ODEP — Q & A On Customized Employment

Circa 2004

The 21st Century workplace cannot be thought of in the same terms as that of the preceding century. The global economy is creating jobs that can’t be accomplished under the old 9-to-5 model or don’t necessarily need to be performed on-site. Workers are also demanding more autonomy, freedom and customization of the terms and conditions of their employment.

Customized employment is a process for individualizing the employment relationship between a job seeker and an employer in ways that meet the needs of both. It is a business deal based on identifying tasks that an employer needs done and matching those to the job candidate’s abilities, interests, and qualifications.

People with disabilities often get assistance finding customized employment from community rehabilitation programs (CRPs). Some consumers assisted by CRPs may have worked previously in non-competitive environments such as sheltered workshops, where the workshop rather than the individual chooses the type of work and job responsibilities. When CRPs help their consumers find customized employment, the goal is different—it is to empower them to make informed choices and participate actively in the decision-making process.

Making the change to customized employment may require a shift of mindset for all involved. The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) in the Department of Labor provides assistance for CRPs through the Training and Technical Assistance for Providers (TTAP) program. T-TAP offers regional forums, web casts, an on-line customized employment course and printed and electronic resources.

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The following excerpt, drawn from T-TAP’s “Customized Employment Q&A: Supporting Community Employment as an Employment Outcome” resource, addresses frequently asked questions from CRPs trying to assist with customized employment:

Question: The individuals in our program earn less than minimum wage based on their production and skills. They wouldn’t be able to meet the production standards of a job in the community. If the staff ask them about working in the community, wouldn’t that be setting them up for failure?

Answer: All people, regardless of the type or severity of their disabilities, have unique talents to offer their communities. When supports and services are customized, individuals can reach personal goals and work in the community earning at least minimum wage. Customized employment requires getting to know each person and the unique skills that he or she can bring to a community business. Once these skills and interests are identified, employers can be approached and a mutually beneficial customized job negotiated. Setting a production standard that matches the individual’s abilities is part of the negotiation process with an employer.

Question: What are some general guidelines for promoting an individual’s involvement in deciding what career to pursue?

Answer: Choice may be encouraged in a number of ways. Start by always treating the person as the primary decision-maker in the process. Acknowledge that CRP staff are responsible for facilitating community inclusion for individuals with disabilities. Take time to develop a helping and trusting relationship with the person who is interested in customized employment. Learn how to be a facilitator rather than a provider of services. Assist the person in learning more about his or her personal interests as they relate to the world of work. Understand the power of support systems and learn some basic strategies that can help promote choice. Document the individual’s abilities and preferences and use this information to drive the job negotiation process.

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Question: What if the person is not qualified for the career that he or she chooses?

Answer: This is a common question from providers when they begin to ask individuals with disabilities about their dreams and goals for work. Providers and the support people in the lives of individuals with disabilities need to carefully consider the aspects of the career that are perceived as beyond the individual’s capabilities. What is the person trying to communicate when he or she says that being an airplane pilot is the job of choice? Is the person really trying to say that he wants to work at an airport? What interests and abilities does the person have that can be turned into a customized job reflecting those underlying desires? At this point, opportunities to observe and be exposed to the career of choice are important. Then, armed with information, the provider can begin to represent the person’s vocational goals and negotiate with employers in the community to satisfy them.

Question: These are all great ideas, but our program is not funded to provide the services described. How can we fund the staff time needed to get to know the person’s interests and abilities?

Answer: Talk with the primary funding agencies about providing support to assist an individual in exploring personal employment preferences and options. People who choose jobs matching their interests have a better success rate than those who take any job that is available. Funding agencies that support this exploration will save money in the long run through better employment outcome rates. Educate your funding agency about the advantages of a more involved exploratory process.

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Another strategy is to involve family members, mentors and friends to help identify the person’s interests and vocational goals. Work with them to facilitate visits to business sites and get feedback about what is learned when the person has an opportunity to participate in new experiences.

Multiple funding streams are potentially available to individuals with disabilities. Funding should be flexible and able to follow an individual through a variety of settings. Your program may need to redirect some of its funding or explore other available options.

Office of Disability Employment Policy 202.693.7880

t-tap.org or call 804.828.5956

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