique skillset of the individual.
  • Self-Employment: a job someone does on his own that provides an income.
  • Production Employment: a job in which employees with disabilities work at a site with other employees with disabilities and do defined tasks like collating, assembling, or packaging. This job setting provides a high level of supervision and job training.
  • Volunteer Employment: a job that someone does without pay, usually to benefit the community. Volunteer jobs can lead to paid employment by providing work experience, or they can be an end to themselves, providing the volunteer with community and purpose.

Deciding what type of employment is best for your child can be included in his or her IEP. The professionals can help you and your child figure out where the best place to start is. It is also important to note that where they start is not where they will be the rest of their life. If your child wants competitive employment but you or the IEP team believes he or she is best suited for supported employment, it does not mean they can never move over to competitive employment. Let your child know that this is just the starting point and that they can always change their course later.

Mary Pilster says that when Bobby first went out into the work world things didn’t go very well. “He got interviews, but his lack of eye contact and sitting kind of squirrely in his seat didn’t allow them to see his potential,” she says.

Eventually Bobby joined Gatepath’s Autism Works program, where he got help with his resume and was able to practice interview skills through workshops and role-playing. A staff member went with him to his first job interview with a Safeway supermarket, and another staff member accompanied him to his training after he landed a job as a courtesy clerk. At Safeway, Bobby bagged groceries, retrieved shopping carts, helped customers find things, and cleaned up around the store. For the first six weeks of employment, he had a job coach available to help him when he ran into rough spots.

Eventually, he was transferred to another store, where the management wasn’t as used to working with people with disabilities. Bobby felt he was being yelled at all the time and his self-esteem plummeted. But Bobby was able to find seasonal employment working as a loader for Lowe’s, a big home improvement store. This time, Mary says, “he didn’t need a job coach – he was very confident.”The job became permanent after a few months, and Bobby has now had it for over a year.

“The advice I give parents is that if something doesn’t work out the way you planned, that’s OK,” says Laura Dana, Community Services Manager at Community Gatepath. “There are programs for wherever your kid is at.” Paths can change or be recharted over time – no decision is permanent. The key is for your child to develop the skills and experience they need in order to reach their goals.

Here are five ways to prepare your child for a successful experience in the work world:

  1. Talk with your child about the kinds of jobs he would like to have and what kinds of skills he will need to do that work. Help him think realistically and strategically about employment goals so that he can find work that he enjoys and is qualified to do. Transition specialist Eli Poblitz cites the example of a teenager who loves playing with younger relatives or caring for neighbors’ pets. “A lot of times they don’t think [of] that as a job, but when you ask them about that experience they kind of glow,” he says. “Then you realize that person is a helping person, they really like to help. And then you can tell them there are lots of helping jobs that don’t need college.”
  2. Include both travel and WorkAbility training in your transition plan, and advocate for longer hours of coaching and practice. “One hour a day twice a week wasn’t enough time to prepare for even part-time work,” one mother observes.
  3. Encourage your child to do volunteer work, internships, or summer jobs so that she or he develops work experience and skills and can discover what they like.
  4. Take advantage of the services offered by your local Vocational Rehabilitation agency and any screenings and assessments offered by local nonprofits. These assessments will help identify both what your young adult wants to do and what supports their needs. These can be used to anticipate problems before they happen.
  5. Once your child has landed a job, you may also want to consider hiring a private job coach who can act as a liaison between your young adult and his or her employer to help design supports to help with their specific deficits.

“The reality of the workforce is that everyone will be expected to meet and perform at competitive levels, whether your child has a special need or not. This can be difficult to face if you are not prepared for it.”

—Tracey Fecher, VP of Programs at Community Gatepath

The Vocation Rehabilitation (VR) Agency
Under the US Department of Education, each state has a Vocation Rehabilitation Agency with regional and local offices that help people with disabilities find work. While each office is different, VR services may include:

  • Vocational guidance and counseling
  • Job development and placement
  • Skills training
  • Job coaching
  • Help with transportation
  • Adaptive devices, tools, equipment, and supplies
  • Apprenticeship programs
  • Interpreter services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • Orientation and mobility services
  • Transition services for young adults
  • Support, advocacy, and follow-up services once work has started

To be eligible for VR services, your child must be an “individual with a disability,” defined as having a physical or mental impairment that is a barrier to employment and can benefit from VR services, meaning that they are not too special needs to be able to work. If your child receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, they are presumed to be eligible for VR services.

Because VR offices are government agencies, you should expect that your child will need to deploy his or her budding self-advocacy skills in order to get the most out of the services offered. That means being prepared, proactive, and persistent.

Best Buddies
Another great option to help your child find a job is Best Buddies. Unlike other organizations, your child can become involved in Best Buddies starting in middle school. The goal of this organization is to pair an individual with disabilities with a peer who does not have disabilities. As your child moves on to high school and college, he or she can continue to grow with Best Buddies. Overall, Best Buddies offers eight programs to help your child at each stage of their development: middle schools, high schools, colleges, promoters, citizens, ambassadors, jobs, and e-Buddies. By becoming involved in Best Buddies, your child can gain social skills from and develop friendships with peers who do not have disabilities.

Your child does not need to join Best Buddies in middle school to become involved in the organization’s jobs program, which assists individuals with disabilities in locating competitive employment. Best Buddies partners with various businesses and employers, and they all work together to find jobs for individuals. Not only does Best Buddies help with locating a job but they also assist with the hiring process, and once a job is secured, they maintain support for both the employee and the employer.

