As our understanding of disabilities, supports and equitable treatment improves, so should vocational opportunities.
When I started working with people with developmental disabilities (nearly 15 years ago), it was common for all of the work “opportunities” to be based on contract work in workshops. People spent hours putting small items into bags, those bags into boxes, and those boxes on trucks. The grueling, repetitive work paid pennies per bag, and the motivated worker earned a few dollars a day. When there was no contract work, people colored, made things with clay, put puzzles together, or waited for something else to do. Sheltered contract work serves a purpose, and is not all bad, but it can’t be the only thing offered.
As our understanding of disabilities, supports, and equitable treatment improves, so should the opportunities people have. To stay relevant, vocational sites must innovate and provide the same opportunities everyone has. Ideally, this would include meaningful paid work in a variety of fields with room for promotion and growth. In practical terms, this means a variety of work, some of it volunteer, some of it created, to provide the skills and experience needed to get the meaningful paid work for which we all aspire.
While we wait for the community to catch-up, providers can create the following opportunities to support people vocationally:
Retail/customer service: Providers can open, or partner with retail or other businesses that offer experience working with customers, handling money, etc.…
Production/manufacturing: Providers can create and sell a product. This allows the people they support to open their own businesses or sell their merchandise on sites like Etsy, Craigslist, and eBay.
Job coaching/career development: People with little job experience need support creating resumes, filling out applications, developing interviewing skills, preparing for work, and understanding what options are open to them.
Volunteer: If paid work is unavailable, people can get job experience and skills through volunteer opportunities. This work should relate to the interests of the person supported, and should not be the result, but a way to get a meaningful job.
It’s not enough to offer a few options. Everyone has unique interests, skills, and goals. We need to recognize and support a variety of needs, hopes and dreams. We will only do that if we continue to innovate and take the interests of the men and women we support seriously. A workshop will no longer be enough. Innovation in vocational opportunities is needed to make the work for people we support meaningful.