School Days to Pay Days An Employment Planning Guide for Families of Young Adults with Intellectual Disabilities

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Employment-Related Activities Outside of School

Outside of school, there are many ways to help your young adult develop employment-related skills and prepare for the world of work. Responsibilities and experiences at home and in the community can translate into job skills applied later in life.

What families can do:

  • Assign paid chores at home – not just everyday chores like setting the table, but the more occasional and larger responsibilities, like washing the car

  • Ask school staff about activities your young adult can do at home that mirror and reinforce skills being taught at school

  • Ask co-workers, relatives, and neighbors for ideas about where your young adult might volunteer
    or work

  • Reflect on ways that further education might support career goals

  • Involve your young adult in learning to use money as you bank, shop and pay for goods and
    services together

  • Introduce your young adult to community resources like the YMCA and the public library, then create opportunities for social interactions there

  • Support your son/daughter in learning how to plan trips on public transit and becoming more independent with taking public transportation

  • Look for times when your child can exercise leadership and build self-esteem, such as identifying and planning a weekend family outing

  • Encourage and nurture your young adult’s hobbies and interests, which can lead to job-related interests and skills

  • Work with your DDS Service Coordinator to understand the choices for employment services and for day and support services in the area. (You will learn more about DDS Service Coordinators on page 13).Visit DDS-funded programs in your area and talk with staff members who provide these services. (Learn more about exploring employment service providers on page 13.)

  • Talk to former students and their families who have already made the transition from school to work

SUCCESS STORY: Getting Started Early

Early parental involvement and advocacy can make a big difference in helping students acquire work experience. Mike is 18 years old, has autism, and has been determined eligible for DDS adult services. He lives in Boston where he and his family are active members of their local community center. When Mike was 14, his mom started thinking ahead about jobs that Mike might enjoy doing. Using the family’s connections to the local community center, she suggested that Mike work as a volunteer, cleaning up the gym area, one day a week, after the “Toddler Time” program had ended. Mom helped Mike prepare for the job by taking photos to teach him about the tasks he would be doing. Four months later, delighted with Mike’s performance, the center began paying Mike a $10 hourly rate and increased him to two days a week. His school now provides transportation to the job as well as a job coach, and one of his classmates took a similar job at the center. An early start, creative thinking, proactive community networking, and a strong belief in her son’s capacity contributed to Mike flourishing on the job. Mike’s mom wants other parents of children with significant communication and behavioral challenges to know “we are not doomed for disaster – there is a lot of hope – so much more potential than we give them credit for.”

SUCCESS STORY: Looking for Jobs in Your Own Backyard

In addition to Lindsay’s paid job as a greeter at a concert hall, this busy 23 year-old holds several volunteer positions outside her home. One of her volunteer positions is with the neighborhood YMCA her family has been using for years; she is a familiar face there with staff and community members. This connection provided an ideal opportunity to inquire about different responsibilities Lindsay could take on at a place she knows well. As a result, Lindsay is at the Y three days per week, helping out with a variety of tasks. Lindsay’s mother encourages other families to seek out work opportunities (paid and/or volunteer) for their young adults at places they typically frequent.

SUCCESS STORY: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way… Many Ways

Sherry Elander, a Special Education Teacher at the high school in Westfield, is proof positive of the many innovative ways school systems can help students successfully move from school to employment. Her motto “Begin with the end in mind” embodies her proactive approach. Sherry suggests combining a number of strategies for transition planning:

Person-centered planning, connections and networking

Sherry says, “We have had to get creative. We do person-centered planning with students, giving us the chance to look outside the box, see students from differing perspectives, and hear from people they have identified as wanting to help them achieve their dreams. Connections and networking have helped us maximize our resources.”

Career planning and exploration

Actual job experiences in the community (such as job shadowing, structured internships) can make a huge difference. They expose students to the realities of a job; some learn that the job they thought they wanted is not well-suited to their interests or abilities. In such cases, students realize there is a mismatch without having someone else make the decision for them. Students may also identify new interests.