Not every young adult is suited for postsecondary school or employment. Some will be better suited to a day program. These programs vary in their emphasis, with some taking participants out into the community and others offering most of their services in a center. “The advice I give parents is that if something doesn’t work out the way you planned, that’s OK,” says Laura Dana, Community Services Manager at Community Gatepath. “Keep searching for services and programs that will work for your child.”

There are three broad categories of programs:
Community Integration(CI) programs

    1. In these programs, participants spend the majority of each day in the community. They may be involved in volunteer work, participate in recreation opportunities, or engage in other activities. They are best for people who like variety and activity and enjoy being in the community.Participants might take art or cooking classes, visit senior centers, or help out in an elementary school. Dana notes that one advantage of these programs is that by bringing people with intellectual disabilities into the world, they help create a more tolerant and welcoming society.

      “People with special needs are just like you and me, and want to be a part of the community. Community inclusion is a key component of our work and we strive to create this for everyone.”

      —Sheryl Young, CEO Community Gatepath

Center-Based programs

    1. In these programs, participants spend the majority of their time at a center or home base. The range of activities usually includes arts and crafts, exercise, and volunteer work along with a couple of community trips each month. These programs are good for people who do not like much change in their routine and feel less comfortable out in the community. Parents should see if there’s a clear continuum of growth in the program, with demonstrated goals and outcomes.

Adult Day Health Care (ADHC)

  • Services in these programs are provided at a home base and often include health monitoring, socialization, recreation, dietary consultation, and rehabilitative training. ADHC programs have a diverse group of adults, as many of the programs enroll persons who are elderly and/or people who need close supervision to remain safe.


When exploring the different day programs for your child, you will want to compare what each of them offers. While visiting them, bring a notepad with you and take notes about what you like and don’t like. You can also keep to standard questions you would like to ask at each of them so that you can find out the same information from each.

The Special School District of St. Louis County in Missouri provides five important areas for you to examine when visiting day programs: 16

  1. Funding: How is the program paid for? Are there costs to the individual?
  2. Transportation: Does the program provide transportation to and from home?
  3. Experience: How long has the program been around? Do they have any big changes planned? How long have their most senior staff members been in the field?
  4. Staff-to-Client Ratio: How many clients/participants does each staffer supervise?
  5. Community Experiences: Do they take their clients into the community and if so, how often and for how long each time?

    In addition to these five areas, we have added on five more that are important:

  6. Types of Activities: What kinds of things do clients do each day? What are the program
    goals for the participants? Is activity varied and challenging?
  7. Hours of Operation: What time does the program start and end each day? How many days a year is the program closed?
  8. Age and Ability: What is the age range of the participants? What is the ability range of participants?
  9. Eligibility: What are the entrance/eligibility requirements? What is the application process? Is there a waiting list?
  10. Length of Stay: What is the average length of stay for the participants? Do participants often move to other types of programs after a period of time? What indicators does the program have of client outcomes and satisfaction?

Even if it works well for your child to continue living at home now, it may not work as she or he matures and as you grow older. Since supported living arrangements often have long waiting lists, it’s important to think about housing options well before you need them.

There are many different kinds of housing options, with varying levels of support. They include:

  • Independent living in a house or apartment, alone or with a roommate
  • Transitional residential programs offering short-term residential experience for people who need support, intervention or instruction while learning to live independently
  • Supported living programs
  • Supervised living programs
  • Group homes
  • Intermediate care facilities

New models are being developed all the time, including cohousing arrangements and farmstead programs.

As you think about your child’s future living arrangements, it’s important to remember that every option has pros and cons. A study of the feelings that mothers of adult children with special needs had about having their child live at home or in a residential facility found that mothers whose children lived away from home felt pleased that their children were developing new skills and friends, but they also worried more about their child’s future than the mothers whose children stayed at home. On the other hand, as Dr. Robert Naseef explains in his book Special Children, Challenged Parents: The Struggles and Rewards of Raising a Child with a Disability, families with a son or daughter at home tended to have more peace of mind about their child’s safety, but they did not feel that their child was necessarily benefiting from opportunities for growth and development.

Some questions to ask yourself as you consider your options:

  • What kind of living arrangements does my child prefer?
  • What kind of housing arrangements would work best for my child’s physical care and emotional well-being?
  • What kinds of support would my child need to live away from home?
  • What kind of living arrangement would work best for my child’s other goals, needs, and desires, including education, employment, recreational activities and socializing?
  • What kind of housing will make it possible for my child to have adequate access to transportation? Are there
    bus lines? Services within walking distance? Adequate parking for a van?
  • What kind of housing arrangements can we afford?
  • What kind of housing arrangements will work best as my partner and I age?

Six Steps for Exploring Housing Options

  1. Discuss the topic with your child and other members of his or her circle of support. Make sure housing is part
    of the person-centered planning process.
  2. Include the development of independent living skills in your child’s transition plan. These might include:
    – Safety skills
    – Phone skills
    – Housecleaning
    – Laundry
    – Budgeting
    – Nutrition and cooking
    – Grocery shopping
    – Travel training
  3. Discuss housing options and benefits with your regional center and with others in your disability community. Be sure to read about your child’s federal and state housing benefits.
  4. Create a checklist of things you and your child want to find out before you visit apartments, group homes, or care facilities.
  5. Create a housing budget that includes not just the monthly cost of the housing itself, but also any associated costs like:
    – Furnishings
    – Transportation
    – Supportive services
    – Utilities
    – Groceries
    – Incidental Expenses
  6. List the sources available for paying for housing. These might include:
    – Social Security income
    – Disability benefits
    – Your income
    – Your child’s income
    – Money from a trust or legal settlement
    – State and county benefits

Additional assistance might come in the form of In-Home Supportive Services, which can be used to provide personal assistance and other services.