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4. The role of family and friends in influencing employment for people with intellectual disability

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Who is influential in a young person’s life and on their employment outcomes?

The people with whom we have a personal relationship are important influencers in most people’s lives, including the lives of people with intellectual disability. Given that families (e.g., parents, siblings, other close relatives) ‘represent the most prominent and enduring sources of support and guidance’ for people with intellectual disability (Gilson et al.,2018, p.21), it is not surprising that they hold influential roles in relation to employment.

Social networks and contacts build social capital (Putnam, 2000) which is important to a range of individual outcomes including the employment success of persons with disability. Social networks impact the employment of persons with a disability in much the same way that they do for everyone else (Potts, 2005). Research has provided evidence that the following types of relationships can influence employment aspirations and outcomes for people with disability:

  • Parents
  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Teachers
  • Transition advisors
  • Peers (Lindsay et al., 2015; Antonelli et al., 2018; Carter et al., 2017; Chambers, Hughes, & Carter, 2004).

In the UK, in major government policy evaluations, supportive families have been found to be ‘a key element in encouraging people with learning disabilities to seek paid work’ (Reddington & Fitzsimons, 2013, p.128). In addition, research has found that alongside family, professionals such as teachers, paraprofessionals, job coaches, transition coordinators, ‘strongly influence the likelihood of competitive employment’ (Francis et al., 2013, p.45). The influence and role of professionals becomes even more important for people who lack family support (Francis et al., 2013).

The problem

People with intellectual disability generally have low social capital with limited social networks (Potts 2005). People with intellectual disability are less likely to be involved in community groups, and leisure activities (Verdonschot et al., 2009). An Australian study (Wilson et al., 2017) noted that many people with intellectual disability remain socially isolated and require support to overcome barriers and access social opportunities. Often the networks and friendships that do exist are closely linked to family relationships, peers with similar disabilities and service providers (Wilson et al., 2017). This limited social capital reduces the resources available to people with intellectual disability to support their aspirations for employment.

However, not only is their access to social capital limited, people with intellectual disability are typically surrounded by people who hold low expectations of them. Key supporters of young people with intellectual disability, including family members and teachers, hold low expectations about their capacity to undertake open employment and base their decisions on fear and concern for the person’s safety and wellbeing, and a desire to reduce risk (Carter et al., 2017; Winn & Hay, 2009; Gilson et al., 2018). These low expectations often result in transition to non-vocational options (Hetherington et al., 2010; Redgrove et al., 2016).

What works as a solution

A large body of research demonstrates that family expectations and support are predictors of employment for people with intellectual disability (Francis, Gross, Turnbull, & Turnbull, 2013; Gilson et al., 2018; Nicholas et al., 2018). In three international studies:

family expectations of the student with I/DD [intellectual and developmental disability] securing competitive employment upon completion of high school were significantly associated with post-secondary competitive employment (Southward & Kyzar, 2017, p.30).

Just as the network of people around a young person with disability can narrow and close off options by holding low expectations, the expectations that families, educators and others hold can have a direct impact on the employment outcomes of young people with intellectual disability (Carter et al. 2017; Midjo & Aune, 2018). Families can also act to foster higher expectations, broaden horizons and connect into employment and other opportunities.

Family members offer career-related advice, help the student find jobs, shape aspirations, and can offer practical and moral support to maintain employment (Southward & Kyzar, 2017, p.34).

Social capital (that is the personal and professional networks) of those in the life of a person with disability seeking employment, is a critical component of success in fostering employment. In an Australian study of people with intellectual disability, participants frequently reported that they found their current employment:

via a personal connection through family and friends. In supported employment in ADEs, people generally spoke about their family or friends finding the job for them or recommending it to them. In open employment people were more likely to comment on family or friends passing on an advertisement; making a potential connection with an employer, which they then followed up themselves; or helping them to write job applications… Other people who helped in the search for work included teachers, career advisors, and people working in the management of ADEs (Meltzer et al. 2016, p.19-20).

Supports to employment, such as customized employment, rely heavily on the social capital around the job seeker with disability. In the customized employment approach, the social capital of family and friends, along with that of paid supporters, is critical. In one US study,

One example of social capital described was a mother who networked where she had been employed to create an opportunity for her son to have a work experience in the business. Another example of social capital was networking with a computer technician who [was willing to visit the individual with disability at home and] provided feedback on the job seeker’s skills for taking apart computers (Inge et al. 2018, p.164).

