New ways to increase work participation and quality of life among individuals with disabilities

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The unemployment rate for persons with disabilities in the United States, particularly youth, is more than double the rate of those without a disability. This special issue of the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation addresses the issues driving these statistics, concluding that the greatest challenge is increasing community and business awareness of vocational services and how these services can be a fundamental support to increase work participation and quality of life of individuals with disabilities.

In 2019, approximately 80% of persons with disabilities remained outside the labor force compared with 30% of people without a disability, and the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities was more than double the rate of those without a disability. Persons with disabilities, particularly youth, are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than their peers without disabilities.

This issue, guest-edited by Timothy N. Tansey, Catherine Anderson, David Strauser, Malachy Bishop, Fong Chan, and Paul Wehman, forms part of a special series on the Vocational Rehabilitation Technical Assistance Center for Quality Employment (VRTAC-QE). The goal of VRTAC-QE is to increase the number and quality of employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities by upgrading and increasing the competencies, skills, and knowledge of state vocational rehabilitation agencies and their affiliates and enable individuals with disabilities to achieve quality employment and career advancement.

Efforts to achieve this goal are focused on providing intensive, targeted, and universal training and technical assistance to state vocational rehabilitation agencies based on needs identified via performance data and assessment of current outcomes. The project also seeks to coordinate training and technical assistance with other federal centers to maximize efforts to promote high quality services in support of persons with disabilities. The existing literature provides information on evidence-based or emerging practices that can increase employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. However, a gap exists between this research and existing practice."

Guest Editor Timothy N. Tansey, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, and co-Guest Editors

The Guest Editors call attention to a number of key areas:

  • Recognizing that individuals with most significant disabilities who participate in supported employment or customized employment services are more likely to be employed and retain employment
  • Engaging youth with disabilities in paid employment early in their career development as this increases engagement in work into their adult lives
  • The need for an interagency approach to address the issue of transportation as a barrier to employment retention

Seven articles highlight the following topics:

  • Pathways to paid work for youth with severe disabilities
  • Review of the customized employment literature
  • Comparative study of effects of supported employment on the competitive integrated employment outcomes of transition age and young adults with intellectual disabilities
  • Technical assistance needs of vocational rehabilitation professionals
  • Review of the efficacy of competitive integrated employment versus segregated employment
  • Transportation services in vocational rehabilitation
  • Customized employment as a pathway to competitive integrated employment

In the first of these articles, lead investigator Michele A. Schutz, PhD, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, IL (formerly at Vanderbilt University when the research was conducted) and colleagues noted that "Although early paid work experiences can predict subsequent employment for youth with significant disabilities, this population is rarely provided with opportunities to participate in a paid job during high school. We were therefore interested in hearing from a variety of stakeholders (special educators, adult agency providers, school district leaders, parents of youth with significant disabilities, and local employers) on the factors they perceive to currently address - or that could potentially address - these barriers and facilitate the employment of youth with significant disabilities."

At focus group sessions and individual interviews all stakeholder groups stressed the importance of instruction, experiences, and supports for youth and the capacity of those who support them. Facilitators emphasized providing youth with community-based work experiences; providing access to quality job coaches and natural supports; collaboration with businesses, families, and the local community; training and information for businesses; and increasing family expectations.

This study confirms the importance of addressing each of these areas through collective efforts across stakeholder groups. It concludes that renewed attention should be focused on key practices and partnerships needed to facilitate community-based work experiences for youth with severe disabilities prior to graduation.

"Paid work experiences during high school can foster employment skills, provide resume-building experiences, and facilitate linkages to employers that increase the likelihood that youth with severe disabilities will become employed following high school," noted Dr. Schutz.

"Full participation in the community is universally recognized as one of the most important quality-of-life outcomes for people with chronic illness and disability," explained David Rosenthal, PhD, VRTAC-QE faculty member and co-investigator, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA. "The new multifaceted VRTAC-QE will work to identify and ameliorate economic and environmental barriers to employment, while implementing evidence-based employment strategies that enable individuals with disabilities to achieve quality employment and career advancement."

Dr. Tansey summarized, "Change is difficult, and given the high demands on state vocational rehabilitation agency personnel, providing efficient and sustainable technical assistance is key to adoption of new methods and strategies. National labor shortages since COVID-19 open up opportunities to work with businesses to tap into this large source of labor, which historically has had lower inclusion in employment."

The special series on VRTAC-QE has been published in four journals: Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation; Rehabilitation Research, Policy, and Education; Rehabilitation Counselor and Educators Journal; and Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin. Close collaboration among the editors of these journals has led to the development of a response to address the social inequities, service limitations, and overall capacity to resolve the known issues of unemployment and underemployment of persons with disabilities. Since the first call to action in 2016, the world has faced the COVID-19 pandemic and the many challenges and disruptions associated with it, which have accelerated the issues associated with participation in services provided by state vocational rehabilitation agencies and inclusion in the US labor market as well as impacting the wellbeing of persons with disabilities.

Source:
Journal reference:

Schutz, M. A., et al. (2022). Pathways to paid work for youth with severe disabilities: Perspectives on strategies for success. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation. doi.org/10.3233/jvr-221221.

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