The central ‘focus’ in this issue of Frontline is supported employment. We are indebted to Christy Lynch, the acknowledged archangel of supported employment in Ireland, who agreed to guest-edit the feature for us.

David Mank, a founding father of the supported open employment model for people with significant learning disabilities in the US, was a key speaker at the COPE Foundation international seminar in 1997 (was it that long ago?). He spoke about the changing focus of learning disability services through the last century—originally providing a place of safety for people; then a place to learn daily living skills; then a place to prepare for work; then a place to work with other people with similar disabilities; and then a service to facilitate people to go out to community jobs. Inclusive education and person-centred planning have led to the discovery of the capabilities and wishes of individuals with disabilities, and services must change in response.

With funding from the Department of Enterprise and Employment, FÁS has commissioned new supported employment consortia to assist more people with disabilities to succeed in open employment. The economy remains buoyant; employers are looking for workers, and we must make hay while the sun shines.

Every step forward involves new challenges. The most obvious hurdle on the track to supported employment is the need for skilled and committed job coaches. A long queue of people with learning disabilities are waiting to be consulted and assessed, to sample jobs, and to choose an appropriate work-setting for them. Adept facilitation is needed with clients and their families, and with potential employers and co-workers. Much of it is about human resources again—the real people needed to enable individuals who wish to do so to move from an activity centre or sheltered workshop to a community job.

Co-workers do not automatically become workmates. Important though employment is to one’s self-esteem and quality of life, people who work (part-time, in most cases) need some level of social support if their new independence is not to mean greater isolation. A system change to supported employment involves radical changes in ancillary services too—flexibility will be essential if service agencies are to embrace the supported employment model effectively.