Career Planning for Students with Significant Support Needs Utilizing
the Discovery and Vocational Profile Process, Cross-Agency Collaborative
Funding and Social Security Work Incentives
The Individualized Career Planning Model was developed in response to growing concern about poor transition to employment outcomes for students with significant disabilities. Nationally, less than 8% of students with a disability exit school with a job, are enrolled in a post secondary education institution, are involved in community recreation and leisure activities, or are living in an independent situation (Hughes, Swang, Jin-Ho, Killian, Harmer, and Alcantara, 1997). Those students most likely to leave school without skills and supports necessary to work in the community are those with the most significant disabilities.
Poor post-school outcomes have been linked to the lack of vocational preparation, transition planning, and linkages to existing adult services and supports prior to graduation. The Individualized Career Planning Model is specifically designed to overcome these programmatic and funding challenges and barriers at the same time that it promotes a customized approach to employment.
The Model has been developing since 2001 in Montana with the support of two U.S. Department of Education grants. These funds supported two distinct but integral implementation projects: WISER (Work Incentives and Alternative Resource Development for Student Employment #H324M000089), and Linkages to Employment (#H324M020140). The Model was conceptualized, implemented, and field-tested in nine Montana schools, each with very different challenges, resources, and populations.
This article will introduce the Model and discuss its primary components. Wherever possible, case studies of participating students have been included to illustrate the different ways the Model or its components can be used and integrated into existing services and programs. This is followed by a brief discussion of some of the unique challenges to implementing this Model in rural Montana schools. We close with a candid assessment of the Model’s effectiveness and range of applicability, and plans for future development. Generally, the case studies indicate that the Model is effective in gaining employment for students with significant disabilities, that Social Security Work Incentives are an underutilized and highly effective funding option to enhance transition efforts and support employment upon graduation for students who are eligible for this incentive, and that with early creation of linkages, agencies, schools and the student can work collaboratively to fund supports to achieve better quality employment outcomes for less overall cost. This latter feature is particularly important in light of shrinking state budgets and growing waiting lists for adult employment services. The bottom line is that students who have access to real jobs while they are in school and plans in place to meet their ongoing needs upon graduation, not only have a better chance of being employed after graduation but also make fewer demands for services on adult agencies.
The Model offers schools a template for individualizing vocational curriculum and preparation of students with disabilities. One significant advantage of the Model is that its innovative features and focus on the individual can be implemented—either in part or in whole—within existing school services and frameworks.
The innovative features of the Individualized Career Planning Model include:
The Model is designed for students aged 14 (or younger if appropriate) through 21, or graduation from high school. It promotes individualized vocational planning within recommended benchmarks and timelines for vocational activities. To ensure individualization, vocational activities—whether school-based jobs for students under the age of 16 or community-based jobs for students 16 and older—are guided by the student’s support needs, strengths, and contributions. Thus, the first step in the Individualized Career Planning process is to answer the question ‘who is this student?’ What are her interests, preferences and passions? What environments, supports, and teaching strategies enable her to be at her best? What skills and abilities does she possess? What job tasks does she currently perform? The process of gathering this information is called Discovery. Discovery culminates in the writing of a qualitatively rich and detailed Vocational Profile—a written picture of the student. The information from the Profile is then summarized and compartmentalized in a person-centered, Customized Employment Planning meeting. During this meeting several things happen: a plan to develop a customized job is formulated; the actual terms of employment—the Ideal Conditions—are identified and agreed upon and then translated into language understandable to future employers; and information describing the student’s skills and abilities—her Contributions—is captured. Following the meeting, the information is translated into a picture and narrative format called a Representational Portfolio. The job developer uses this Portfolio to represent the job seeker to potential employers, or in those instances where self-employment is chosen, to develop self-employment alternatives with appropriate supports. Throughout this process, the Individualized Career Planning Model promotes creative funding arrangements, either by supporting students to access Social Security Administration (SSA) Work Incentives or utilizing funding in more collaborative ways, such as blending funds from schools, SSA, Workforce, and Vocational Rehabilitation.
