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In an economy where technology touches every part of our lives, how often do we stop to ask the question of what happens to the people who did the jobs Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation take?

Almost never.

For those of us who do think about it, we rarely give it a second thought. Most people assume that the workers just find another job or change careers.

Easy, right?

Not for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD).

Often, the jobs in which most people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities have been placed are being phased out as work environments become more automated through innovative technologies. Companies can replace ten assembly line workers with one robot. Businesses eager to cut costs and increase profits will almost always take that opportunity.

While the trends started in manufacturing, increasingly, these trends have spread to offices. Therefore, more individuals with IDD are finding themselves unemployed. The Cloud has replaced filing cabinets. Automated phone systems have replaced receptionists. Apps are replacing or already have replaced ticketing agents, fast  food clerks, bank tellers, assistants and a gamut of routine service positions. There are even kiosks in stores where customers self-check and bag their own goods. These routine tasks were great for job carving, but they have either disappeared or become automated.

What happens to the workforce that has been displaced by these changes, particularly the individuals with IDD? Does vocational rehabilitation (VR) recognize that the traditional jobs requiring fewer skills and little or no education are evolving? Does VR have a plan to address this growing trend of apps, automation, and AI which create more barriers to employment? Are there viable and sustainable employment opportunities for a population that VR is already struggling to place? Since the technological revolution is inevitable, what may be some solutions that VR can employ to address this shift in the economy?

It is not as easy for people with IDD to find jobs initially. For most people with disabilities, finding employment is challenging because of any number of factors such as skill level, myths around the work ethic of people with disabilities, fear, the perceived cost of possible accommodations…the list could go on. People with IDD often find it even more challenging because they may need creative solutions and/or additional or extended support. With VR there are no easy or right answers;  services are individualized. What works for one person with IDD may be a disaster for another. However, the rush to place job seekers, the strain on human resources, the decline in government funding, and the changes in the economy leave VR and other stakeholders with the responsibility to evaluate their service approach and make adjustments accordingly.

This article raises more questions than it attempts to answer. Its purpose is to start a conversation that we hope will cause vocational rehabilitation (VR) and other stakeholders to develop and implement solutions for people with IDD who want to make their unique contribution to society. VR does not have to reinvent the wheel. What follows is a brief overview of four proactive approaches: job carving, apprenticeships, person-centered planning, and self-employment. VR has used each of these in the past with proven results for placing people with IDD in permanent employment.

woman on a landline phone at a desk, surrounded by piles of folders and papersJob carving can be a great solution for a person with an IDD. Job carving is the process of dividing job duties into smaller pieces and assigning the different duties to one or more persons. The challenge is the meeting of the minds it takes to get there. Vocational rehabilitation counselors (VRCs) must have the time to really get to know the IDD job seeker’s interests, strengths, and abilities. They must know the person’s work tolerance and work environment preferences. VRCs or job developers must also understand the needs of the targeted employer, not just through job descriptions, but through site visits during various shifts and conversations with the employer and the current employees about the day-to day operations of the business. Developing relationships with the IDD job seeker and a prospective employer lays the groundwork for job carving. Then, VRCs will be able to align IDD job seekers with known opportunities or created opportunities where the VRC can help a business see the value in giving job carving a try. When approached with a sensible cost saving solution, most businesses will be interested in giving that solution a chance. Most employers who use job carving find the carved role to be integral to the efficiency of their businesses. For some examples, watch the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) video regarding Solutions for Employers.

