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Help to prepare your kid with disabilities for employment success

Erin Riehle Founder and Director of Project SEARCH Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

All parents want their children to grow up to be happy, successful adults. Traditionally, this success is defined by a good education leading to a fulfilling job, independent living arrangements, a steady romantic relationship, leisure activities and an active social life. Of all these factors, employment is the pivotal factor on which all others seem to depend. And yet, individuals with disabilities are unemployed at record numbers and quality-of-life gaps have grown in the past 20 years.

Despite the formidable barriers and what seems like daunting odds, it is possible for individuals with disabilities to have a career and a great quality of life. How can you overcome the odds? A good high school transition experience is absolutely critical to achieving success. But even more important are the high expectations that parents must have for their children with disabilities and the subsequent preparation for adulthood that they must begin in childhood.

This article discusses some key things that parents raising children with disabilities should do to increase the likelihood of employment success as a young adult.


Do engage children with disabilities in work-related play

Children with disabilities are rarely given work-related toys, such as stethoscopes or fire trucks. In the interest of protecting themselves and their children from disappointment, parents are reluctant to engage them in work-related play. As a result, they miss out on the critical opportunities to see themselves as competent workers.

Do begin talking about high expectations early in life

Create a family expectation that your child with disabilities will grow up to be employed and contribute to society. It is very important for children with disabilities to grow up knowing that their parents believe in them and expect them to work.

Do involve kids in decision making

Involve your children in decisions. Being involved in small decisions, such as what to wear and what to eat, is good practice for the big decisions that will come later.

Do give kids chores

Giving children the opportunity to complete chores is a way to foster feelings of pride and accomplishment. More importantly, it helps to establish a strong self-image as a contributing member of society.

Do develop patterns of good attendance

Often, programs for children with developmental disabilities take a very lax attitude toward attendance. However, this deprives children of the opportunity to learn a critical job skill--the commitment to be on time and act in a reliable manner.


Do not accompany your child to every activity

It is crucial that a child with disabilities learns to manage social situations as independently as possible. Inadequate social function is one of the main reasons that adults, with or without a disability, fail to get a job or fail to keep a job.

Do not wait until age 18 to talk about employment

One of the most powerful predictors of successful employment in adult life is parental attitude in the early years of life. Be sure to talk about employment frequently as kids age.

Do not tolerate behaviors that would be unacceptable for your other children

All children must learn the consequences of behavior. This is an extremely important life lesson for all kids, with and without disabilities.

Do not ignore personal hygiene and basic grooming skills

No matter how strong a person’s skills might be, if he/she has body odor, dirty nails or messy hair and clothes, he/she will not be welcome in the workplace.

Do not miss an opportunity to teach the concepts of quality and productivity

Imagine this scenario: Two young adults with developmental disabilities are asked to wipe down 50 tables in 30 minutes. One young man completes all 50 tables in 20 minutes, but none are clean. The other young man completes only 5 tables in 30 minutes, but those 5 tables are spotless. In the world of work, neither of these scenarios would be acceptable because of poor quality and low productivity.

While quality and productivity are abstract concepts that are difficult to teach, it can be done if started early and constantly reinforced. To teach quality, try baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Burn some, undercook some and correctly bake some. Discuss the fact that even though the cookies are all chocolate chip cookies, they are not all good chocolate chip cookies, and some are unacceptable.

To teach productivity, time activities. This can begin as simply as timing-setting the table or looking up a recipe online. Each day, ask the young person with a disability to evaluate himself on attitude, appearance and performance, keeping in mind quality and productivity.

Jumping cartoon

Young adults with developmental disabilities are capable of incredible things, including careers that allow them to live happily and independently. But finding this career involves a great deal of planning, practice and training--and these things cannot be left until high school. Families must expect their infant with a disability to grow up to become a contributing member of society, as well as be prepared to work early and often on the key things they can do to increase their likelihood of success.

More expert advice about Kids with Special Needs

Photo Credits: © philidor -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Erin RiehleFounder and Director of Project SEARCH

Erin Riehle, MSN, RN is a national leader in promoting employment opportunities for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. She is a founder and Director of Project SEARCH, an employment and transition program that has receive...

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