Entrepreneurial and self-employment alternatives, collaborative funding agreements, and non-traditional agency linkages are especially important in places like Montana where resources and opportunities are significantly limited by demographics and geography. Indeed, a primary impetus for developing this Model arose from a need to get beyond or around the constraints and limitations imposed upon students with disabilities, their families, service providers, and schools by shrinking funds, lack of options for students with significant disabilities, and the inherent economic and geographic challenges in a rural state.
The Case for Customization
For this reason, the ultimate goal of the Individualized Career Planning Model is to tailor employment experiences and paid jobs to fit the skills, interests, strengths, and abilities of students, while at the same time meeting the needs and expectations of the employer. This includes unpaid school-based experiences for younger students, or paid, community-based experiences for older students. “Customized employment” essentially means “individualizing the employment relationship between employees and employers in ways that meet the needs of both” (Callahan, 2002).
Why customize? For students with a significant impact of disability, customizing an experience or employment setting enhances their opportunities for participation. By tailoring a position—removing or avoiding tasks a person cannot do well or at all, creating supports and environments wherein we know a student is at his or her best—we can maximize a student’s independent and competent performance. This not only increases the student’s self-esteem, but also promotes her as a competent employee to coworkers and employers. If, on the other hand, we place a student in a job environment or ask the student to perform a task that does not match his ideal conditions, we set the student up to be perceived as less productive and competent, and more dependent upon specialized, external supports than is actually the case. Inevitably, employer and employee dissatisfaction or frustration ensues, or worse yet, the employee becomes labeled “unemployable.”
In Discovery, information is gathered about a student’s interests and strengths, the types of environments and activities in which a student is at his or her best, the types of supports that are most effective, and the present level of performance in actual life activities. This information is gathered through a series of interviews, activities and observations. Information is collected from family members, friends, teachers, neighbors, —anyone who knows the student well. The person facilitating the Discovery process spends time at the student’s home and school, and in the community with the student, observing the student in familiar as well as unfamiliar activities.
The Vocational Profile
Vocational Profiles are an alternative to standardized vocational evaluations (Callahan & Garner, 1997; Rogan, Grossi & Gajewski, 2002). The advantage of the Vocational Profile for a student with a more significant disability is that it provides concrete direction toward employment and furnishes a detailed picture of the ideal employment conditions and settings. The Profile also provides information on and examples of supports, accommodations, or adaptations that a student currently uses to be successful within his or her school, home, or work environments. The Profile differs from a traditional vocational evaluation in that it does not numerically measure skills or abilities, compare the individual student’s performance against some standardized norm, or attempt to predict employment success or failure. Instead, the Profile qualitatively describes a student’s performance, the activities and environments best suited to success, and the supports currently in use in familiar environments. Most importantly, perhaps, the Profile is not a tool for weeding out “unemployable” students; its sole purpose is to identify those situations in which a student can be most successful and to aid in the customization of an employment relationship that will foster that success. In other words, the ability to work in the community is presumed; the task for the job developer is to locate employment settings which match the person, and negotiate the appropriate supports and job tasks to make the work experience successful.
The Profile and the Individualized Education Plan
For students aged 16 and older (since students without disabilities are setting their sights on paid employment), the Profile guides the development of individualized, paid, community-based jobs or, in some instances, the development of a student-owned business. Additionally, the Vocational Profile would make an excellent summary of student performance document which could transition with the student from school to adult services.
Customized Employment Planning Meeting
Ideal Conditions for employment include a description of any critical factors which must be present (or absent) for the student to be successful. Included might be necessary supports, environmental conditions, and teaching strategies. This section defines the parameters of the job for which the job developer will be negotiating on behalf of the individual student. Preferences are the areas of interest identified for or by the student. These may or may not be work-related but could potentially lead to the job developer to an employment site or an employment connection. Contributions are the skills, experiences, personal attributes, or credentials that a student brings to an employer. Job Tasks are those tasks that the student can perform, or based upon what was learned in Discovery, what the interviewer believes the student is capable of performing with training.
