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Families and natural supports: The engine for change

excerpt from Point of Departure, Vol. 3, No. 2...PACER Center...Fall, 1997
By Cathleen Urbain

Scott's story

It took a long time to help Scott find a job he could continue after graduation from high school. It was difficult to locate monetary and design assistance for the adaptive technology he needed to work. Scott's employer was involved from the outset in his training and in adapting the nature of the work to meet his needs. It was the employer who finally succeeded in locating the necessary adaptive equipment. Recently, Scott's father was transferred out of state by his company. Because Scott's employer had been directly involved for a year-and-a-half in the issues Scott and the company had faced, he called the company's branch office in the city to which Scott's family was moving and arranged to have a job waiting for him in his new home community.

Traditional supported employment, begun in the 1980s, opened the door to jobs in the community for persons with moderate and severe disabilities. Supported employment using a natural supports approach, begun in the 1990s, is the next step in increased employment and community inclusion for people with moderate and severe disabilities. This approach has the same key principles as traditional supported employment:

  • Paid employment at a job in the regular business community
  • Intensive or long-term employment support matched to what a person needs to be employed
  • Opportunity for employment without first having to master pre-vocational skills

Natural supports expand the role of employers

The two approaches, however, are radically different in their assumptions about the capacity of businesses to assume responsibility for employee supports, and the role of schools and adult services in fostering supported employment. These differences impact wages, hours, job diversity, and access to individual jobs in the community for persons with high support needs. Natural supports projects around the country have shown that employers are willing to directly hire and take responsibility for providing or arranging the support of an individual with significant disabilities. Companies have shown creativity, skill and commitment in assisting individuals to be productive and valued employees.

Before supported employment emerged in the 1980s, work training for students with significant disabilities occurred within the school building, and adults earned paychecks at segregated program sites on production contracts the agencies had received. Traditional supported employment moved the location for student training and adult employment into community businesses, but school and adult agency staff maintained full responsibility for job training, supervision and long-term support.

Supported employment using a natural supports approach shifts the responsibility for providing or arranging worker training and support to the business itself. This approach helps a company expand its capacities to select, train, supervise and support people with moderate and severe disabilities. A person is hired to work as an individual, not as part of an enclave or mobile crew. The employer directly hires and pays the supported employee. The normal responsibilities of an employer are facilitated rather than replaced by school or adult agency staff, who combine their skills, creativity and resources with those of the business.

It is important to think of this approach as a process, not an outcome. Supported employment using a natural supports approach is the process of helping a company build its capacity to support an employee with moderate or severe disabilities. This process may or may not result in the outcome of an individual receiving 100% of his or her support needs from co-workers. External support and resources may still be necessary to supplement the natural supports available in the workplace. It is, therefore, an option for people with multiple or severe disabilities, not just those who need minimal or short term support.

Job Development

A natural supports approach to job development recognizes that

  • it is the responsibility of the employer to arrange and provide training, supervision and support for an employee;
  • it is the responsibility of the school or adult agency to help the employer identify and acquire information or assistance the company needs to successfully include an employee with severe disabilities within its workforce.

The job developer fully explains a potential employee's support needs before a job offer is received, and explores strategies for meeting them with the company. Together the job developer and the employer identify a company's existing capacity to support the potential employee, time and task management issues that might arise when co-workers and supervisors provide support for an employee, and ways to promote interactions so that co-workers who might be uncomfortable have an opportunity to get to know the individual. The job developer provides information on resources for those areas in which the company decides it needs help.

Role of a job coach

Each company is different in its capacity to train and supervise an individual with disabilities. Often a company needs outside assistance and may choose a job coach from the school or adult agency. Unless otherwise specified, the role of a job coach in a natural supports approach is to provide assistance to co-workers and supervisors as they train and supervise the new employee. A job coach helps a company identify its own solutions to performance or behavior issues that might develop during long-term employment. An employer could also arrange to have a coach directly train the new employee. This arrangement would be different from traditional supported employment, however, because the nature of the involvement of the company would be identified from the outset.

Jake's story

Jake worked as a supported employee in a small town restaurant on the edge of an expanding metropolitan area. He had been trained and supported in his job by his co-workers and supervisor. A chain restaurant opened in the community offering higher wages and benefits than the local cafe, and two of Jake's co-workers left to work in the new restaurant. They recommended Jake to the manager, and offered to train and support him in the new restaurant if he were hired. Jake soon joined his former co-workers, and with them enjoyed the benefits of a larger paycheck.

The Benefit of Natural Supports

  • Co-workers are much more likely to interact with one employee with disabilities than they are a group of people who are working together in an enclave or mobile crew.
  • Investing time and energy in an employee gives a company a stake in the person's success.
  • Direct hire generally increases a supported employee's earnings because most companies are required to pay the minimum wage.
  • Support from co-workers or other sources outside the social service system helps decrease the dependence of supported employees on the availability of job coaches.
  • Co-worker support has the potential of increasing the range of job types, as jobs need not be limited to those that can be quickly learned by an outside job coach.
  • Broadening sources of support increases access to community employment for persons whose support needs currently make it too expensive for them to be individually hired or to be in the community.

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