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The Art and Science of Partnerships with Business

Guest Editor: Richard Luecking, TransCen, Inc.

Research has given us a framework to execute the delivery of supported employment services. We know that individuals with disabilities can be successful in the workplace. And, we know from practical experience the many "artful" ways that professionals have implemented supported employment services. In fact, the field of employment services for people with the most significant disabilities currently holds both exciting opportunities and distinct challenges.

There are a number of factors that combine to make this a time of great promise. These include a very low national unemployment rate, legislative and policy emphasis on community-based employment, increased knowledge about job accommodations, better secondary school job preparation, and increasingly sophisticated supported employment methodology. We see people with significant disabilities working in jobs that even ten years ago were not available to them. However, continuing high unemployment rates reflect the myriad challenges that people with significant disabilities face even in this climate of unprecedented opportunity.

To what factors can this dilemma be attributed? Some may say that there are too many people still "not ready" for the workplace. Or, are there simply too many workplaces that do not know how to provide the needed supports and accommodations? The reason for the high unemployment rates among individuals with significant disabilities more likely lies in the latter circumstance than in the former.

A major contribution of supported employment is the identification of workplace supports that enable people with significant disabilities to succeed. One of the continuing challenges in service delivery is to better prepare the workplace for employees with disabilities. We must capture employer interest, involvement, and commitment so that more individuals with disabilities obtain good jobs.

However, there remain gaps in our knowledge about how to more effectively develop jobs. While much has been written about mediating the specific circumstances of disability through specific job accommodations, not enough information is available about how to better relate to employers so they are more receptive to hiring people with significant disabilities. We do know from research that employers and employment service providers often have very different viewpoints about what leads to successful employment of people with disabilities.

One focus group study, for example, found that while service providers were looking for receptive employers who were flexible risk-takers, employers were looking for competent, quality providers who respond to their needs. From the employers' point of view, it is not sufficient for an organization to "do good" (i.e., find jobs for people with disabilities). The provider also has to "be good" (i.e., competently provide good service).

This newsletter is devoted to the topic of developing partnerships with employers. We will examine survey results that tell us what employers think about supported employment and supported employment providers. From this survey, we can glean many implications about how supported employment services can be better marketed to employers and how employers can be more effectively served. We will also look at particular job development and business partnership techniques and approaches that have proven to be effective. We will even provide an opportunity for a self-assessment on "business friendliness." Finally, we will look at one case example of how supported employment added value to a business operation.

In the business world, effective partnerships are based on mutual return on investment. We hope that this issue will provide direction from research and practice, the science and the art, to show that supported employment is capable of delivering valuable commodities: good employees AND good service that lead to enduring partnerships with employers.