Using all of this information, meeting participants either identify potential employers in the community or identify training activities that can be created in the student’s school, depending on the student’s age. Employment activities of nondisabled peers serve as the reference point for students with disabilities. Job tasks, work or learning environments, as well as supports and on-the-job training are structured according to the information provided in the Profile which was summarized in the Planning meeting. The Individualized Career Planning process complements the IEP process in that information gathered during Discovery helps support staff to form a picture of each student’s present level of performance, strengths and interests, and provides a vision of the student’s post-school outcomes. It also highlights areas or skills where instruction is needed and identifies transition goals which are functional for each individual student.
For students 16 and older, once the Profile is completed and the Ideal Conditions of employment are identified, a list of Potential Employers is compiled. Potential Employers are those employers within the community who match the Ideal Conditions of employment described for the individual and who may have a need for the skills or Contributions that the individual can provide. This list directs the job developer in her efforts on behalf of the job seeker.
The Representational Portfolio
Schools, agencies and families report that
both the Vocational Profile and Employment Portfolio are useful tools
for sharing information about students with adult agencies who may be
serving the student upon graduation from high school.
Carley had participated in a few school and community-based work explorations prior to looking for a paid job. Based on these experiences and the information gathered during the Discovery, we learned that Carley’s Contributions included:
Carley is a dedicated worker; her attendance is good and she is a reliable employee. She is also friendly and outgoing, and works well and collaboratively with many coworkers and customers. Some of the Job Tasks that she can perform for an employer include:
Carley’s Ideal Conditions include an environment that can accommodate her electric wheelchair. If she is to return or handle merchandise it must be light, small and easy to grasp. When interacting with coworkers, supervisors or customers, she needs time to respond using her Delta talker, an augmentative communication device. It is best for her to have a structured routine of familiar job tasks that she feels confident she can physically perform; however, new tasks can be introduced to the routine. Carley does best when the supervisor takes time to help her figure out ways to perform pieces of tasks differently in instances where some physical limitation prevents her from performing the task in the typical way.
Wal-Mart, an employer in Carley’s town, needed someone to stock
merchandise that customers had returned to the store. They valued having an
employee who returns items to the correct place rather than replacing
the merchandise incorrectly in any convenient spot. A strong work ethic,
positive attitude and good attendance were desired employee traits. Wal-Mart
hired Carley after recognizing that she could make a valuable contribution
to their workplace. Carley worked at Wal-Mart for over a year and then
chose to resign from this position to pursue her next job.
Promoting Self-Determination and Informed Choice
The work exploration is not an attempt to “evaluate” an individual’s “readiness” to work. The philosophy of the Model is that everyone is “ready” and has some contribution to make; it is simply a matter of discovering the individual’s contributions and desires, and matching those to an employer’s needs. Building a model that incorporates flexibility as a fundamental feature provides students with disabilities the same latitude to explore possible career alternatives and to grow and change over time as that enjoyed by those without disabilities. As a student gains experience and skills, their preferences, the parameters which need to be negotiated on their behalf, and the job tasks they can perform will also evolve and change.
One word of caution in regard to work experiences is that the more significant the impact of disability on a student’s performance, the more critical it is to customize and individualize their employment experiences. Customization allows the student to experience maximum independence and participation and leads to job performance that promotes a positive and competent image of the person to the community and future employers.
Maclean’s Profile identified characteristics of an ideal job which led to placement in a paid position at a local video and music store. But it also identified an interest in working around dogs and animals as another potential career goal. In addition to his paid job, Maclaen chose to volunteer at a local Humane Society to explore whether or not he would like to pursue some type of work with animals and possibly start his own dog boarding business. Maclaen was able to explore two very different types of work simultaneously. Each experience was customized for him. The experience was valuable not only because it provided Maclaen with information he could later use to make informed choices about what he wanted to do, but also because it enabled him to make connections with others in the community who might be helpful in his future job searches.
Before graduating from high school, Maclean’s teacher developed several part-time jobs for him which totaled 20 hours a week. He worked at the local video store on Friday nights, and at the courthouse, the school administration building, and the city library during the week. All of these jobs were customized and developed using the information provided in Maclaen’s Profile.
Self-employment as a Post-school Outcome or Career Experience
For students with a more significant impact of disability, the list of Ideal Conditions—those factors that must be present (or absent) in order for a student to be most successful—will likely be longer than that of someone with less impact of disability. This means that finding a suitable employment match in existing markets may be more difficult. In some cases, supported self-employment could be an alternative, but the inability to locate traditional employment should not be the only factor involved in this decision.
