Kim Brown & Ellen Condon, Rural Institute on Disabilities
William was 16 and a junior in high school when his IEP team began to seriously talk about what he would do after graduation. His school was involved in a pilot project with the University of Montana’s Rural Institute on Disabilities which involved implementing the process of customized career planning and employment for students. This meant that instead of beginning with a review of existing job openings and labor market trends we would start by getting to know William. Through a process called Discovery, his team spent time intentionally getting to know who William was in terms of his interests and preferences, support needs, and abilities and contributions. They also looked at tasks that he could currently or might be able to perform, with the intention of custom tailoring a job for him.
The team began gathering information by spending time with William at his home and talking to his family. His mom shared that when William was three, he used to spend hours playing with a turquoise Hot Wheels car. Because he had verbal/oral apraxia (a communication difficulty), he couldn’t make the “vroom vroom” noises little kids typically do as they pretend to drive. That didn’t stop him from racing his toy across the furniture and floors. He’d even prop the tiny vehicle up and “work” on its die cast engine. The team learned that he really liked working on cars, jeeps and trucks and had experience helping maintain and repair family-owned vehicles.
When asked what he would like to do for employment, William stated that he wanted to work in food service, specifically to run his own business. Part of William’s work experience as a student was participating in a school-owned and operated hot dog business, Dogs on the Run. William decided that this mobile food cart needed a companion, so he and his job developers solicited and received donations to purchase his “Catch a Cloud” cotton candy machine. A local food product distributor sold William necessary supplies at cost and even allowed William to pay his bills as he earned profits from the machine. Under the supervision of Dogs on the Run staff, William sold cotton candy on summer Wednesdays at Missoula’s Out to Lunch event. He also sold cotton candy at local craft shows and special events. William’s parents and friends were a huge support system. His dad made a cart to hold the machine and its supplies and his dad’s co-worker fabricated a metal sign for Catch a Cloud. William’s mom transported the machine to Caras Park each week. She stayed to help for the first two weeks, but after that William informed her that her assistance was no longer needed.
As a student, William had various school-based work experiences in addition to owning his own business. William was able to try out jobs he thought he might like, and he and his IEP team were able to learn more and more about what characteristics of work tasks, environments and supports really worked well or didn’t work at all for William. Watching him operate Catch a Cloud, support staff realized that although William enjoyed some aspects of owning his own business, the job wasn’t the best match for him. For example, during Discovery his team had learned that William gets along better with adults than with young people, yet most cotton candy consumers are young. He prefers to work inside and should avoid the hot sun; food vending carts generally do the most business stationed outside during the summer months. Clearly further exploration was in order.
During William’s exit year of school, Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) contributed funds for a “work assessment” to evaluate his level of support needs - if he needed ongoing supports to hold a job he would be referred to VR’s extended employment waiting list until he received funding to pay an agency to provide supported employment services; if he demonstrated that he did not need ongoing support, VR would pay for services such as job placement, minimal job coaching, or other temporary supports he might need. A local VR-funded employment provider, MontanaWorks, developed another food service work experience for William, this time at Subway. Although he was able to perform the job duties, he wasn’t particularly interested in the work. This lack of interest made the job less than enjoyable and consequently William did not completely apply himself and he appeared to need quite a lot of support. However, the 40 hours he spent on the job provided valuable information to William and his team about his interests and contributions, including that although he enjoyed preparing the sandwich makings, he had difficulty tolerating some of the less-preferred tasks like emptying the trash. Also, it became clear that to be at his most competent, William needed a manager who would hold him to high performance expectations.
As graduation drew nearer, William’s team had a much clearer blueprint of what an ideal job, one at which he could contribute and succeed, would look like. Although William had been telling his IEP team he wanted to work in food service, what he showed them was that those fast-paced, sometimes chaotic environments did not support him to function at his best. Food service may have been his initial goal because that was the employment arena with which he was most familiar.
William’s employment vendor began her search for another work experience, this time clearly focusing on William’s interests, contributions, and support needs. Instead of looking for an existing position opening, she approached employers who might have a need for what William could contribute, with a proposal of a customized job. She contacted Karl Tyler Chevrolet (a business that was identified in his Employment Planning Meeting) and set up an appointment to discuss a second paid assessment opportunity. At this appointment, William presented his own picture Portfolio. Sandy Tyler, co-owner, was so impressed with what she saw that she agreed to allow William to join her team to help VR learn more about his job skills and support needs.
A job was negotiated based on tasks his job developer knew William could perform, in an environment which met his interests, ideal conditions and support needs. William’s duties involved preparing brand new vehicles for the showroom floor. This included removing protective plastic wraps, detail-cleaning the interiors and exteriors, and applying dealer name stickers to the rear bumpers. William excelled at his responsibilities. According to his supervisor, “He’s a natural. He knows what he’s doing.” He arrived at work on time every day, ready to perform the tasks assigned to him. William’s employer indicated that if he continued to perform as well as he had thus far, there was a very real possibility he’d be hired as a regular employee when his paid work assessment ended. On February 23, 2004, this came to fruition when Karl Tyler’s offered William a permanent position. He worked 10 hours per week until he graduated, and then asked for and received an increase to 20 hours per week.
As with any new endeavor, challenges arose but they were successfully handled as a team. For example, William needed Carhartts and other work clothes. His mother, MontanaWorks, and VR staff ensured he was able to purchase the necessary items using VR funding. Because William doesn’t drive, transportation between work and school during the school year required lots of juggling and coordinating. Now that William has graduated, he can carpool with his mom, walk or ride his bike to work from home.
The support from William’s Karl Tyler supervisors and co-workers has been amazing. He is trained for new tasks and treated just like any other employee. Because William learns quickly by watching others, his supervisor is able to expand his duties and rely on William to complete his tasks competently and well. William’s attitude toward his work is extremely positive. When his shift finishes each day, he tries to find excuses to avoid having to leave. He grins from ear to ear when asked about his job and can describe with expertise and confidence what his work entails. William recently used some of his earnings to purchase a Karl Tyler baseball cap, which he wears whenever he possibly can. Co-workers have invited William to barbecues and other social gatherings. William’s mom marvels at her son, the young man who once played with a tiny toy car and is now handling $56,000 top-of-the-line vehicles for a respected, long-time local business. “He’s steering his own future,” she says with tears of pride in her eyes.
Luckily for William, his IEP team spent time supporting
him to try different jobs; this enabled him to express what he liked
and didn’t like and what he needed for supports. They paid attention
to what his performance in food service was telling them about his ideal
conditions of employment and they gathered information from people who
knew him well. When they developed a job with these factors in mind,
William excelled—thereby demonstrating that he could work with
fewer supports right out of high school rather than being referred to
a waiting list for VR extended employment supports or waiting for a
supported employment slot through Developmental Disabilities services,
which could have taken up to 5 years.