Students with disabilities, just like every other young person, want a fulfilling career. A job is the foundation of independence, a gateway to community life and a means of self-expression. Parents can and do play an important role in this quest, encouraging loved ones to explore their interests, then advocating for opportunities to turn their aspirations into reality.
In our family’s experience, many school systems conduct person-centered planning to enable and encourage students to investigate various career paths. However, budget constraints and shortages of skilled special ed professionals often lead such programs to revert to a focus on traditional educational skills (e.g., basic reading) and basic independent living skills (brushing teeth, taking a bus) rather than on preparing students for community-based jobs. Therefore, parents should expect to play an active role in identifying supplementary career planning resources.
Programs vary dramatically by location, but most states have Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies. As a child approaches the final years of high school, parents should insist on consulting with educators trained in the area about the availability of government and other community jobs/jobs training programs and the optimal time to begin contacting them. Services may include skills assessment and training, career counseling, and help with resumes and interview techniques. Some organizations also provide placement services and on-the-job coaching. I also strongly recommend that parents check with advocacy organizations such as their local chapter of The Arc, and network with other families to benefit from their experiences.
It is likely to be very important to your loved one for you to help him/her understand that every job has its less-than-fascinating aspects, and having an opportunity to “test drive” a position is ideal. For instance, I had a friend whose daughter was initially interested in office work. But after several months as an intern in her school office, she realized that her short attention span left her frustrated by paperwork. On the other hand, she discovered a flair for receptionist duties and a new career path was forged.
Don’t hesitate to approach prospective employers on your own. Many large businesses recognize the contributions that individuals with disabilities can make and have established programs to help them obtain meaningful positions.
In parallel with this exploration, it’s important for families to consider the effect that wages will have on an individual’s eligibility for means-tested public benefits such as Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. For more on this topic, read “Balancing Wages with Public Benefits.” Employers are often willing to tailor hours so that families don’t experience a negative cash flow.
Perhaps most difficult for protective parents is witnessing the inevitable disappointments your child will encounter while pursuing career dreams. Remember that it’s important for them to experience life for themselves and that even setbacks can be learning opportunities.