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Why is Customized Employment Important for Transition Age Youth?

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My name is Ellen Condon and I am the project director at the University of Montana's Rural Institute on Disabilities and today I am going to be talking to you about why Customized Employment is Important for Transition Age Youth.

Customized Employment is critical for youth with disabilities, especially youth with significant disabilities, because it puts the possibility of paid employment in the community on the table for all youth. If we are assuming that customized employment philosophy, no one, regardless of severity of disability is excluded in customized employment. Everyone''s considered employable.  What if all of our IEP discussions for youth about post school outcomes began with the premise that everyone can go to work, work in the community, and that you need to opt out of working rather than prove that you are able to work? How would that change the students day, the expectations of staff of those students and what they did for curriculum and for work experiences?

The main premise of Customized Employment is that you don't need to be able to compete to work.  According to US Department of Labor, customized employment means individualizing the relationship between employees and employers in ways that meet the needs of both.  Meeting the needs of the employer is critical.  Employers aren''t going to spend money on an employee unless that employee is making a contribution to the business.   However, in Customized Employment instead of starting with a conversation around the employer needs, we''re going to start the conversation by looking at what the student needs, what their strengths are and interests, and the conditions under which they will be most successful.  The students contributions, skills and tasks serve as the foundation of any job that we''re going to go develop and negotiated to meet specific needs of an employer.  But again we always start with who the student is rather than what the employer needs.

What this translates into for youth with significant disabilities is the option of employment being designed for them around their strengths, around what works for them, and considering what factors, supports and or accommodations enable them to succeed and participate.  The need to be competitive in order to work is eliminated. This approach fits with the intention of Individualized Education Plan or IEP where the students strengths, interests and abilities are considered in relation to their post school outcomes and transition services.

The most common approach to getting a job is the labor market or competitive job development approach.  The employer identifies what their needs are, creates a job description to meet their needs, advertises the job, and people apply for the position.  The employer then compares each applicants skills with the demands of the job description and also compares each of the applicants skills to every other applicant skills.  While this approach works for many of us, youth and adults with a significant impact of disability don''t usually compete well and therefore they''re not typically selected for employment using this completive employment approach.

Kelsey is a young woman that I had the opportunity to work with and learn from a few years ago.  She''s a great example of someone who would not have been considered employable through that completive approach. She needs Customized Employment in order to work.  Kelsey uses a motorized chair to get around school and get around the community.  Her support staff usually directs her chair for her although she is learning to drive on straight, wide hallways.  She communicates by answering yes no questions. Yes.. what she does is she raises her left hand, to indicate no she either turns away from you or she purses her lips.  She also presses a big Mac switch with her left hand and that triggers a recording stating, I want to tell you something in my communication book.  The book contains pictures of people she knows, activities that she enjoys, and health issues or pain symptoms.  The person that she is communicating with asks yes/no questions until they locate the page and the icon which she''s interested in.  Kelsey also requires full personal care and transferring her takes 2 people.  And she is always with a paid staff person.  She tires easily and on a good day with an interesting activity she can engage for about 20 minutes and then she needs to take a 10 minute break.  If she gets over tired she''ll start to have seizures and she may need to sleep for an hour or two hours to recover.  When we were having her  transition planning meeting, employment in the community wasn''t discussed as a post school outcome.  The team even struggled to determine what types of vocational tasks she could do within the school building. And also whether or not she wanted to work at all.

In Customized Job Development you begin with the job seekers needs, contributions, strengths and proactively approach employers to propose a position that works for the employer as well as the job seeker.  The job seeker initiates this interaction or the job developer does on their behalf.  The employer then responds to the proposal without comparing the job seekers capabilities to other applicants or to an existing job description.

Without Customized Employment strategies, school teams may have struggled to visualize how a student with a significant intellectual disability, mobility impairment, communication barrier or challenging behaviors could work in the community.  Many times it was assumed that you had to be ready to work, meaning that you behave, your productivity was competitive, and you could work independently without ongoing job coaching.  Those assumptions made community employment unattainable for many youth who weren''t seen as ready to compete. What this means for transition is that the goal of paid, community-based employment is attainable and you don''t have to be competitive in order to have a job.

