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3. The effect of parental expectations on employment of people with intellectual disability

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What do we mean by parent expectations?

Parent expectations of, or aspirations for, their children are the broad ideas about what parents believe is realistic for their child’s future (Martinez, Conroy, & Cerreto, 2012). The expectations parents – and others – hold can have a direct impact on the employment outcomes of youth with intellectual disability (Carter et al., 2017).

The problem

Research and public consultation have found that the aspirations of people with disability, and those of their family and carers, about participation in post secondary education and employment are often limited (ACIL Allen Consulting, 2017; Chambers et al., 2004). Indeed, low expectations of parents is a commonly cited major barrier to employment for people with intellectual disability.

These low expectations, coupled with poor transition planning, lead to decision making that is focused on reducing risk, often resulting in choices that have a non-vocational focus (Hetherington et al., 2010; Redgrove et al., 2016; Gilson et al., 2018; Noel et al., 2017). Failure to explore the world of work also reinforces low expectations (Bellman et al., 2014; Blustein et al., 2016; Carter et al., 2017; Chambers et al., 2004; Luecking & Luecking, 2013; Lysaght et al., 2017).

What works as a solution

There is a strong relationship between parent expectations and student outcomes for all students (both with and without disability) (Zhang et al., 2012).

Parent expectations have been found to influence:

  • Student outcomes
  • School graduation rates
  • Employment after secondary school
  • Participation in post-secondary education and training.

High expectations of what people with disability can achieve are an important indicator of their later employment (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Carter et al., 2017; Kirby, Dell’Armo, & Persch, 2019). Hall et al. (2018, p.208) argue that ‘parental expectation is the greatest predictor of paid work experiences’ for people with intellectual and developmental disability, and this is reinforced in a range of research which finds that parental expectations are the strongest predictors of employment and post-secondary education for students with intellectual disability (Papay and Bambara, 2014 in Southward & Kyzar, 2017; Carter et al., 2012, 2017).

Longitudinal studies have found that high parent expectations (along with hands-on, authentic work experiences) are the key factors associated with employment two years post high school for students with intellectual and severe disability (Carter, Austin and Trainor, 2012). Early modelling of work roles by parents and family members are powerful ingredients for the child in shaping the vision of their future life (Hall et al. 2018).

One US study reported that students with intellectual disability ‘whose parents expected they would be employed upon graduation of high school are ‘58 times more likely to be employed up to 2 years out of high school and 50 times more likely to be employed between 2and 4 years out of high school than youth whose parents did not expect they would be employed’ (Papay & Bambara, 2011, p.145 in Southward & Kyzar, 2017, p.30).

Key ingredients of developing high parental expectations

A range of ingredients have been established as supporting the development of high parental expectations of their child with disability:

  • Parents and families should be supported to develop early positive expectations of their child with intellectual disability’s employment future. Parents of young people report that it is important that they hold similar expectations for their child with a disability as they do for other children (Blustein et al., 2016; Francis, Stride, & Reed, 2018).
  • Parents should work to maintain high expectations. Parents of young people with intellectual and other disabilities reflecting on their experience advised parents to:

maintain a ‘picture’ of young adults as ‘completely capable, independent, not on disability’ benefits, ‘getting married’ or ‘feeling connected and valuable’ in their communities. Participants reported ‘always telling’ young adults ‘all of the things they could accomplish’, including going to college, working and living in the community. Participants indicated that these demonstrations of high expectations resulted in young adults developing a positive self-concept and motivation to develop and achieve goals (Francis et al., 2018, p. 286).

To maintain high expectations, parents identified that they resisted letting their young person ‘get away with things’ and held them accountable to expectations about housework, chores and homework (Francis et al., 2018, p.286). Three strategies were specifically recommended: hold young adults accountable; expect that young adults will experience and overcome failure; locate positive examples of young adults in the community (Francis et al., 2018, p.291).

  • Parents and families should be equipped with employment and transition knowledge, such as how to utilize formal and informal supports including drawing on other family, friends and networks (Francis et al., 2013).
  • The service system should be a major source of support and connect with families as early as possible to influence employment expectations (Hall et al., 2018, p.210). There is evidence that parents and family members can be supported to raise expectations by:
    • accessing information and resources via training (Francis et al., 2013). For example, the Family Employment Awareness Training (FEAT) program in the United States, offering face to face training about integrated employment over two days, has been found to increase participants’ expectations for competitive employment and knowledge of employment services and supports (Francis et al., 2013);
    • engaging people with intellectual disability in work experience as this offers the opportunity for people with disability to demonstrate their capabilities and to build expectations of those around them (Bellman et al., 2014; Chambers et al., 2004; Simonsen & Neubert, 2012; Skellern & Astbury, 2014);
    • accessing mentoring, training, and timely information and support to navigate systems. This has been shown to raise expectations of family members about post school employment and influence decision making (Carter et al., 2017; Chambers et al., 2004). The support of peers (i.e. other parents) has been noted to be particularly helpful (Francis et al., 2018).


