Part of financial planning for those approaching retirement is doing what you can to "launch" your children. Most of us expect our teens to eventually get real jobs, move out, and set up their own households. We expect that they will be able to afford a standard of living not too unlike our own. Parents of special needs kids know that such goals may not be realistic, but we want our kids to have as much independence and normalcy in life as possible and part of that is having a job and earning (at least part of) your own way in life. My twenty-three year old son is autistic. While he has a high school diploma (a real one, with an ACT score that qualified him to skip remedial classes at the community college) he has no interest in higher education and no real career goals. He has poor fine and gross motor skills and almost no social skills. He can't handle the heat involved in working outside. Needless to say, that combination makes job hunting difficult. Since he has been gainfully employed for over a year now, I thought I would share some tips with parents who have special needs children who are seeking jobs.
Utilize Transition Services at School
When the kids get into high school, part of the IEP will address transition services. Pay attention to that part, and push for services. See what the school offers, and try to take advantage of it--and if you do not think they do enough, do some research and propose different services. I'll admit to not using this service very well and it is something I should have learned about earlier in the process. Remember that while the teens are in public school they are entitled to services; once they graduate or age out, they are qualified for services, but only get them to the extent money is available. Get what you can from the school system. Even if the goal is a high school diploma (or college) try to get them into a program that focuses on getting and keeping a job. Remember, the kids can stay in high school until they are twenty-one so unless you are getting a lot of push-back from your child about graduating on time, stay in school and get all the job training you can, in addition to the academics appropriate to your child.
Ticket to Work
Once a special needs child turns 18, she/he qualifies for SSI based on his/her own income/assets rather than the income/assets of the parents. Once the young adult qualifies for SSI she qualifies for "Ticket to Work", a program that helps SSI recipients get jobs. Social Security contracts with public or private agencies which provide services to disabled individuals. While I can't say how it works in all states, in Louisiana, Social Security refers you to the State Department of Rehabilitation, which does a needs assessment and intake interview. Goals are set and then the disabled individual (or family member) picks service provider.
Types of Employment:
There are three basic level of employment to which a disabled individual can aspire:
Regular Employment: People with mild handicaps or handicaps that do not affect their job performance can aspire to regular jobs that they find themselves. There are tax benefits to employers who hire them.
Supported Employment: Those who need help finding a job, interviewing for one and adapting to it once hired are candidates for supported employment. A service provider helps the disabled individual identify possible jobs, apply for them, and interview. Once the person is hired, the service provider can send a job coach with the new employee to help him learn the job and to help the employer see how to deal with whatever the person's disability is. The job coach fades out but both the employer and employee have long-term access to the service provider if a need arises.
Sheltered Employment: If a disabled individual is unable to perform any job functions in a manner that makes it economically feasible for a business to hire them, sheltered employment may be the only option. Companies or agencies offering sheltered employment have to meet certain qualifications but the bottom line is that they often pay less than minimum wage and usually offer ongoing support and supervision in excess of what a normal employer offers. Employees may be paid on a piecework basis or be paid for time actually spent working, as opposed to time at work. For example, my son spent a short period of time on a grounds-keeping crew for a local agency for the developmentally disabled. He had to be at the office at a certain time. They would put everyone on a bus and transport them to a job site. The handicapped workers got paid minimum wage for the time they were at the job site. If they moved to another site, then the transport time was off the clock. Another local school for the disabled sells arts and crafts. Crafters are paid on a piecework basis. They also collect donated used Mardi Gras beads, which disabled individuals sort, count and repackage on a piecework basis. You may have seen a video on facebook where some people with vision impairments were complaining about Goodwill testing them periodically and lowering their pay if they could not work fast enough (since their vision was getting worse, they performed worse on each test). In short, sheltered workshops are the answer to the reality that some people are unable to do $7.25 worth of work in an hour, but are still able to do something productive.
Which Level of Employment Should You Seek?
The thing to remember about the employment process is that if your son or daughter is not able to independently find, interview for, get hired for and successfully work at a job that is open to all applicants, the agencies that help are generally funded primarily with government money and their goal is "good enough" as opposed to "the best possible". You are the one who wants the best possible.
Be optimistic, but realistic. Think about your place of employment. What job there could your child realistically be taught to do in a manner that is as good at the person who is now doing it? What jobs have you seen people do that you think your child could do? Was your child mostly mainstreamed at school, or did he spend most of his time in special education? Are her handicaps physical or mental? If you believe it is realistic to think that your child could hold a regular job, even if she/he would need help in finding it and training for it, then hold out for supported employment (I assume if we are even having this discussion that your child has not gone out and found a job).
Only accept a sheltered workshop if supported employment isn't possible, even if it means waiting or more training. As I said earlier, there is a limited pot of money, and the providers are looking at "good enough". Once your child is placed, their job is done. While it may seem logical to start at a sheltered workshop, gain work skills and then move to supported employment, that isn't the way the system works. Once your child has been placed in a job, whether in a sheltered workshop or in supported employment, there is no money to help him/her find a better job. The money only comes back if your child loses his/her job, which isn't likely in a sheltered workshop.
What is the Process?
I don't know how the process works in other states, but in Louisiana, once you are approved for SSI, they inform you about Ticket to Work. If a job is a goal, the next step is an appointment with the Louisiana Department of Rehabilitation. They interview the client and, if desired, a family member. This is the agency that controls the money, but they don't provide any actual services. They give you a list of service providers--some are non-profits dedicated to the handicapped like ARC or Lighthouse for the Blind and some are for-profit companies that serve the disabled. You are allowed to pick the service provider you want, and local transition fairs even give you a chance to meet several in one place. One you select a provider, that company will set up an evaluation and when it is complete, they will be paid for it.
Based on the evaluation, which looks at job skills, people skills, work habits and interests, the provider begins to seek employment for the client. Most of these groups have contacts in local businesses so they are able to (hopefully) conduct a more successful job search than you might be able to do; however one vendor we used with my son simply went up and down the road applying for various minimum wage type jobs. On the other hand, after the evaluation, another vendor told us that my son was not ready for the job market--she thought he could learn the skills he needed, but he did not have them yet. Based on her recommendation we put him in a job training program run by a local school for the disabled. He went to work at a local healthclub and instead of them paying him, I paid for him to do it. A job coach was there to supervise him (and he needed a lot of supervision at first). Once the employment secures a job interview for the client, the vendor prepares the person for the interview and may even give him/her a ride there. Once a job has been secured, the vendor receives the next payment. What is important to remember is the vendor gets the same size check whether they spent one hour or one hundred hours on your case.
Once a disabled individual has been hired, the employment vendor sends a job coach with him or her to the job at first. It is the job coach's job to shadow the new employee and make sure she/he can do the job and understands what is expected. For example, at my son's job, they tell them when to get there in the morning, and they send them home when they are done for the day, so they don't schedule a quitting time. My son's first question when he got there was "When do we get to go home?". That sounds to many employers like an employee with one eye on the clock and one on the door--not what you want. However, my son loves routine and predictability. The job coach figured out that if you told him he'd get off by 5:00, and let him go at 3:00, rather than being angry about missed hours like many employees would be, he was glad that he got to go home early. The job coach fades out as the employee acclimates to the job. Once the employee has been on the job for a certain length of time, the vendor gets the final payment from that pot of money. There will be no more job hunting/acclimation money unless the client loses this job. At that point the process starts over. However, there is another pot of money, referred to as "waiver services" that provides money to the agency for ongoing support of the employee and the employer.
Are you the parent of a disabled young adult who has found employment? How did your job search proceed?