MAIER Transition to Adulthood Training Modules: Part 5 - Preparing for Employment

Work is a central part of adulthood. It is something that not only provides us with income, but also gives us meaning and purpose, connects us with others in our communities, and contributes to a rich quality of life. As young people graduate high school and take their next steps in adulthood, exploring and choosing a career pathway is one of the most important elements of this period. Perhaps the most critical element of transition planning is preparing students for a career that aligns with their strengths and interests. Like all young people, individuals with disabilities deserve not only a job, but a career in which the work is well suited for them.

However, many students with disabilities aren’t afforded opportunities to fully explore career options related to their strengths and interests. This is especially true for those with autism, intellectual disability, and other cognitive disabilities where only 15-20% of individuals end up in real jobs earning real pay (what we call competitive integrated employment), despite the fact that we have models and interventions that have been proven to be effective at supporting these individuals in competitive integrated employment like supported employment and customized employment. Too often, individuals with disabilities are denied opportunities because of underestimation of their abilities to contribute vocationally. Many other times, individuals with disabilities are put into jobs that don’t fit their skill set–I’m sure that each of us can imagine one or more jobs where we would be utterly unsuccessful given the mismatch with our skills and interests.

Expert interview

Employment experts and researchers, Dr. Holly Whittenburg and Dr. Lauren Avellone sat down with us to share their insights about why employment is so important for transition-age youth with disabilities and how we can create opportunities and foster better outcomes.


Although Maine has ended the practice within the state, across the country, many individuals with disabilities are still paid less than minimal wages, exploited by programs that claim to support them while instead segregating them from their communities into enclaves and sheltered workshops. Doug Crandell documents this tragic practice and its history in his recent book, Twenty-Two Cents an Hour: Disability Rights and the Fight to End Subminimum Wage.

Fortunately, there is good news! We know more than ever about what works to provide career and employment pathways for people with disabilities. As we discussed in the first section, research has identified several predictors of success in employment for people with disabilities. We have already discussed two of these in self-determination and family expectations. However, the most powerful predictor of employment success for students with disabilities is having a paid work experience prior to graduation. This paid work experience can be a part-time or summer job–the key is having a real job for real pay. There is something about earning that paycheck with your name on it that has a dramatic impact on everything else that follows–and we see that backed up in the research in this area.

Internships and apprenticeships can also provide important work experience and put students on a pathway to success. One internship model called Project SEARCH has been widely researched and shown to be highly effective in leading to competitive integrated employment outcomes for youth with autism and other disabilities, with 80-95% of Project SEARCH participants getting and keeping jobs after the program.

Apart from these experiences and programs, one of the most important things we can do to promote better employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities is to coordinate the delivery of services between not only schools, but other agencies that may provide support to individuals such as the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the agency provider of Home and Community Based Medicaid Service waivers (in Maine, this is the Office of Aging and Disabilities Services with the Department of Health and Human Services). This discussion around inter-agency collaboration, who can provide needed adult services, and how those coordinated services will be delivered is critical to career success.

Exploration Activity

The Job Accommodation Network is an outstanding resource for learning more about the rights of people with disabilities to access accommodations not only in the workplace, but also in the job interview process. Their website has many excellent resources, tips, and guides to help in this process.


In the next section, we’ll continue our discussion of career development for students, this time focused on postsecondary education opportunities for youth with disabilities. Click here to go to Part 6.