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Why This Topic is Important

    The Rehabilitation Act recognizes that disability is a natural part of the human experience and "in no way diminishes the right" of individuals to

  • Live independently,
  • Enjoy self determination,
  • Make choices,
  • Contribute to society,
  • Pursue meaningful careers, and
  • Enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of American society.

     Real work for real pay is an important part of all of these dimensions of life. It means making choices and decisions. It means getting paid, and thus being more independent. It means being part of things, and being seen as part of things.

    Work is an important part of defining who we are. "What's your name? What do you do?" – that's what most people ask each other when first meeting. Just imagine what it would be like to not have an answer...

    Through work, we make a contribution to the community. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning. It brings us into contact with other people. When we do a job well, we are proud.

    Without work, it is hard to be connected to other people. It is hard to feel a part of things.  
People with disabilities have been denied opportunities to work – we need to figure out why. Once we know why, we can work to make changes.

    Some people with disabilities may not choose to work competitively. Others may find themselves without a job from time to time. We need to figure out how to support them to make a contribution to the community. If other people do not recognize the contributions that people with disabilities make to the life of the community and the lives of all individuals, people with disabilities will continue to be vulnerable and at risk.

    We need to focus on what work is and what it means for each of us. We need to look again at what the absence of work would mean for us or for another person. This is a remarkable era of inclusion and of breaking down some of the last great walls of segregation against people with disabilities. Employment, choice, esteem, and empowerment are among the great victories that we're just beginning to be able to celebrate together.


1. Willing Workers, Satisfied Employers, and a Supportive Public

     A series of Lou Harris and Associates polls and surveys11 from 1991 discovered some important facts about employment, people with disabilities, employers and public attitudes.

  • More than 8 million Americans with disabilities, ages 16-64, want to work but cannot find employment.
  • Only one of every four people with disabilities who work have a full-time job.
  • Forty percent of people with disabilities over 16 did not finish high school.
  • Americans with disabilities are much more likely to be poor and much less likely to be able to find work than most Americans.
  • Harris concluded that lack of employment was a major indication of what it means to have a disability in America.

     Unfortunately, not much has changed since those 1991 findings.

     Another Harris Poll asked business managers about the employment and lack of employment among people with disabilities. The poll found that employers think:

  • People with disabilities are good employees,
  • The cost of job accommodation is not burdensome, and
  • There are not enough “qualified” people with disabilities to hire.

     Facts concerning the Employment of Americans with Disabilities:

  • There are 31.1 million working age (15-64) people with disabilities and employment can be clearly ruled out for only about 160,000 based on a Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) Data.
  • The employment rate for people with non severe disabilities is 74%, and 75% among people without disabilities.
  • The employment rate for people with severe disabilities is 25%.
  • If the employment rate of people with disabilities were equal to the nondisability level, an additional 7.1-7.5 millions people with disabilities would be employed.
  • The unemployment rate of people with disabilities increases the overall unemployment rate by about 0.6 points.
  • Average household and personal income levels are lower among people with disabilities of whom nearly 1/5th live in poverty status.
  • Close to 1/6th of people with disabilities receive Social Security income and close to 1/6th receive some form of means tested income (principally SSI).
  • The mean monthly household income was reported to be $2,962 and the median is $2,314, equal to 73% and 67% of the mean and median levels for people without disabilities. The mean and median levels for people with severe disabilities was 58% and 51% of the mean and median levels for people without disabilities.
  • Health insurance coverage rates are only slightly lower among people with disabilities than among people without disabilities, and differ very little between employed and nonemployed people with disabilities, with most of the latter group covered by Medicaid or Medicare.
  • Health care utilization (hospital and doctor's office visits) is higher among people with disabilities, particularly non employed people with disabilities.
  • Employed people with disabilities work fewer hours on average, are more likely to be self employed, and more likely to be covered by unions and in blue collar occupations than employed people without disabilities.
  • Employed people with disabilities earn 12% less per hour and 20% less per month than otherwise similar employed people without disabilities.
  • People without disabilities have completed an average of 12.9 years of education, compared to only 11.8 years among people with disabilities.
  • Only 60% of people with disabilities age 25 and older have completed 12 or more years of education.
  • People without disabilities are almost 3 times more likely than people with disabilities to have completed 16 or more years of education (22% compared to 8%).

11Hopkins. K.R. (1991). Willing to act. A summary of Louis Harris and Associates survey findings on public attitudes toward people with disabilities.

2. Supported Employment

     Supported employment is based upon the philosophy... that all individuals are capable of engaging in meaningful and remunerative vocation activity... that individuals with severe disabilities should be provided only with rehabilitative services that support the opportunity to engage in meaningful and socially valued vocational activity... and that employment opportunities should be made available only in integrated settings. (Michael Shafer, 1989)

    SUPPORTED EMPLOYMENT means providing on-the-job support so that someone can find and keep a job. It is an approach that has helped people who used to be thought of as too severely disabled to work. Supported employment makes it possible for persons with severe disabilities to work at typical jobs in the community. It provides the specialized training and support services they need to be successfully employed.