When we began getting to know Kelsey in terms of what she could do for an employer we discussed the following or we discovered the following:  She spent time at school and at home watching other people, and alerting people in her environment when something happened or something was needed.  At home for instance when she got ready for school her mom positioned her wheelchair right by the window and she would watch until the bus came. When the bus came she vocalized to let her mom know it was there.  At school she had learned to press switches to communicate messages, give information, ask for assistance and to operate equipment with an on/off switch.  She was most motivated by watching people and interacting with animated people.  Kelsey was most productive in the mornings as her seizures most likely occurred around 11:30.  The team felt that she could work for a 20 minute period, take a ten minute break and work another 20 minutes.  She had a support person with her to provide personal care and to perform the pieces of the task that she couldn''t physically perform.  Ideally the work site would be within 15 miles of the school.  The tasks that we knew she could do or do with training that we offered to employers included: giving people information, directing people, delivering items, stapling, hole punching, operating a shredder, and monitoring situations and then alerting somebody that something had happened. Using Customized Employment strategies enabled the team to answer the question What would work look like for Kelsey?

With the possibility of employment being a post school outcome for everyone, the purpose of vocational preparation in school may change.  For youth most likely to become employed using Customized Employment strategies maybe the goal for work experiences will be identifying their skills, strengths and contributions;  it might also be growing the list of tasks that they can offer employers; also identifying the conditions under which they will be most successful in employment. These activities would better prepare them for employment rather than working on completing applications, resumes and interviewing skills which are strategies more consistent with an competitive employment approach than customized employment approach. A Customized Employment philosophy would influence IEPs and transitions services in general.

When offering a customized approach to vocational preparation the questions around employment with youth  need to be different as  well.  Instead of asking a young adult what they want to do for a specific job after graduation it will be essential instead to talk to them about how work can look different for all of us and for all the students.  Youth and their families will play an important role in identifying each youths skills and potential contributions, also identifying what works and doesn''t work for them in vocational settings and experiences, and identify support strategies that enable them to participate fully and with the least external supports and the factors that are necessary for them to be successful on the job.

This can be a very empowering exercise or conversation for youth to increase their awareness of their own strengths, what works for them in employment, how to articulate what they need for accommodations, and how to identify and negotiate around situations that they will struggle with. IEP teams will find that the conditions that enable the young adult to be most successful at work will also be relevant to other areas of their life as well; living in the community, accessing post secondary education, and participating in the overall high school experience.  
Customized Employment will also positively influence how work experiences are approached for our youth to increase the individualization within the development of work experience sites for each student when they need it.  Customized strategies will enable support staff to identify tasks that students can do and how to support all students to participate fully in experiences.   Job sites that don''t match a students conditions will most likely be screened out. Therefore avoiding a bad work experience or an experience that doesn''t accentuate  the students skill and abilities.   For a student like Kelsey a work experience would need to be customized to her needs and contributions for her to be able to participate at all in the experience.
Through a progression of work experiences students contributions, their skills, tasks and support needs would be identified.  The depth of information gathered would go well beyond assessing whether or not youth are competitive in each setting.  The goal would be to identify each student''s essential features of environments, essential features of tasks, their support and supervision that would enable that student to be at their best in employment prior to high school exit.

This rich, detailed information about how each youth can participate in employment, and what types of environments are naturally supporting to the youth can provide a head start to that IEP team and those adult agencies such as Vocational Rehabilitation, Developmental Disabilities Services as they plan for transition from school to a community job.   Theoretically better job matches will reduce the individuals reliance on more formal and more costly ongoing supports.  At the very least, the depth of information learned about each student can lend itself to more creative ways to meet the young person''s ongoing support needs. 
In summary, Customized Employment is important in transition planning in that it opens up the possibility of paid community-based employment for everyone regardless of the impact of their disability.  Customized Employment strategies enable school staff, families and youth to picture how they could work; and getting adequate information about a young adult and their conditions to be successful in community employment can lead to a much more successful job match and possibly less reliance on more formal and expensive supports.

Students with disabilities who have limited work experience and skills can benefit from bypassing the traditional labor market approach to employment. Through a process known as “Discovery" and informational interviews, students have an opportunity to demonstrate and uncover their skills and interests across multiple setting. With this information, teams can develop measurable post secondary employment goals. Customized Employment capitalizes on the creativity and resources of the transition team and the community to facilitate a match between the student's skills, needs and the work environment.

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