LAWRENCE — For individuals with disabilities and their families, expectations are key in securing competitive, meaningful employment after school. A program developed at the University of Kansas to support those individuals and families in their quest is showing just how important those expectations are, both for them and for the educators and service providers they work with.
The Family Employment Awareness Training, known as FEAT, was launched at KU in 2010 as a way to help individuals with disabilities and their families gain meaningful employment after completion of school, as opposed to working in segregated centers performing menial tasks for sub-minimum wage pay. That all-too-common practice is beginning to change, and FEAT’s director has been presenting research showing that the expectations of both families and providers who have taken part in the training are vital.
“As a parent, my expectations for my child’s employment can be lowered because a service provider didn’t have the same expectations I did for what my child could achieve. And as a provider I could be thinking ‘I wish more families were supportive of their child with a disability working,” said Judith Gross, assistant research professor in KU’s Bureau of Child Research and director of FEAT.
FEAT has proven successful in helping individuals with disabilities and their families find and access meaningful employment. Analysis of the program with families, individuals and service providers has revealed insight about the expectations of all parties. Families who took part had raised expectations of successfully finding meaningful employment. Service providers also reported raised expectations in being able to help individuals achieve that goal. However, both reported feeling that they had higher expectations than their counterparts, and that raising both could help.
Gross has presented her findings— and what they could mean for helping people across the country improve employment prospects — at the Council for Exceptional Children, American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Association for People Supporting Employment First and other conferences this year. The findings not only will help expand FEAT — now in use in Kansas, Rhode Island, in development in Utah and in discussion stages in other states — but also help families, educators and service providers boost employment prospects in general or people with disabilities.
Before taking part in FEAT, families and professionals often report several personal factors such as their child having too severe of a disability, no work history, lack of social skills and others as barriers to competitive employment. After attending FEAT, families and professionals cited as barriers more systemic factors, such as not enough available social services and resources, social services, lack of reliable transportation and poor economy. That indicates that they no longer placed the onus of not having a job on the nature of the person’s disability but began to look at the role systems play. FEAT addresses all of those concerns and many others, including how families and service providers can work together.
“Equal to families, service professionals really needed this information,” Gross said. “Like the families, we were able to raise their expectations and change how they think about employment for individuals with disabilities.”
Families are able to meet with service providers in the trainings outside of an office setting. Service providers from across agencies meet with each other and all are able to share ideas on how they can work together to improve employment outcomes. The first part of the training addresses the expectations and features employed individuals with disabilities from the local community sharing success stories. Also, service providers share how they’ve been able to help individuals through the available services and resources they provide. It also includes capacity building, cultural awareness training and how that can affect messages between families and professionals, as well as state- and region-specific information.
A former teacher, Gross and her colleagues are developing an educator-specific version of FEAT that will encourage teachers who work with individuals with disabilities to be a part of the post-school employment plan from early in a young person’s life. Gross will also share the implications of FEAT with the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition this month and the National Council of Family Relations this fall. She will continue to explore installing FEAT in more states in a way that fits each location’s specific laws, available resources and opportunities.
Perhaps the most important thing FEAT has shown is how crucial it is to have expectations and set them early. Knowing from the start that it is possible to have meaningful employment can make a difference.
“Getting families just talking about the future earlier is important,” Gross said. “Hopefully even in elementary school. Those expectations for what your child’s life is going to be start early, with the physician in the hospital who tells you ‘your child has a disability.’ Then, it is influenced by working with service professionals and educators. But if we can get families to talk about it earlier, hopefully we won’t have parents simply trying to get through each day and saying ‘I can’t plan for the future because I can’t think past tomorrow.’”
Photo by Asa Wilson (CubeSpace), via Wikimedia Commons