Author: Jaclyn Dawe
The transition between adolescence and adulthood can present challenges for anyone, as individuals seek out roles of increased independence in new realms of life. For those with developmental disabilities (DD), the challenges of this period can be intensified by needs for ongoing educational support and the lower availability of employment options (1). Often fraught with uncertainty, this period of life has been described as stressful and chaotic for young adults with this form of disability (2).
Despite the difficulties of this life stage transition, young adults’ well-being can be bolstered by opportunities to take on working roles. Though work is sometimes seen as merely a means to financial security, the process of doing work (i.e. engaging in productive occupation) has great importance and meaning in people’s lives. Doing work can increase one’s sense of self-worth and status, while providing opportunities for culturally-valued contribution, competence-building, interactive socializing, and choice and control (3). These positive effects of work are applicable to both paid and voluntary work opportunities. Additionally, doing work can also have rehabilitative benefits such as improved symptom management and enhanced self-identities, as documented in those with severe mental health problems (4). The rehabilitative outcomes associated with working could potentially extend to those with DD, in that it enables individuals to define themselves more by their contributing efforts rather than their diagnostic labels.
In recognition of the value of work for individuals with DD, the availability of supported employment opportunities in North America has been growing since the late 1980s (3). Furthermore, evidence on the positive outcomes of supported employment has accumulated to the extent that it is now considered a best practice in Canada (5). Supportive employment is based on the belief that individuals with DD can and should work in inclusive environments, fully integrated with non-disabled co-workers (6). The benefits of inclusive workplaces are further supported by evidence documenting the negative outcomes of segregated placements. For example, non-integrated ‘sheltered workshop’ placements have been associated with decreased self-esteem, social and cognitive skill outcomes, and poorer chances at future employment for workers with DD (7). Although a long-term ideal outcome for some individuals with DD is a paid competitive employment position, entry-level jobs for this population are often voluntary work placements (5). Though voluntary work does not provide immediate financial benefits, it can still provide opportunities for social inclusion and training in workplace skills that help to prepare individuals for future positions in paid employment.
Workplace integration – for both voluntary and paid positions – can occur on many levels, but one important factor associated with positive outcomes, such as job satisfaction and sustainability, is the level of social integration (3). Social integration could include the degree to which workers with DD enjoy shared access to common areas during lunchtime and partake in both job-related and informal social communication with non-disabled co-workers.
Addus, a Toronto-based charitable organization is a local example of community-based efforts towards workplace integration for individuals with DD. Job coaches seek out employment opportunities for participants with DD, providing support (i.e. on-site coaching and transportation) as needed. Addus has been instrumental in establishing successful integrated work placements for individuals at organizations such as Starbucks, Paintbox, and ChocoSol Traders, to name a few (8).
One success story of an Addus placement is provided by the experience of two individuals who participated in a volunteer program at ChocoSol Traders. A business dedicated to eco-sustainability in its crafting of organic chocolates and tortillas, ChocoSol has a volunteer program run by Emily Wat, MSW. After being approached by an Addus job coach in early 2015, Emily and the ChocoSol team welcomed a participant with DD into their established program (Addus consultant 2016, oral communication, 29th July). The volunteering job at Chocosol involves engagement in ingredient preparation and product packaging tasks, alongside other kitchen staff and volunteers with similar roles. The placement was such a success for both the worker and the ChocoSol team that it soon led to a request for and placement of another Addus participant there.
To this day, the ChocoSol placements offer both Addus participants access to a socially integrated environment where they can mingle with co-workers and listen to the music of their choice while working. The other employees provide encouraging verbal feedback, indicating their appreciation and respect for the contributions of these workers. For example, Ms. Wat shared that “they [the Addus participants] are the most reliable and consistent volunteers on our team” and “they bring positive energy” to the environment, while “contributing in a meaningful way with their time and efforts” (2016, oral communication, 9th August). In turn, the participants from Addus receive the same rewards as all volunteers (i.e. monthly gift baskets), and are welcomed to ChocoSol’s staff parties and workshops. As a reflection of how well the placement is valued by the participants, they have brought their friends to ChocoSol on their days off, and extended invitations to ChocoSol employees to their art shows and their Annual General Meeting (AGM), where they presented ChocoSol with an award of gratitude (Emily Wat, 2016, oral communication, 9th August).
The collaboration between Addus and ChocoSol Traders is truly something worth celebrating. This local initiative has actualized research-based recommendations on workplace integration into community practices. It provides us with an example of how fulfilling a socially integrated placement for individuals with DD can be – providing individual satisfaction, productivity in the workplace, and the building of social relationships that extend into the greater community.
Author’s Note: the author has established friendship with the owners of ChocoSol, but does not receive financial or other benefits of any kind.
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- About Us [Internet]. Toronto, Canada: 2016 [cited 2016 Aug 8]. Available from: http://addus.org/about.html.