Ingredients of success

  • High expectations of those around the young person with intellectual disability. Having parents and professionals holding high expectations for the future resulted in young adults developing a ‘positive self-concept and motivation to develop and achieve goals’ (Francis et al., 2018: p.286). A US study found that family expectation for paid work was the most significant unique predictor of paid work. Those whose family expressed an expectation for paid work were 3.58 times more likely to be working for pay after leaving school (Carter et al., 2012).
  • Role models. Young people with disability also report that seeing positive examples of others operating in the real world contributes to their own high expectations (Francis et al., 2018). Research confirms that having early role models of work, among family and others of people with intellectual disability, can have a strong influence on the young person’s vision of themselves in the future (Hall et al. 2018).
  • Increasing social networks and using them to connect to the world. Strategies that promote social capital and development of relationships between people with disability and their community have been recommended in a range of research. Families, friends and associates are the connectors to these opportunities (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Carter, 2017; Nicholas et al., 2018; Sheppard, Harrington, & Howard, 2017). Young people also build their own social capital through membership of sporting clubs, being involved in activities such as scouts and guides and through involvement in community based activities. (Crosbie et al. 2019; Potts, 2005). Past work and educational experience are rich sources of social networks by keeping in touch with previous employers, fellow workers, teachers and students. Volunteering can also be a way of building social networks as well as providing work experience, especially if it involves the field a person wishes to be employed in (Bellman et al., 2014; Skellern & Astbury, 2014; Potts, 2005).


Antonelli, K., Steverson, A., & O’Mally, J. (2018). College graduates with visual impairments: A report on seeking and finding employment. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 112, 1: 33-45. doi: 10.1177/0145482X1811200104

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

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.

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: 1–14.

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.

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.

Francis, G.; Gross, J. M. S.;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, 45, 3: 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

Inge, K., Graham, C., Brooks-Lane, N., Wehman, P., & Griffin, C. (2018). Defining customized employment as an evidence-based practice: The results of a focus group study. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 48, 2: 155-166. doi: 10.3233/JVR-180928

Lindsay, S., McDougall, C., Menna-Dack, D., Sanford, R., & Adams, T. (2015). An ecological approach to understanding barriers to employment for youth with disabilities compared to their typically developing peers: Views of youth, employers, and job counselors. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 37,8: 701-711. doi: 10.3109/09638288.2014.939775

Meltzer, A., Bates, S., Robinson, S., Kayess, R. Fisher, K.R. and Katz, I. (2016). What do people with intellectual disability think about their jobs and the support they receive at work? A comparative study of three employment support models: Final report (SPRC Report 16/16). Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Australia., p.19-20.

Midjo, T & Aune, K. E. (2018). Identity constructions and transition to adulthood for young people with mild intellectual disabilities, Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 22, 1: 33–48

Nicholas, D. B., Mitchell, W., Dudley, C., Clarke, M., & Zulla, R. (2018). An Ecosystem Approach to Employment and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 48, 1: 264-275. doi: 10.1007/s10803-017-3351-6

Potts, B. (2005) Disability and Employment: Considering the Importance of Social Capital, Journal of Rehabilitation, 71, 3: 20-25.

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone. New York: Simon and Schuster

Reddington, T. & Fitzsimons, J. (2013). People with learning disabilities and microenterprise, Tizard Learning Disability Review; 18, 3: 124-131.

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:

Sheppard, L., Harrington, R., & Howard, K. (2017). Leaving School and Getting a Job. Research to Action Guide, A guide for young people with disability who want to work., from

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.

Verdonschot, M. M. L., de Witte, L. P. Reichrath, E. Buntinx, W. H. E. & Curfs, L. M. G. (2009). Community participation of people with an intellectual disability: a review of empirical findings Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 53, 4: 303-318.

Wilson, N. J., Jaques, H., Johnson, A.and Brotherton, M. L. (2017). From Social Exclusion to Supported Inclusion: Adults with Intellectual Disability Discuss their Lived Experience of a Structured Social Group, Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 30: 847–858

Winn, S., & Hay, I. (2009). Transition from school for youths with a disability: Issues and challenges. . Disability & Society, 24, 1: 103-115. doi: 10.1080/09687590802535725.

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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