Teaching students self-advocacy skills

Sherry emphasizes the importance of encouraging students to speak up for themselves, to participate in IEP meetings, to develop Vision Statements, and clarify the accommodations they need.

School-to-family communication is vital

“When thinking about how the school should work with a family, I truly believe it is an equal partnership…. we must involve students as well as family at each step.” Sherry stays connected to families by serving as school liaison to the Special Ed Advisory Council, facilitating planning meetings held in students’ homes, visiting potential adult service employment providers with students and families, and hosting an annual pot-luck dinner to celebrate successes with families.

Monthly transition team meetings

Sherry gathers representatives from various state agencies and adult service providers to come together at monthly transition meetings to share opportunities and ideas. “Interagency involvement is the key that unlocks not only the door to post-graduate success, but to achieving one’s dream.”

Person-Centered Career Planning: What It Is and How It Can Help

Person-centered planning (PCP) is a process designed to assist an individual in planning for his/her future. Often it involves bringing together a group of people who know the individual well. They share their experiences and knowledge of the individual to develop a more complete picture of him/her. This picture becomes the basis for developing an employment plan, controlled by the individual and based on his/her interests, needs and preferences. It is a process of brainstorming and exploration, and is useful in helping set direction and establishing concrete steps for moving ahead. Consult the Resource Section for publications and links on the topic.


The most important way to begin to help a young adult plan for a meaningful future is to have expectations (as you – and school staff – would have for any young adult) and to get involved. Schools, students, families and state agencies each have a role to play in planning beyond high school.

When helping your young adult prepare for the world of work, reflect back to your own early work history:

  • What were your first real work experiences and what did you learn from them?

  • How did you go about figuring out what you wanted to do for work?

  • What volunteer or other experiences helped you learn about what it is like to have a job?

  • Who helped you?

  • What connections did you make and how did you network?

  • What were the important work skills you learned as a young adult (for example, punctuality and reliability)?

Recalling your own early work experiences will help you focus on the basic skills that are essential for your young adult when entering the labor market/workplace.

College: A New Possibility

Up until recently, young adults with intellectual disabilities have not had many chances to attend college, nor has it been an option that families considered. This is changing; opportunities are being created for young adults to reap the many benefits of postsecondary education. Like all people, young adults attend college for many reasons. Some want to participate in a new community and build their social skills, others want to pursue an area of interest, others want to explore career options and develop marketable skills, and others attend college for all of these reasons. Community colleges and adult education programs often provide helpful programming for young adults with intellectual disabilities, offering classes for credit or audit, and welcoming aides to attend classes alongside the young adult. Some young adults attend community college while still enrolled in high school which eases the transition to post-secondary education and employment.

did you know:

A recently published study from the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston shows that youth with intellectual disabilities who participated in postsecondary education were 26% more likely to exit a vocational rehabilitation program with employment and earned a 73% higher weekly income.

From “Postsecondary Education and Employment Outcomes for Youth with Intellectual Disabilities” at

Websites for College Planning

Here you will find materials on topics such as person-centered planning, differences between high school and college, strategies for being successful in college, funding, and sample schedules. It also includes a database that lists colleges across the country that support youth with intellectual disabilities, as well as discussion boards, a listserv, many additional web links, publications, and documents about the inclusion of students with significant disabilities in postsecondary education.

This website contains information about living college life with a disability. It’s designed for high school students and provides video clips, activities and additional resources that can help students get a head start with college planning.

Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program

Within Massachusetts, the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment (ICE) Program for students with disabilities enables students to participate in the college experience while still in high school. The purpose of this state-funded pilot grant program is to form partnerships between public high schools and state institutions of higher education. Through ICE, students ages 18-22 with severe disabilities have the opportunity to enroll in credit or non-credit courses alongside students without disabilities. Higher education and public school partners work together to facilitate student success in navigating the academic and social life of a college campus.

Eligible students receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and are not expected to graduate with a standard diploma or pass MCAS. For dedicated students, ICE will lead to outcomes such as competitive employment, increased youth development and self-determination.

