Study offers insights to barriers to paid employment facing youth with severe disabilities

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

A person with severe disabilities may have one or more physical, intellectual, developmental, or sensory disabilities that seriously limit their functional ability. They may require multiple support services and may use assistive devices such as wheelchairs or communication devices. For youth with severe disabilities between the ages of 14 and 21, the path to finding a job often begins in high school. Paid work in high school has been found to increase their chances of finding jobs in the future. However, research has shown that very few of these youths are able to find paid work during high school. Youth with severe disabilities may get help and support in pursuing paid employment from multiple groups, such as families, schools, agencies, and employers. On the other hand, there may be barriers from various sources that make it difficult for youth with severe disabilities to obtain paid work.

In a recent NIDILRR funded study, researchers wanted to look at challenges that youth with severe disabilities had in finding employment. Specifically, they wanted to know what parents, educators, agency staff, employers, and school district leaders, felt were the factors hindering youth with severe disabilities from accessing paid work.

Researchers at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) on Employment of Transition-Age Youth with Disabilities conducted focus groups with 74 individuals in 3 large county school districts in the US. The groups included parents of youth with severe disabilities between the ages of 14 and 24, special educators with experience teaching students with severe disabilities, adult services agency staff, employers who partnered with local high schools and worked with youth with severe disabilities, and district leaders of schools, including directors of special education. Participants were asked what they believed were the barriers to supporting youth with severe disabilities to getting a paid job during their senior year of high school and which barriers were most substantial.

Researchers coded participants' responses and organized barriers into eight general categories. Opinions varied somewhat between participants groups, but some challenges were commonly noted by all as barriers to employment.

  • School challenges: Parents, educators, and employers identified a lack of teachers or high turnover to assist youths in transitioning to paid employment. Many of the employers had established relationships with a particular teacher rather than the school and therefore, the loss of a teacher could result in the loss of an employer as well. Teachers felt school policies and regulations also created obstacles for students who were seeking employment.
  • Family challenges: Parents, educators, employers, and agency staff cited family concern for the youth’s safety as a barrier to employment. Parents feared employers would take advantage of their child, while educators and agency staff felt this concern was hindering students. Educators and agency staff also cited parents’ fear of losing their child’s government benefits; however, parents and employers did not mention this concern.
  • Student challenges: All participants said that youth with severe disabilities might find soft skills, such as asking for help, adapting to change, and remaining professional, a challenge to finding and retaining paid work. Educators and agency staff believed that youth with severe disabilities might not feel comfortable trying new things and lacked confidence in their own abilities.
  • Workplace challenges: Parents, educators, employers, and agency staff said that employers’ inexperience of working with people with disabilities was a major barrier for youth with disabilities in seeking employment. They also noted that employers might have limited understanding of the benefits of employing people with disabilities. Employers were concerned about liability in hiring youth under 18 years of age and the lack of job coaches to help youth on the job.
  • Service system challenges: Parents, educators, and agency staff mentioned feeling confused about what services agencies provided for youth with severe disabilities. Parents and educators said that staff at agencies were not trained well in helping youth with severe disabilities find work. They also said the information available from agencies used complicated language that was difficult to understand for both parents and youth with severe disabilities.
  • Partnership challenges: All participants mentioned how limited communication between school and staffing agencies led to fewer employment opportunities for youth with severe disabilities. Schools were not aware of the types of services agencies provided, and agencies were not in communication with other agencies.
  • Transportation challenges: All participants said that there was limited and unreliable public transportation, and  limited other options for youth who used wheelchairs. Educators and parents were not comfortable with youth with severe disabilities using rideshare apps and parents couldn’t always provide transportation due to their own schedules.
  • Community challenges: Parents, educators, employers, and agency staff noted that negative community perceptions of youth with severe disabilities influenced employment prospects. Participants also noted that community members may be hesitant to interact with coworkers with severe disabilities in the workplace.

According to the authors, findings from this study showed that youth with severe disabilities face complex, interconnected barriers to obtaining paid work while in high school. They suggested communities may want to implement a comprehensive solution that addresses the specific concerns of each group, as well as a community-level transition team that includes representatives from all the groups and identifies and addresses barriers between the groups. The specific barriers emphasized by the participants in this study may offer potential first steps for such teams. Opinions and experiences varied between groups in this study, and the authors highlighted the importance of gathering multiple perspectives to gain a complete picture of barriers to employment. The authors noted that each family member, educator, agency staff member, and employer may encounter these barriers as they support young people with severe disabilities and may need training and guidance on how best to address them. Disability-specific organizations, technical assistance centers, professional organizations, and universities may offer training opportunities to support continuing education.

To learn more:

The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employment of Transition-Age Youth with Disabilities offers a range of resources for parents, educators, employers, and agency personnel including webcasts, research briefs, and courses on employment strategies for youth and young adults with severe disabilities.

The Research in Focus series previously examined research on barriers and supports to employment success:

Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the US Department of Labor is dedicated to increasing employment opportunities for adults and youth with disabilities and eliminating barriers to employment success. ODEP offers a range of resources for job seekers, employers, and agency personnel.

To learn about this study:

Awsumb, J., Schutz, M., Carter, E., Schwartzman, B., Burgess, L., Lounds Taylor, J. (2022). Pursuing paid employment for youth with severe disabilities: Multiple perspectives on pressing challenges. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities. 47(1) 22-39. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J88746.

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