Supported employment was developed in the USA and Canada in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Whilst its original purpose was to help people with intellectual disabilities to get an ordinary job, supported employment has in later years proved also to be of significant help to other target groups who have traditionally found it difficult to gain and keep employment.
The background to the rise of supported employment is to be found in the fact that vocational rehabilitation and training was dominated by organisations providing sheltered work, activity centres, and by state owned institutions. The activities in this system of rehabilitation were that the client had to be trained and empowered to be able to participate in normal working life, and people with disabilities were considered for employment after training and vocational preparation (train and place).
Towards the end of the 1970’s it was increasingly recognised that the traditional ‘train then place’ methods of vocational rehabilitation and training contributed little to the integration of people with disability in ordinary working life. It became clear that good working skills alone, were in themselves not enough for a person with disability to find and retain a job.
For this reason the idea of a ‘job coach’ was introduced. A ‘job coach’ had the task of offering well-structured support to a person with disability performing ordinary work. This support could include on-the-job training, social skills training, assistance with travel to and from work, and other support necessary to make the employment successful, both for the disabled person and the employer. The ‘job coach’ model constituted something else other than ordinary rehabilitation practice, as the job coaches are present at work to assist in adaptation, training and education and sensitise the employer and the colleagues for the skills and the needs of the person.
The idea was to first place participants in a job and then they would train in task performance (‘place and train’). The earliest assignments in non-sheltered environments often followed a ‘place and pray’ strategy, and for this reason the ‘place-train-maintain’ strategy was developed. When the necessary stability had been achieved, the job coach withdrew (faded), and left the employee with their new colleagues (natural supports/co-workers).
During the 1990’s supported employment was increasingly characterised by the idea of people with disabilities having ownership of their own job requirements and increased user participation. Moreover the concepts of promoting natural supports and partnership working with key stakeholders were emphasised.
The supported employment perspective has been increasingly characterised by the principles of inclusion and obtaining jobs in the ordinary labour market. Whilst much work remains to be done in developing the potential of supported employment, it is generally accepted that supported employment is heading in the right direction – the establishment of the European Union of Supported Employment is testimony to this.