An involved special educator remarks, “The benefits of participating in this program go beyond academic learning. In addition to taking courses based on personal interest or career goals, students enjoy all of the community and social privileges accorded to the college’s students, such as student activities, government, special events, fitness center, etc. They gain a higher level of independence, self-esteem, self-awareness, self-advocacy, intercommunication skills, independent living skills, social skills, and ability to navigate the transportation system.”

Now in its third year, there are six partnerships across the state. Access to this program is limited as it currently serves less than 100 students statewide. Check with your young adult’s school to see whether an ICE program is available and might be an option for him or her.

SUCCESS STORY: Concurrent Enrollment--The College Experience

Andrew is 21 years old and participates in the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment (ICE) Program. Supported by his educational coach, he has taken 14 courses at a nearby community college since 2007. His class history includes: Intro to Wellness, Intro to Classical Music, Classical Piano 1, 2 & 3, Yoga, Painting, Acting, Dance, Career Exploration/ Resumé Writing and Advanced Photography/Videography. His piano professor remarks:

“Initially I was unsure about the curriculum in Classical Music, but Drew showed his abilities as a college student through his participation in class and his strong work ethic. Playing piano has strengthened many of Drew’s skills…motor, verbal, communication, ability to track when reading. I have always believed that students with disabilities can overcome their challenges through their personal desire to learn and self-determination.”

How does this college community connection tie into Andrew’s future? Look at what he has gained:

• Sticking to a schedule

• Managing transportation

• Initiating communication through email and cell phone

• Organizing items he needs for class

• Expanding conversation skills

• Interacting appropriately with friends and professors

• Knowing when to be quiet and when to speak

• Building a working knowledge of music and camera equipment

• Developing reciprocal friendships

In addition, Andrew is busy building his career. He has worked at a grocery store for the past three summers, and is also employed as a local photographer. One goal he has is to own his own business called “Drew’s Designs,” where he can sell his photos, paintings, and woodworking. With the combination of his energy, enthusiasm, and meaningful activities, his potential for success and life choices looks very promising!

How Does DDS Support Young Adults with Employment Planning?

Every day the Department of Developmental Services provides specialized services and supports to approximately 32,000 adults with intellectual disabilities and children with developmental disabilities across diverse ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups.

It is important to remember that eligibility criteria for the Department’s adult services are different from eligibility criteria for its children’s services. Young adults need to re-apply to DDS during their 17th year, before turning 18, which is when the eligibility requirements change. Families can learn more about adult eligibility for DDS services, including criteria and the application process, by consulting the Department’s publication “The Road Forward” (see box).

get started early

It is important that families begin the process of applying for DDS eligibility when young adults are still in school to facilitate a seamless transition from school services to DDS services.

About DDS for Transition-Age Youth

More information about employment services and supports is also available in The Road Forward, a DDS publication for families of transition-age youth. The first half of the guide provides introductory information on topics such as ITPs, eligibility for DDS services, and services and public benefits provided by state agencies. A resource section in the second half contains brief descriptions and contact information for state and private organizations that provide services and supports for youth entering adulthood. Each DDS area office has customized this section for families to highlight the organizations that provide these services in their local area. Families can request a copy of The Road Forward through their Transition Coordinator or by calling the area office. A generic copy is also available on the DDS website in the Turning 22 Section of Publications. Click on “More” to see the expanded list of publications.

Once the school has submitted the 688 referral form, the student has been found eligible to receive DDS services as an adult and has turned age 18, the local DDS area office will assign a staff member called a Transition Coordinator to work with each young adult. (Some families may have experience working with a DDS Children’s Service Coordinator who may continue to be helpful to the family.) The Transition Coordinator is your primary link to information and assistance from DDS during the transition from school to adult life.

The Transition Coordinator arranges and chairs a meeting or meetings in order to develop the Individual Transition Plan (ITP). The ITP is the document that specifies the types of supports requested for the young adult finishing high school and leaving special education. The ITP meeting is typically held one year before the young adult finishes school, and usually involves the student, family members, school personnel, and other individuals who know the student well.

