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American Institutes for Research

Focus group findings from vocational rehabilitation (VR) staff and young adults with disabilities: Improving VR services for transition-aged youth


The Knowledge Translation for Employment Research (KTER) Center at American Institutes for Research (AIR) conducted focus groups with individuals receiving vocational rehabilitation (VR) services and counselors in State VR agencies. The purpose of this data collection was to identify participants’ informational needs for VR service delivery to youth. Findings will inform the design of a KTER Center intervention study that will provide training to VR staff who supervise VR counselors. The study will test a knowledge broker model in which individuals are positioned to bridge the worlds of research and practice (Long, Cunningham and Braithwaite, 2013). Calling these VR knowledge brokers “research liaisons,” supervisors will build counselors’ understanding of research to determine if a broker model improves employment outcomes for transition-aged youth.

Between October and December 2016, KTER researchers conducted two telephone focus groups with 14 VR counselors and one telephone focus group with four young adults with disabilities. For the latter focus group, the KTER research team recruited youth with a wide variety of disabilities who were 18 to 24 years old and who were receiving or have received VR services. For VR staff focus groups, selection criteria were that participants worked for a State VR agency, and had provided counseling services to transition-aged youth with disabilities. Across all three focus groups, nine States were represented.

The focus group with youth in transition addressed what VR counselors could do to support them in finding and maintaining a job, as well as their challenges, needed accommodations, and awareness of employment opportunities. The focus groups with VR staff focused on what VR counselors considered to be most important regarding what they do, and should do, to help youth with disabilities to find and keep employment. The facilitator audiorecorded each session. The audiofiles were transcribed, and then two members of the research team conducted content analysis, organizing the data per the themes outlined below. KTER project leaders then reviewed and finalized the analyses along with members of KTER’s Technical Working Group

Major Themes Identified by Recipients of VR Services

The importance of understanding the needs of transition-aged youth. Young adults with disabilities reported that VR counselors were helpful when describing how high school differed from work and college. In some cases, counselors emphasized attending college over obtaining employment after high school. However, not all VR counselors understood how age or disability might shape the concerns of youth with disabilities. This frustration was expressed, for example, in this comment: I was having trouble. They knew I was trying to look for a job, but they didn’t know how to approach it. That’s what it felt like. Participants wanted counselors to approach them as individuals, not as members of disability types. Specific areas on which counselors should focus included understanding individual-level variability in workplace accommodations, vocational interests, income levels and experiences at work and school. One participant remarked, A lot of people just don’t understand the disability and the community that we live in.

Types of desired long-term job supports varied. For long-term services and supports, participants’ experience with VR services varied. Some stated that it was beneficial when VR counselors supported them for the first 3 months on the job, advised them about appropriate attire, and outlined for them the parameters of job responsibilities. Some counselors reportedly provided this kind of assistance; it was perceived as a barrier to employment if this support was not offered. Other comments highlighted the value participants gave to VR counselors’ role in advising them about how to negotiate workplace accommodations. Participants sought to develop their communication skills at work in order to ensure that accommodations were specific to them as individuals. It was necessary at times to secure tailored equipment or make modifications to the way work was done to allow, for example, someone with a learning disability to fulfill job requirements.

Seeking and maintaining employment independently. Participants expressed that they can be relatively self-reliant in obtaining employment. When asked if participants knew about potential jobs, all but one reported that they typically found jobs on their own. Two participants similarly found their high school jobs themselves, attributing that to their autonomy. Ironically, in the spirt of ‘sink or swim,’ VR staff turnover was one reported cause of participants’ learning to be more independent in identifying and obtaining employment.

Major Themes Identified by VR Counselors

Multifaceted approach to family support. Three themes emerged from the discussions with VR counselors regarding family engagement. First, counselors pointed out that regularly scheduled meetings were the foundation that created strong relationships with youth with disabilities and their families. Consistent contact led to families relying upon counselors as a trusted resource in developing a strong plan to obtain employment. Second, counselors noted that sometimes they had to encourage family members to be realistic about their aspirations for their child regarding employment or college. Counselors would possibly have to mediate between the youth or young adult and his or her family to reconcile competing expectations. Third, youth with disabilities are on the brink of aging out of services available to children. Focus group participants stressed the importance of conveying information about community resources and public benefits available to adults. In some cases, counselors directly linked youth and their families to a potential resource.

Conferences, or resource fairs, in which you bring together the exact resources that might be beneficial for specific families. So that instead of just handing off information, and hoping that they will take initiative, and are reaching out to these resources, it’s actually having that face-to-face interaction between the resources that might be available to their students.

Recommended training and support for VR counselors. VR counselors suggested the following resources and topics for training that would build their capacity to assisting youth with disabilities:

A list of available community resources and services, such as education, internships, job shadowing, mentoring programs, apprenticeships, and other vocational supports and training to foster collaborations with organizations that will hire individuals with disabilities
Training on conducting an interest inventory and identifying learning styles
Preparation to train transition-aged youth on disclosing disability and requesting accommodations in the workplace
Preparation to train transition-aged youth on needed social skills within the workplace
Preparation to train transition-aged youth on choosing, obtaining, maintaining, and advancing in a job
Support and training on how best to collaborate with employers around hiring and providing accommodations

Myriad of activities to address long-term support needs. VR counselors were also asked to describe what VR can do to promote long-term employment for individuals with disabilities, no matter their age. VR counselor participants identified activities they currently perform including: conducting job assessments and learning style assessments; evaluating interests; providing training on social skills; providing benefits counseling; identifying the supports necessary to enable an individual to work; providing training on employment expectations; and offering ongoing counseling and coaching. Specific to youth, VR counselors valued resources that built their capacity to teach transition-aged individuals how to engage in long-term thinking and planning. Such skills include financial literacy, social skills, and impulse control.

Strategies on empowerment and disability disclosure. VR counselor participants prepared youth for vocational opportunities by talking to them about what kinds of accommodations that would enhance their productivity, and then practiced requesting them. Participants reported that some workers with disabilities would benefit from caution regarding disclosing their disability, and must find the appropriate timing. VR counselors were also concerned that some young workers with disabilities would seek to disclose their disability in order to have a ready excuse for poor performance rather than as a reason to receive an accommodation to perform well on the job. They stressed that disclosing a disability should be tied to requesting an accommodation and striving for high levels of achievement.

VR counselor participants expressed concern that some youth shared too many details about their disability and related functional limitations, to their detriment, and so may risk workplace discrimination. Other individuals refrained from revealing pertinent information about their disability to the point that they were never in a position to ask for appropriate accommodations.

I’ve experienced people who are … so open, and they … need some training on how to disclose that they have a disability …You definitely don’t want to go out there and [state] everything that’s wrong with you to your employer.

Consistency of focus group themes with current research on VR. Overall, these findings underscore much of what disability employment researchers have documented. The call from youth with disabilities for VR counseling tailored to their individual preferences, interests, abilities and backgrounds parallels the findings regarding the success of individualized placement and support (IPS) approaches especially for individuals with psychiatric conditions (Bond, Drake & Luciano, 2015). Similarly, the value for on-the-job supports is consistent with the strong research evidence associated with a supported employment model in enhancing long-term employment outcomes for workers with disabilities of all ages (Burke-Miller et al., 2012). Finally, VR counselors’ caution to youth with disabilities to discern carefully when, how and how much information to share about their disability is an enduring issue with which workers with disabilities must grapple, despite legislative efforts to end workplace discrimination (National Collaborative for Workforce and Disability for Youth, 2009).

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