by Christy Lynch, CEO, KARE, Newbridge, Co. Kildare

What is supported employment?

The definition used by the Irish Association of Supported Employment is ‘Supported employment enables people with disabilities to be employed in paid jobs in the open labour market’.

How was supported employment developed?

Supported employment was developed as an alternative to segregated employment options for people with disabilities in the US. The earliest examples of the supported employment model, in the late ’70s, led to a series of projects in the early ’80s. Today there are over 200,000 individuals with disabilities competitively employed in the US. The supported employment model has now spread across the world. In Ireland supported employment projects began in the late 1980s.

How is supported employment different from other models?

There are key differences in the supported employment approach which is an ‘outcome-based model’. Beginning with the desired end-result (wanting someone with a disability to get a job), the first step is to identify a job to suit their interests, and then find the job for that person. The person’s training needs are assessed, and such training is given by a job coach, at the company/work location. Once the person is successfully doing the job, the job coach reduces his/her presence, but with continuing support for the individual, the employer and co-workers.

Does supported employment really work for people with intellectual disability?

Yes. Although it is also used successfully with persons with other types of disability, approximately 70% of those placed in supported employment in the US have an intellectual disability—and statistics are similar in several European countries, New Zealand and elsewhere.

How do you convince employers to participate in supported employment?

Supported employment programmes have two customers: the job-seeker with a disability and the potential employer. In order for such programmes to be successful, the involvement of employers in the open labour market is clearly required. Employers are approached in a positive pro-active way, recognising that in many instances they and their workforce will require some support to increase their knowledge of people with disabilities. With this kind of approach, employers in Ireland and abroad are willing to become involved in creating meaningful, paid opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Can this really work for people with severe disabilities?

One of the ‘selling points’ of supported employment is the fact that it is tailor-made for each individual job-seeker, reflecting their particular requirements. For this reason the model has been successfully used with people labelled as ‘severely disabled’. Some years ago, several Irish agencies collaborated in ‘Project Challenge’, which placed a number of people with very significant multiple disabilities into jobs in the open labour market.

Is supported employment a very expensive option?

Taking a very short-term view, then, yes, it is an expensive option—each person needs to be consulted and individually assessed; a particular support package built around their needs; and on-the-job support given on an ongoing basis. However, experience has shown that in the longer term this model is no more expensive than alternative options. Supported employment also has the benefit of giving people adult-status and the dignity of a real job, perhaps paying taxes and becoming contributors to society and the economy.

What about parental involvement?

The delivery of high-quality supported employment requires the best and most comprehensive information about the individual. This usually means the active involvement of the individual and his/her family, as well as professionals and service providers. Parents understandably look for assurances and guarantees that they will be fully involved in the process and decision-making, and that safeguards will be put in place for their family member’s safety.

What about entitlements and benefits?

There are problems with the current benefit system—the majority of individuals with intellectual disability who are in supported employment are recipients of the Disability Allowance, with a medical card and travel pass. Since the advent of the minimum wage, this means that a person may work up to 17 hours per week without affecting their benefits. This is not in the interest of those people would like to work longer hours, nor in the interest of the social welfare system. Government departments are presently reviewing the complex issues involved, in the hope of removing the present disincentives.

What about the trade unions?

Trade unions have an important role to play in improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The ICTU nationally, and many union reps locally, have been extremely supportive and helpful in joining with supported employment programmes.

So, everything is perfect?

No, of course not. Great successes have been achieved across the country and the economic situation has never been more favourable for job opportunities. We now have a government-funded (FÁS) programme for supported employment. But ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, and it will take some time to expand to the point where everyone who wishes to avail of supported employment has the opportunity to do so.

Where can I get more information about supported employment?

The Irish Association of Supported Employment regularly runs training courses, conferences and seminars, and provides information about what’s happening nationally and internationally. Ask whether a supported employment programme exists within your service agency, or if there is a plan to develop such a programme in the future. You can also contact your local FÁS office to find out how you might be referred to the nearest supported employment consortium.


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