While the self-employed person has more control over the design of the work environment, definition of job tasks, use of time, and a host of other factors that can be tailored to best meet the needs of the worker rather than the demands of the product or employer, it is not for everyone. There are a multitude of additional factors which need to be considered prior to choosing this option, including: What supports will the person need for their business such as: marketing, sales, or bookkeeping? Does the person or their family have experience or expertise in small business? If not, are there local resources that could provide assistance? How much will the person need to earn to support himself or herself and grow the business? While independent performance of these activities is not a prerequisite to becoming self-employed, these are supports that will need to be negotiated on behalf of the individual or provided by a family member, friend, or employee to ensure that the business is successful.
Self-employment can serve as both work experience and as a post-school outcome. The strategies and principals intrinsic to supported employment also apply to a supported self-employment model (Griffin & Hammis, 2000). And, as is the case for small business owners in the mainstream workforce, students or adults with disabilities need not master all components or perform all tasks of owning and running their own business for self-employment to be considered a feasible option. Partial participation with ongoing supports is by no means out of the ordinary.
Lance began his small business while he was still in high school. From his Discovery process his planning team knew that he liked to be on the go—driving around, visiting with familiar people. As part of his Transition preparation, he participated in school and community-based work experiences that involved making deliveries. Lance lived in a small rural community. When his job developer could not find a business that matched his ideal conditions of employment, as well as his preferences (making deliveries), his family urged the job developer to pursue self-employment. Lance started a delivery business which delivered lunches for local restaurants. He had a contract with one of the larger businesses in town to provide lunch to their employees twice weekly. As Lance’s business grew, the goal was to hire a partner who could also meet some of Lance’s ongoing support needs. In the meantime, his family used funding from state Developmental Disabilities to pay someone to drive his van, assist with deliveries, and support his participation in his business.
Social Security Work Incentives: Funding Transition
Planning and Ongoing Supports
The PASS Plan
To be eligible for a PASS plan, a student must meet medical eligibility requirements for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is income- and disability-based, AND have countable income or resources that reduce her SSI payment below the Federal Benefit rate of $603/month (2006 federal benefit rate). As long as the individual is a student, wages do not reduce the SSI checks until the student earns more than $1,460/month, up to $5,910/year (2006 rates; Student Earned Income Exclusion). However, once an individual graduates, wages reduce the monthly SSI check by fifty cents for every dollar earned over $85 monthly. This reduction in SSI makes an individual eligible for a PASS plan, which allows the individual to shelter the amount by which the SSI checks are reduced in a PASS plan account. These funds can then be used to furnish the supports necessary for them to work.
Alicia was 17 years old when her IEP team discovered she was eligible for a PASS plan. Her SSI check was being reduced by her monthly SSDAC (Social Security for Disabled Adult Children) checks which she began receiving following the death of her father. She was able to shelter the amount of the SSDAC check ($290/month) for a period of 3 years in a PASS which totaled over $9,000. Her PASS was originally intended to purchase transportation services, job development and job coaching while she was in school and to later bridge the potential gaps in support between school and post-school supports. Since the school and Vocational Rehabilitation funded her job development and coaching she amended her PASS, and with Social Security’s approval, purchased a wheelchair accessible van.
PASS plans are a perfect tool for transition planning because they can be used to bridge the gap in services between school and post-school supports. They are flexible in what they fund—anything a person needs to obtain and maintain employment. And PASS plans promote consumer and family choice and control: the individual or their Representative Payee chooses what to purchase and from whom to purchase it; payment is made out of the individual’s designated bank account as the individual authorizes. PASS plans can also be modified, with the PASS Cadre’s permission, as circumstances and funding or service needs change. If a person’s Vocational Goal changes they can also have more than one PASS plan.
Lance, the young man who began his own delivery business, and his brother combined their PASS plans to purchase a van for their business. Vocational Rehabilitation funds were used to adapt the van to make it accessible and fund some of the initial job coaching. While Lance was still in school, the school provided a paraprofessional as a job coach and driver. After Lance graduated, his family provided supports for his business.
