What is “Supported Employment?”

/ March 8, 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 a family member with a disability wonder sometimes about the process of our family member’s getting a job. I think many individuals with disabilities, particularly adolescents and young adults, also wonder about the same thing. Because most people with disabilities want to work.

Like many others, job seekers with disabilities may need some assistance with assessing their skills and interests, so they may take interest inventories and skills assessments. Or they may volunteer to learn what they like, try observing a person working in a current job, do some research via the Internet, or watch some career videos to get a better understanding of the tasks performed in a certain job. There are many ways to discover a person’s interests and talents.

But for some jobseekers with disabilities, there will be additional needs of assistance in applying for positions, because online applications and resume-writing may be more difficult for them. They also may need help with additional training for the skills for their position and with job retention.

Accordingly, there is a network of agencies that provide these “supported employment” services. Public funding for supported employment is available from the Department of Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation program, the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Bureau of TennCare’s new Employment and Community First Waiver, which has a target start date of July 1, 2016.

Supported employment is typically provided by a job coach who is a resource to both the job seeker and employer’s staff. Since many job seekers with disabilities, especially people with intellectual disabilities, have little experience with employment, the supported employment process frequently starts with the job coach assessing the job seeker’s interests and skills. This would be followed by providing the job seeker the opportunity to experience working in several real job sites to help the person decide on the types of jobs to apply for.

“I would also add heavy networking with family, friends and colleagues is important in a job search; it’s all about who you know!” says Amy Gonzalez, State Director of Employment & Day Services for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Once the job seeker is ready to apply for positions, the job coach may do mock interviews to prepare the individual for the interview process. Also, if the job seeker has limited communication skills, the job coach may do a video resume that includes showing the job seeker performing the skills of the position.

woman talking to group at table meeting

Caitlin Garrett, student in Metro Nashville’s Community Based Transition Program, with her paraprofessional/job coach Daryl Bobo at Bateman Foods. (2014).

During the application process, the job coach may assess ways in which the job seeker can meet an employer’s workforce needs. Some individuals may be able to fully perform the task of a job that is open. Others, however, may not be able to do one or more of the tasks for a job. In these situations, the job coach may explore whether the employer is willing to consider customized employment, which can take the form of:

  • Task reassignment: Some of the job tasks of current workers are reassigned to the new employee. This reassignment allows the current worker to focus on the critical functions of his or her job (i.e., primary job responsibilities) and complete more of the central work of the job. Task reassignment typically takes the form of job creation, whereby a new job description is negotiated for the job seeker based on current, unmet workplace needs.
  • Job carving: An existing job description is modified — containing one or more, but not all, of the tasks from the original job description.
  • Job sharing: Two or more people share the tasks and responsibilities of a job based on each other’s strengths.

Customized Employment utilizes an individualized approach to employment planning and job development — one person at a time, one employer at a time — meeting the needs of the employer AND the job seeker with a disability.

“And I’d like to reiterate that the process looks different for every person,” Gonzalez says.

Then, once the person is hired, the job coach can provide assistance to the employer to train the new employee. In addition, the job coach can help the employee to get accustomed to the workplace and his or her co-workers as well as learn company protocols and perform the tasks of the job. When the person is stabilized in the position, the job coach will fade supports, which may no longer be needed or may be assumed by supervisors and co-workers. The job coach will, however, make periodic contacts with the employer and employee to ensure that all is going well and that no supports are needed. This latter service is called “follow along.”

However, while the goal should always be for the employee to be as independent as possible, there are instances in which a worker with significant disabilities will need continued support, and that support is available to some individuals through the Medicaid Waiver program.

“Regardless of the strategy that is used, the most important component is to learn about the person, their desires, abilities, opportunities for growth, when the person is at their best and how they can be supported to be successful at work,” Gonzalez says.

For additional information on supported employment, check out these resources at the TennesseeWorks website:

Information Brief: Perspectives of Employers on Customized Employment

Supported Employment Works!

(My thanks also to Bob Nicholas of the Knoxville Area Employment Consortium, Project SEARCH and a TennesseeWorks consultant for his help with this article.)

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