    In 1985,12 Paul Wehman and his colleagues in Virginia placed 145 people with disabilities into competitive employment. They worked in integrated work places for at least minimum wage. There were no wage subsidies. They were on the job for an average of 15 – 112 months. Many were considered severely disabled. Individual support extended the abilities of those workers so they could do the job. Forget the labels – focus on the job and what it takes for the person to do the job.

    The challenge is to our creativity to help people find and hold competitive jobs of their choice.

     Factors that make supported employment successful include:

  • A process to figure out what each individual needs. (individualized assessment)
  • A match between the person and the job. (job match)
  • Training for the individual.
  • Changes to the work site that help the individual do the job (work site adaptation).
  • Support that makes sense for the individual (individualized supports).
  • As much support as it takes, for as long as it takes (follow-along and ongoing supports).

12Psychology Today, March 1985

3. Job Coaches and Natural Supports

     Supported employment often involves an individual placement. In this approach, one individual is placed in a job in a community business or industry. A job coach (or employment training specialist) provides training to the individual on the job site in job skills and work related behaviors, including social skills. When the individual's performance reaches the employer's standards, training and on site support is gradually faded to a stable minimum. Intervention is increased when needed, for instance, when job duties are increased or the person is promoted to a new job. There is ongoing communication from time to time with the employee and employer.

4. Direct Employment and Career Planning

     In the regular employment world, employees directly hire their workers, place them on their payroll, and provide them with benefits (health insurance, sick and vacation time, training and development opportunities, continuing education reimbursements). Businesses that are successful recognize and value their employees, and encourage them to improve/strengthen their work skills. These employees in turn contribute to a more stable work force, and experience personal growth and development. They are on a career path.

    These same opportunities should be available for people with disabilities. Career planning is an essential component of employment.

    A planning tool13 that organizes necessary resources to support a person in employment, emphasizes a lifelong approach, and recognizes that personal priorities can and do change throughout life is critical to the career planning process. Person centered assessment and planning is:

  • Driven by personal preferences, interest and needs.
  • Focused on the quality of an individual's employment, and recognizes that each of us defines the quality of our life using different priorites.
  • Concerned with a variety of personal life outcomes that employment creates within and outside the work place.
  • A lifelong process. It recognizes that the relative importance of specific outcomes will change as a person changes.
  • A small, flexible group process that emphasizes participation by those people who know a person well and participate in activities on a regular basis.
  • Interrelated with all parts of a person's life.

13Kaposia, Inc.

5. Empowering People


"Traditional" Human Services Approach

Consumer Empowerment Approach

What is the problem?

Individual's lack of job skills

Lack of supports and effective motivation transition planning

Where is the problem?

In the individual or in his or family

In the environment (employers, her family, service system, etc.)

What is the solution?

Evaluate, prescribe, prepare

Obtain supports as needed for special services to facilitate career movement

Who is in charge?

Professionals in the service system

Individuals with help system from support providers

- Kregel, J., in Consumer advocacy and supported employment: A vision for the future. (1992). Brooke, K., Barcus, M., and Inge, K. (Eds.) Virginia Commonwealth University, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center.

6. The Importance of Public Policy

In 1989, Michael Shafer noted the following:

Philosophically, the importance of productive work as a means of achieving social equality and financial independence has now been recognized to apply to individuals with severe (disabilities)...

The U.S. Senate spoke powerfully about the rights of people with disabilities to work:

The committee intends that references to the terms "inclusion and integration" reinforce the principle that individuals with disabilities, regardless of the nature, type, or severity of disability, should have the same opportunity as their nondisabled peers to experience and enjoy working, leisure time activities, and other like experiences in our society. (Senate Report 102-357, The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1992 P.L.102-569).

A Vision for 2010

  • Employers and coworkers provide the training and support people with disabilities need on the job. They are the natural supports that make work places accommodating. They have access to good advice and assistance to make the best of the natural supports available in the work place.
  • Employers know about existing incentives that encourage businesses to employ people with disabilities and create incentives that will attract employees.
  • The opportunities for employment are so great that it is realistic to expect people with developmental disabilities can meet their responsibilities, as citizens, to contribute to the economic life of the community. The commitment to the right of citizens to employment is so great that society works hard to figure out how people with developmental disabilities can exercise their right and have their right protected.
  • Health care is a major political issue and directly connected to employment.  Employers need long term employees and a stable, productive pool of workers.  Employers recognize the significant role that health care plays in hiring and maintaining productive employment.  They become politically active in addressing health care issues.  People with disabilities do not have to trade off some level of guaranteed health care when they take a job.