The Individualized Career Planning Model encourages the use and development of PASS plans for eligible students. The Model recommends that as part of transition planning Social Security Benefits Analyses be completed to identify those students who might be eligible for Social Security Work Incentives such as a PASS plan. In some cases a student could become eligible for a PASS plan and SSI simultaneously by sheltering income or a resource in the PASS. Ideally a student’s eligibility is reviewed annually at their IEP, or whenever there is a change which could impact her eligibility for SSA benefits (a parent retires, becomes disabled, or dies; the student’s income changes; parents’ income changes; family composition changes; the student turns 18 or is about to exit school).
Information about Social Security Work Incentives such as PASS plans is being disseminated to schools, families, Workforce agencies, Vocational Rehabilitation, and Developmental Disabilities case managers with the hopes that more students who are eligible for these work incentives will access them. Vocational Rehabilitation may fund the development of a PASS plan for students who are in their exit year of high school. Some Vocational Rehabilitation offices have committed to utilizing work incentives as a long-term signoff for students requesting extended employment services through Vocational Rehabilitation. Workforce agencies are exploring the option of offering PASS plans as a service for eligible Workforce consumers.
Access to funds such as those provided in a PASS plan give the family and person with disabilities more choices in designing transition plans and selecting career options. And in rural areas where employment opportunities and support services are scarce, creativity and choice are essential.
Forging Linkages: Collaboration between Agencies,
Schools, and Individuals
A major difficulty in planning for successful transitions from school to adult life for students with ongoing support needs is overcoming the differences in how schools and adult agencies provide services. School-sponsored special education services are entitlements; if a student has a disability, he or she receives the service. By contrast, adult agencies such as Vocational Rehabilitation and Developmental Disabilities Agencies provide services based upon eligibility and availability; even when a person is deemed eligible, availability can limit access. Across the country waiting lists for Developmental Disabilities Services average five years (Wehman, 2001). To further complicate matters, available services may or may not fit the needs of transitioning graduates; what they need may simply not be available in their area. Another challenge is in obtaining and administering services. For the student, the necessary services are primarily provided within the school and by the school; school personnel manage and oversee the provision of these services. For adults, the task of identifying, selecting, applying for, and coordinating services from the confusing array of adult agencies is often times left to the graduate and his family.
For these reasons and many others, transition planning that incorporates IEP team assistance in forging early links between schools, adult services, funding agencies, families, and individuals with disabilities is essential to post-school employment success. The Model is specifically designed to encourage the early formation of these linkages.
For Maclaen, early interagency collaboration and the use of Social Security work incentives made the difference between employment and unemployment when he graduated. Prior to his graduation from high school, Vocational Rehabilitation funded his initial wages during the time he was learning the job, and a PASS plan was written and submitted to Social Security with the intent to begin funding follow-along supports and transportation the day after graduation. Maclaen was referred to Supported Employment Services through the Developmental Disabilities Agency and was on a waiting list for these services for 3 years. While waiting, his PASS plan funded his follow-along supports.
In Carley’s case, obtaining her job at Wal-Mart required the school and Carley’s mom to perform the job development. Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (Section 121 of the Rehabilitation Act), provided funding for the job coach during the summer between her junior and senior year when Carley was not in school, and the school used their paraprofessional to job coach once school began again. By the time she graduated, Carley was working at Wal-Mart without the support of a job coach. She utilized her Personal Care Attendant funds to pay for some minimal assistance that she still required at the job.
During Ryan’s transition planning his IEP team discovered that he was eligible for a PASS plan. His SSI check was being reduced because he also received SSDAC (Social Security for Disabled Adult Children) through his father’s retirement account. A PASS plan totaling $7,780 was approved and used to fund job coaching and computer tutoring while Ryan was still in school. The PASS continued after he graduated at age 20. Funds targeted for people with disabilities at the local Workforce agency were utilized to purchase computer equipment to support Ryan’s employment.
Ryan applied for Supported Employment Services through the local Developmental Disabilities office but there was a waiting list in the county where he lived. In the meantime, he received funds from a Developmental Disabilities Medicaid Waiver program called Community Supports in the amount of $7,800/year. He, his family, and case manager identified his priority needs to be employment and recreation and leisure supports, and blended the available money to address these needs.
