What are the Top Predictors of Employment for Young People with Disabilities?

/ February 23, 2016

By Janet Shouse

     About the Author


Janet Shouse is a parent of a young adult with autism, and she is passionate about inclusion, employment of people with disabilities, medical issues related to developmental disabilities, supports and services, public policy, legislative initiatives, advocacy, and the intersection of faith and disability. She wears many hats at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including one as a disability employment specialist for TennesseeWorks.


Many of us who have children with disabilities spend much of the first 20 years or so of their lives focusing on what they cannot do. Whether you received a diagnosis before your child was born, when your child was 2 or when your child was 14, our efforts, through therapy and education, are to help our son or daughter overcome, to the greatest extent possible, their deficits in functioning. (Yes, deficit is a harsh word, but we often work from a deficit model for our child to meet various eligibility criteria.)

If a child is not yet walking, talking, reading, etc., we as parents and those who teach them strive to help our child/student learn to do those things. So … much of the focus is on weaknesses, rather than on strengths. As a result, unfortunately, we sometimes set our expectations low, so we don’t get our hopes up. And often, children live up to these low expectations. Too many of our children seem to be “prepared” to graduate from school to go home and sit on the couch. I understand that for some, this may seem to be the only option, but there are multiple ways to be involved in the community, and for many, many more young people with disabilities, employment should be the goal.

One important thing I have learned, in my time with TennesseeWorks, is that having high expectations for your child (or your student) is much more likely to lead to him/her being employed after exiting high school. That is true whether the student exits at age 18 or at 22. Fostering high expectations for life after the school years should start when a child is young. I would encourage you, even from your child’s early years, to look at IEP goals in the light of future quality of life and whether those goals will ultimately lead to employment.

According to research, young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities whose parents expected them to have a job after graduation were five times more likely to have paid employment in their community shortly after graduation than those whose parents did not hold such expectations (Carter, Austin, & Trainor, 2012). Similarly, students whose teachers expected them to have a job during the summer were 15 times more likely to work than students whose teachers did not hold such expectations (Carter, Ditchman, et al., 2010).

So, how do you raise your expectations as well as those of your child?

Giving your child chores around the house or the classroom is a way to build expectations that he or she will help carry a share of responsibilities. Praising your child’s (or your student’s) efforts rather than the outcome can also help. Focusing on your child’s strengths helps everyone (parent, child, teacher) see him or her more positively.

For many of us, we simply have to think back to our own childhoods to see the expectations that our parents had for us. As I was growing up, we talked about when I would go to college, not if. We talked about what I would do for a living when I grew up, not if I would work. If you have a child (or a student) who is able to communicate, have those sorts of discussions. And the earlier, the better.

Some children with disabilities will get a regular diploma and attend the college or university their choice, accessing supports through the college’s disability services office. For those not on track for a regular high school diploma, a number of post-secondary programs on college campuses now exist for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities that offer a college experience and often increase independence, self-esteem and self-advocacy.

If your child is not able to communicate easily, you may still talk about these topics, but you will also need to watch to learn what kinds of things your child does enjoy doing. As you think about those activities, think about what kinds of jobs or parts of jobs your child might be able to do.


Full photo caption at bottom of page.

Research has also found that a child (or student) having a paid job in the community while still in high school is strongly correlated with employment success after high school. (Carter, Austin, & Trainor, 2012) While I understand that for some children with significant disabilities, this may seem like a pie-in-the-sky ideal, but the title of the study is “Predictors of Post-school Employment Outcomes for Young Adults With Severe Disabilities.” And the principal researcher is my colleague, Dr. Erik Carter; he knows it can be done.

I also want to add one more idea to help boost expectations for students with disabilities. For those who will not receive a regular high school diploma, a new option exists called the occupational diploma. This diploma, unlike a special education diploma, provides a rigorous standard of “work-ready skills,” and we hope many students with disabilities will work toward an occupational diploma. The aim of the occupational diploma is to give employers a much clearer picture of the skills the student possesses. (More about the occupational diploma in a future blog.)

To learn more about how parents and teachers can raise expectations for students with disabilities, check out http://www.tennesseeworks.org/getting-to-work/raising-expectations/

 Photo Caption: Mahamud Abdulaziz & Caitlin Garrett, students in Metro Nashville’s Community-Based Transition Program, at Bateman Foods in Nashville. The Community-Based Transition Program provides community-based training experiences for students who have graduated with a special ed diploma. 

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