Employment and Volunteer Work

In general, there are three types of employment options available to individuals with Down syndrome: competitive, supported, and sheltered. Volunteer work is a great option to gain some additional job training.

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Competitive Employment

In the United States, many typical students go to work when their secondary studies are completed. For young adults with Down syndrome and other disabilities, employment may be appropriate if they have both good work skills and previous work experience. Competitive employment is just that—competitive—and it is often a goal that can be reached with limited job supports. Many people benefit from what can best be described as a long orientation to their job. In the service world, it may have a different name such as “employment supports” or “job coaching.” An individual called a “Job Coach,” “Employment Specialist” or something similar accompanies the person to work for several hours, weeks, months, or until the person is successful independently in the workplace.

Another approach to supporting people in competitive employment is fading. Fading is a technique where the support person slowly fades from the job site. They stay involved just enough to ensure the person continues to be successful as with decreasing support that is finally eliminated.

One essential aspect of successful employment is having someone serve as a Follow-Up Specialist. This person, in a mutually agreed-upon interval with the employer, checks in with the supervisor and the employee to ensure that the workplace expectations continue to be met and any problems are identified early enough to be addressed. Too often, this important component is overlooked causing people to lose their jobs when a little bit of intervention might have resulted in continued success.

The most overlooked opportunity in employment is the use of natural support in the workplace. This means providing guidance to coworkers that gives them confidence in assisting, prompting, and providing general help to the individual with disabilities—just as they would anyone else. If you think about it, we all use natural supports in our work.

That being said, job loss is a fact of life, especially for persons with disabilities. Supervisors change, corporate expectations rise and under-performing workers are often the first to go.

Job development is essential for successful competitive employment. Friends or family members helping an individual with disabilities to find work should ensure not only that a job is identified, but that it is the right job. A noisy environment will not work for someone with sensory issues and a job in an office won’t work for a person who needs more physical activity. It is important to consider the need for physical activity in the lives of people with disabilities when looking for employment that will be a good fit.

Supported Employment

Young adult with Down syndrome working at a grocery store

Supported employment is similar to competitive employment in that it occurs in the community in real work locations. The major difference is that the individual requires long-term or ongoing support to be successful. In supported employment, any individual with any disability can be successful because the person receives whatever support is needed for however long it is required.

However, many agencies and governments have imposed time limits on how much support they will provide because of the expense it incurs. Persons with more challenges often require more support and resources for longer periods of time. Agencies may not be able to afford those resources, even though they are needed.

Sheltered employment

Sheltered employment is a softer term for sheltered workshops. These are settings where people with disabilities attend on a daily basis and have the opportunity to do subcontract work (usually mailings, packaging, and assembly) and are paid according to how much they can accomplish compared to workers without disabilities. Department of Labor regulations ensure that accurate time studies are done for each job and payment is accurate.

Sheltered workshops are often criticized for being segregated settings. Some workshops have workers without disabilities because the amount of subcontract work cannot be completed without the addition of these workers. However, even when they do include non-disabled employees, there is little mixing between groups.

Volunteer Work

Volunteer work is a great option if earning a paycheck is not essential or if an individual would like to gain some additional job training. Some families use volunteer work as a way to get around waiting lists for supported employment programs. It is important to note, however, that a person may not volunteer where others are paid to do the same job. You can volunteer at a library or Meals-on-Wheels where others volunteer to do the same specific tasks but you can not volunteer at McDonald’s or the local bookstore.


Adapted from Thinking About Tomorrow: The Transition to Adult Life by Jo Ann Simons as it appeared  in Disability Solutions, Volume 6, Issue 1

Additional Resources

External Resources

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