ACIL Allen Consulting. (2017). National Disability Coordination Officer Program Evaluation,,

ARTD Consultants. (2019). Ticket to Work Post School Outcomes. Report for National Disability Services, Final Report, Sydney,

Bellman, S., Burgstahler, S., & Ladner, R. (2014). Work-based learning experiences help students with disabilities transition to careers: A case study of University of Washington projects. Work: Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation, 48,3: 399-405.

Blustein, C. L., Carter, E. W., & McMillan, E. D. (2016). The Voices of Parents: Post–High School Expectations, Priorities, and Concerns for Children With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The Journal of Special Education, 50,3: 164-177. doi: 10.1177/0022466916641381

Carter, E. W.; Austin, D. & Trainor, A. A. (2012). Predictors of postschool employment outcomes for young adults with severe disabilities, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 23,1: 50 –63.

Carter, E. W., McMillan, E., & Willis, W. (2017). The TennesseeWorks Partnership: Elevating employment outcomes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 47, 3: 365-378. doi: 10.3233/JVR-170909

Chambers, C. R., Hughes, C. & Carter, E. W. (2004). Parent and Sibling Perspectives on the Transition to Adulthood, Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 39, 2: 79-94.

Francis, G.; Gross, J.; Turnbull, R. & Parent-Johnson, W. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of the Family Employment Awareness Training in Kansas, Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 38, 1: 44–57.

Francis, G., Stride, A., & Reed, S. (2018). Transition strategies and recommendations: perspectives of parents of young adults with disabilities. British Journal of Special Education, 453: 277.

Gilson, C.; Carter, E.; Bumble, J. & Mcmillan, E. (2018). Family Perspectives on Integrated Employment for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43, 1: 20-37

Hall, A.; Butterworth, J.; Winsor, J.; Kramer, J.; Nye-Lengerman, K. and Timmons, J. (2018). Building an Evidence-Based, Holistic Approach to Advancing Integrated Employment, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43, 3: 207–218

Hetherington, S. A., Durant-Jones, L., Johnson, K., Nolan, K., Smith, E., Taylor-Brown, S., & Tuttle, J. (2010). The Lived Experiences of Adolescents with Disabilities and Their Parents in Transition Planning. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25, 3: 163-172. doi: 10.1177/1088357610373760

Kirby, A. V., Dell’Armo, K., & Persch, A. C. (2019). Differences in youth and parent postsecondary expectations for youth with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 51, 1: 77.

Luecking, D. M., & Luecking, R. G. (2013). Translating Research Into a Seamless Transition Model. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 381: 4-13. doi: 10.1177/2165143413508978

Lysaght, R., Petner-Arrey, J., Howell-Moneta, A., & Cobigo, V. (2017). Inclusion Through Work and Productivity for Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Journal Of Applied Research In Intellectual Disabilities: JARID, 30, 5: 922-935. doi: 10.1111/jar.12284

Martinez, D. C., Conroy, J. W., & Cerreto, M. C. (2012). Parent Involvement in the Transition Process of Children With Intellectual Disabilities: The Influence of Inclusion on Parent Desires and Expectations for Postsecondary Education. Journal of Policy & Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 9, 4: 279-288.

Noel, V.; Oulvey, E.; Drake, R. & Bond, G. (2017). Barriers to Employment for Transition-age Youth with Developmental and Psychiatric Disabilities, Adm Policy Ment Health, 44: 354–358

Redgrove, F., Jewell, P., & Ellison, C. (2016). Mind the Gap Between School and Adulthood for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 3, 2: 182-190. doi:

Simonsen, M. L. & Neubert, D. A. (2012). Transitioning Youth With  Intellectual and Other  Developmental Disabilities:  Predicting Community  Employment Outcomes, Career  Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 36, 3: 188-198.

Skellern, J., & Astbury, G. (2014). Gaining employment: the experience of students at a further education college for individuals with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42, 1: 58-65. doi: 10.1111/bld.12012

Southward, J. & Kyzar, K. (2017). Predictors of Competitive Employment for Students with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities, Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 52, 1: 26-37.

Zhang, Y., Haddad, E., Torres, B., & Chen, C. (2011). The reciprocal relationships among parents’ expectations, adolescents’ expectations, and adolescents’ achievement: A two-wave longitudinal analysis of the NELS data. Journal of youth and adolescence, 40, 4: 479-489.

The authors would like to acknowledge the usefulness of Crosbie, J.: Murfitt, K.; Hayward, S. & Wilson, E. (2019), NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce. Literature review: Employment and economic participation of people with disability, Burwood, Deakin University, as a review of similar literature that provided initial guidance.

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