Take Note

The ITP, which the DDS Transition Coordinator develops, is a different plan and document from the TPF, which the school develops. It can be confusing because they have similar names.

The purpose of the ITP meeting is to develop a plan that addresses the interests, skills and needs of the young adult. The ITP does not contain specific goals and objectives, or identify specific provider agencies. The ITP functions as more of a “blueprint” of the student’s requested support needs. Supports identified in the ITP are not guaranteed and do not create an entitlement; they are subject to prioritization and funding availability. DDS uses a standardized approach to determine an individual’s need and priority for service. Funding resources are appropriated each year through the state budget process; therefore, the amount of funding available to young adults can vary.

Consider All Resources

Being creative and resourceful are essential ingredients in planning for the future. Even once eligibility for DDS services, or another state agency, is in place, funding realities can mean that all desired services/supports might not be available. It will be important to consider all resources for putting together a package of services and supports. Other sources of state help might be the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) and One-Stop Centers. Additional possibilities to consider include connections and resources in your own community, what your own family can do, and any typical and natural supports available.

In addition to the Individual Transition Plan, the DDS Transition Coordinator helps families learn about the services and supports that the Department provides to adults. This includes an array of possibilities: service coordination, individual and family support, employment support, transportation and residential support. Typically, the Department provides employment services and supports through a network of qualified Employment Service Providers. There are about 100 employment service providers throughout Massachusetts, allowing each young adult a choice in finding a program that is a good match, based on his/her needs and the availability of DDS funding. See the following section to learn more about what employment service providers offer, how to find them and how to decide the best match for your son or daughter.

What if My Young Adult Is No Longer In School?

Assuming your son/daughter:

  • Has left high school

  • Has had an Individual Transition Plan (ITP) written with the help of the school and DDS Transition Coordinator

  • Has been found eligible for DDS adult services

The DDS area office will next assign a Service Coordinator to your family. And, just like the school assembled a team of professionals for IEP meetings, the Service Coordinator will assemble a team who will work together to develop an Individual Support Plan (ISP) for your young adult. The ISP team may be made up of representatives from adult service programs, such as employment service providers, additional involved professionals and others you and your young adult choose to invite. The Service Coordinator will provide information about different services in your area and help make referrals to a DDS-funded employment service provider, based on the plan that has been developed for your young adult and the funding that is available. The ISP, like an IEP, is an on-going process of establishing goals for your young adult and identifying supports, assessments and strategies that will help him/her reach those goals.

What are Employment Service Providers?

Employment service providers are organizations that contract with DDS and other state agencies to offer a range of employment services for young adults with intellectual disabilities. When comparing employment service providers, families will find that some specialize in job placement and support while others specialize in comprehensive planning and assessment, and others do it all. Since employment services providers vary in a number of ways, it is important that families and job seekers are actively involved in deciding which employment service provider and type of program is the best fit. People with disabilities and their families have more say in the services they receive than they may realize.

Here is a list of the types of services offered by employment service provider programs to assist young adults in finding jobs:

  • Development of a career plan to identify a job search direction and a job-finding process, created with input from the young adult and his/her family

  • Assessment of skills and interests

  • Arranging job try-outs and job-shadowing experiences

  • Time-limited job skills training, such as computer skills training

  • Help with developing a resume

  • Job development assistance, including locating and talking to employers about jobs and the hiring process

  • Job coach assistance in the workplace, which focuses on learning job tasks, adjusting to job requirements and ensuring a stable, ongoing employment experience

  • Follow-up support to the worker and employer

  • Assistance in arranging accommodations that may be needed on the job

  • Travel-training assistance and/or help with arranging transportation

  • Information and guidance on the impact of earning an income on public benefits

The types of employment services available to your young adult will depend on the steps s/he has already taken:

  • If your son or daughter obtained a job while in school, then the focus of services will be on job coaching and ongoing support services to enable continued success on the job.

  • If your son or daughter is just beginning his/her employment search, then services will most likely start with an assessment of interests, skills and abilities, followed by the development of a career plan, and help in finding and keeping a job.
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