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Supported Employment



An excerpt from a joint publication by J Taylor and R Wilson                                                                 

What is Supported Employment?

Simply put, supported employment is about enabling people marginalized in the labour market to gain and retain paid work in the ordinary workplace. Supported employment is a concept that looks to find ways to assist people disadvantaged in the labour market to reach their career aspirations. It is NOT just about getting a person a job – that is called ‘job placement.’ Supported employment involves more than just finding a job for a person.

Right from the beginning organisations and writers involved in supported employment have generally agreed on the following six core principles as being those that define supported employment. (ASENZ 1994; Bennie, 1996: Hagner & DiLeo 1993; Mcloughlin, Garner & Callahan, 1987; Powell et al 1988, Taylor 1996.

  1. Placement First.

    Supported employment does not require people to ‘get ready’ for work or to meet any work-readiness criteria. It starts with planning for what job the person wants and then providing training on the job, or specific training required for a particular job (eg nurse or teacher training). This is a vital characteristic because the reality for most people in sheltered workshops and similar vocational training programmes is that they never graduate to employment. The constant focus on people's deficits masks their abilities and some of the real reasons for them not being able to take part in the workforce.

  2. Universal Eligibility.

    Literally that – everyone is eligible. There is no one who can be considered "too disabled" or “too difficult” to take part in Supported Employment. The only entry criterion is the desire to work.

  3. Individual and Ongoing Support.

    Support is tailored to meet the needs of the individual. It is not time limited. It does not end when the job is found or 3 months later. The support the person receives may alter over time but it remains flexible and available for as long as it is needed. The support can take any form that enables the individual to retain their employment.

  4. Wages.

    Each person should get the same pay and conditions as anyone else doing the same job. Voluntary work and work experience can be part of the employment process but Supported Employment is concerned with ultimately achieving paid employment. This objective can be achieved through a wage or salary or through the individual’s own business activities.

  5. Mainstream.

    Supported Employment only occurs in ordinary or mainstream settings in the open labour market. It is not about an organisation setting up a work scheme specifically for people – even if this does result in them getting wages. However, it could involve assisting people to establish a business that they individually or collectively own.

  6. Choice and Career Development.

    Securing the job is not an end in itself. Supported Employment promotes the idea of making sure the job gives the person more of the choices they find valuable. It also looks to support the individual to advance in their jobs, change jobs, take part in continuing education and in any other activity to further their careers as their confidence and aspirations grow. It should also increase the choice they experience outside their jobs such as through disposable incomes and social networks.

Where did it come from?

Supported employment grew out of the rehabilitation sector in the USA during the late 1970s in response to the philosophy of ‘Normalisation” and the instructional techniques developed by Marc Gold. These were supplemented through university demonstration projects such as those undertaken and described by Wehman, Bellamy, Horner, Inman and others. Over time the experience of this new “place and train” version of vocational rehabilitation came to be recognised as providing success where previously there had been none. It also led to a reconceptualisation of the rehabilitation paradigm. Supported employment, as this approach increasingly became called, challenged the view of getting people ready for work by assuming all disabled people have the potential for direct inclusion into regular employment . (Bennie, 1991)

The early development of supported employment in the USA was focused on people who were considered too disabled to take part in traditional vocational rehabilitation, and has traditionally catered for people with intellectual disability and multiple disabilities. The motivation for this development was the inability of some disabled people with very high support needs and intellectual disability to even get accepted onto the ‘lowest’ rung of the vocational ladder - the day activity programmes. (Saloviita, 2000; Taylor, 1996).
The conventional wisdom of the time was that from here people would move to pre-vocational programmes and then onto sheltered work. A very few may have then “graduated” into the regular labour market. Supported employment challenged all this and said that anyone who wanted to work had the right to work and they could learn the necessary skills through working.

Supported employment made its first tentative steps in New Zealand during the mid to late 1980s. It did this in spite of government policy rather than because of it. There is some dispute over the actual timing as there have always been some people who have moved from sheltered work into open employment. However, the first time that a programme was set up with ‘supported employment’ as its name and the basic principles to guide it, happened inside the IHC largely as a result of the advocacy of Garth Bennie. Bennie had spent the previous few years in Canada where he had first-hand experience of supported employment and on his return to New Zealand in 1985, set about establishing it in New Zealand. The first people to be appointed to these newly established positions began operating in early 1987.

In New Zealand it was people with intellectual disability who were the first ones for whom supported employment was used. It quickly moved into the mental health area such that now, in New Zealand unlike most other countries, these two groups are of equivalent size and dominate the movement.

What do people get out of supported employment?

An early and consistent driver for supported employment is this fact that work has such a central role in people’s lives in our society. One of the first questions that we ask of each other when we meet is “what do you do?” How this question is answered can have an enormous import in the way we define ourselves and in the way we are defined. Being employed can provide entrée to social validity and financial independence, whereas being unemployed can cast the person as welfare dependant, or often as a “dole bludger”. In a consumer society, disposable income is a prime indicator of a person’s ability to participate in that society. Employment is the typical route to disposable income and inclusion.

But it’s not just about money. Perhaps the most important thing people can get from supported employment is choice. The process of supported employment assists people in both their job choices for now and the future, and in their other choices through what the job brings them. Some of those things people often get from employment are things like: self-esteem, a challenge, a sense of belonging, friends, a structure to their life, an opportunity to contribute and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. These are all motivators for different people to work and reason why employment is part of the process of inclusion or recovery – not something dome after everything else is “fixed.”

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