The Montana Experience
Vocational Rehabilitation has only recently begun funding assessment and employment activities for students during their exit year of high school. (Previously Vocational Rehabilitation in many towns accepted applications for services only in the second semester of the student’s senior year which did not leave much time for accessing these funds prior to student graduation.) If the student is found to be in need of ongoing supports to maintain employment, Vocational Rehabilitation may not continue to fund employment services until and unless an adult agency such as Developmental Disabilities or VR Extended Employment Services is also serving the student. Some Vocational Rehabilitation offices will accept natural supports or Social Security Work Incentives as a demonstration of long-term support (or long-term signoff) for people who need ongoing supports, but this is not a consistent practice across the state. Thus, the majority of students with ongoing support needs graduating from special education services risk waiting for Vocational Rehabilitation Services AND Developmental Disabilities Services.
Putting the Model to Work in Montana Schools
For students in their exit year in Missoula schools, Vocational Rehabilitation offered the Vocational Profile as one option of a Vocational Evaluation that they would fund, and they provided a limited amount of funding for employment supports such as: job coaching, job development, transportation, or assessment which was provided by a VR-enrolled employment vendor. In instances where either of these options was chosen, the school, family and selected adult agency negotiated to decide who would provide each component: the Profile, the Marketing Portfolio, Job Development, and Job Coaching, thereby blending their available funds and services and maximizing the supports for the student.
In the Mission Valley schools, the school psychologist and teachers took the lead in performing Discovery and writing Profiles. Adult agencies, including Vocational Rehabilitation, Workforce Investment, and Developmental Disabilities case managers were invited to the Employment Planning meetings. For several students paid work experiences were developed based upon the information from their Employment Planning meetings. The Workforce Youth Coordinator developed the job sites and paid the student’s wages for the length of the job trial. State Vocational Rehabilitation funded the job coaching that was purchased from a local employment vendor.
While the components are undeniably effective and make sense from the perspective of individuals with disabilities, families, adult services, and schools, we are finding that incorporating these tools into existing practices requires a somewhat larger commitment on the part of school staff than was expected. Engaging in Discovery and writing the Profile require that teachers change their typical evaluative or quantitative style of writing to a more descriptive and qualitative style. The process also requires a change in philosophy: instead of getting kids “ready” for employment through education and skill building, the Model assumes they are ready and all that is needed is to discover each individual’s ideal conditions of employment and potential contributions. Yet another challenge for schools is that the Model asks them to strive for placement into a paid job as an outcome of school. This goes against the conventional methodology in which the job of the school is to provide training experiences for young adults and the job of the adult agencies is to find employment after graduation. Implementing the Model also requires changes in staff roles and how they use their time. Although most teachers who participated in home visits during the Discovery process reported that the exercise was extremely valuable in gathering information about the student, these visits typically were not part of a teacher’s routine or completed within their typical work hours.
The feedback from adult agencies has been positive. Employment providers assisting with job development for students say that the time it takes to develop a job is much reduced when they have a clear picture and plan (the Profile and the Customized Employment Planning meeting minutes) to guide their job development efforts. Agencies that will eventually support a student after she graduates from school have expressed enthusiasm for the comprehensive summary of information (the Vocational Profile) which accompanies the student upon graduation. Now that funding from Montana Vocational Rehabilitation may be available to pay for Vocational Profiles for students in their last year of school, several Montana agencies have begun offering this service to schools and other adults whom they serve. We continue to explore where Workforce Investment Services and funds fit into this model. The model has been piloted in two Workforce Offices in the state, Bozeman and Lewistown. Ideally the model components will be added to their existing menu of employment services offered to consumers.
The next steps include fine-tuning the Technical Assistance format to better and more efficiently enable schools and communities to implement the Individualized Career Planning Model components, and incorporate these components into their transition practices, and pilot testing the model with other populations who experience substantial barriers to employment, such as young adults with deaf-blindness, autism, significant emotional disturbances, or significant physical challenges.
Technical assistance and support during the development of this model was provided by Marc Gold and Associates, Gautier, MS.
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The author can be contacted at (406) 243- 4134 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org