2 women cooking in a kitchen with white chef hats and apronsApprenticeships are a fantastic way for anyone to gain meaningful work experience. If the participant does well, then apprenticeships can lead to permanent employment. Does VR explore these opportunities for people with IDD? Apprenticeships are paid or unpaid avenues to learn trades, to build leadership and/or management skills, or to be trained in an industry-specific business process. Provided that an individual’s unique talents, interests and work tolerance are aligned with the proposed venture, the benefits make it worth exploring. One obvious benefit of an apprenticeship is that the apprentice has the opportunity to acquire real world work experience. Also, apprenticeships have built-in job coaches and may be ideal for individuals with IDD whom will need job coaches, but not long-term. Craftsmen work one-on-one with the apprentice as he/she learns the skills and abilities necessary to perform the tasks independently. Though most are in licensed trades, apprenticeships span a wide range of fields. Before law school, lawyers studied as apprentices to reputable professionals who shared their knowledge with interested attendants. Finally, once the apprentice masters the skills, particularly for trades, mostly the person will work alone or in very small teams. Therefore, the limited social interaction will likely be a benefit for people with IDD who often have challenges with reading or interpreting social cues. If the individual finds that the apprenticeship does not lead directly to a permanent position, then the person has gained valuable skills, work experience, and a network that could lead him/her to a job in a related field.

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The Person-centered planning approach was a service delivery model the MA Department of Developmental Services (DDS) utilized over 10 years ago. The Northeast Region of DDS launched a pilot program where they collaborated with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) to help individuals with IDD who wanted to work find employment in community settings. DDS tested person-centered planning,  which  required a significant time commitment, but produced encouraging results. Employment was realized for 14 of the 25 participants, 9 of whom started at minimum wage, 5 of whom started higher. This approach took into account the unique talents and interest of the job seeker. It involved an experienced facilitator conducting a series of meetings attended by the job seeker, his/her family, the MRC vocational counselor, the DDS service coordinator, and other individuals the job seeker felt was important to honing and obtaining his/her employment goal. These person-centered planning  meetings were focused on clarifying the job seeker’s talents and interest with insights from his/her support network. The relevant stakeholders in the meetings converted the knowledge obtained from the discussions into an achievable employment outcome and matched the job seeker with employment aligned with his/her goal. The meeting attendees committed the time and resources required to support the job seeker until he/she realized their employment goal. To learn more about person- centered planning and ideas from other states visit ThinkWork, a resource compiled and maintained by the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston.


caramel brown popcornSelf-employment is rarely considered as a job goal for people with disabilities. However, individuals with IDD can use this mechanism to share their talents and interests and make meaningful contributions to society. Consider Joe  Steffy whose success story the National Down Syndrome Society highlighted during Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Joe has Down Syndrome and Autism, resulting in low verbal expression and minimal academic achievement. If it had been left up to his high school transition team, Joe would be living in a group home in Louisburg, Kansas. He would not be working because his transition team felt he could not pay attention or focus long enough to work. His parents knew a different Joe; he loved his independence. Also, their son remembered details, loved interacting with people, and learned routine tasks by watching others perform the tasks. Joe’s parents imagined more for him. During a trip, Joe’s father saw a man making traditional German kettle corn and recognized an opportunity that would fit Joe’s interests and abilities. His father decided to create a trial work experience for Joe to see if his son could learn the simple steps that could lead to a profound change in his employment outlook. Joe learned how to pop kettle corn from watching his father, and Poppin’ Joe’s was born. Joe’s mother helped him write a business plan and apply for funding.  Joe received start-up assistance from a Kansas Department  of Development Services grant and the Social Security PASS program. Vocational Rehabilitation helped Joe purchase equipment for the business and technology to help him communicate. With the support of his family, community and a mentor, in 2005 Joe became the sole owner of Poppin’ Joe’s. In 2008, he purchased a home. In 2016, Poppin’ Joe’s sales were around $75,000 a year. Joe loves his work and now tells his story across the United States. He is featured in the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) video regarding Creating Opportunities and Solutions. Read Joe’s most recent interview by Inspiration Matters. When the interviewer asked “[c]an you give tips/advice for those in our community who want to start a business?” Joe responded, “[k]now your strengths and find a way to use them! Whether it is working for someone else, or starting up your own business. Do something you can be successful at and enjoy.”

Written by Inez Canada, Client Assistance Program (CAP) Advocate at the Massachusetts Office on Disability, with research contributions from Evan Gabovitch. For more information about Vocational Rehabilitation please contact the Client Assistance Program at (800)-322-2020 or

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Client Assistance Program (CAP) Advocate

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