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6. Work experience as a predictor of employment for people with intellectual disability

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What is work experience?

Work experience can be any direct exposure to the world of work. Young people often associate it with the structured 1-2 weeks of placement in a work environment that typically occurs in Australia as part of the year 9 or 10 curriculum in secondary schools.

However, work experience includes a wide range of things such as:

  • job tours and visits to workplaces
  • job shadow days
  • short or ongoing work experience placements
  • internships
  • volunteering
  • casual, part time or full-time work.

Work experience can be paid or unpaid.

What are the outcomes of work experience?

Work experience is a major way that individuals, including people with intellectual disability, learn about the world of work and build relevant skills and confidence.  Internationally, work experience while in secondary school, or post-secondary education, has consistently been found to be a predictor of post-secondary employment for students with disability (Test et al., 2009; Wehman et al., 2014; Wehman et al., 2018). Australian research also shows that:

young people with disability benefit from frequent and continuous exposure to real work environments throughout the secondary school years and beyond (Wakefield & Waugh, 2010, p.11).

Work experience in general, and especially during school years, is a strong predictor of later employment for people with intellectual disability (Molfenter et al., 2017; Petcu, Chezan, & Van Horn, 2015; Scheef, et al., 2018; Wehman et al. 2018; Joshi et al. 2012; Southward & Kyzar, 2017). A number of studies found that paid work experience, while attending secondary school, more than doubles post-secondary open employment outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities (Southward & Kyzar, 2017).

Evidence from overseas and Australia indicates that connecting a young person with the world of work before they leave school greatly improves their chances of securing ongoing employment. …  most people with intellectual disabilities who are currently employed, had their first job before turning 21, indicating that early intervention and school to work support are key (ARTD Consultants, 2019, p. 4).

…the most consistent predictor of post school employment success has been community-based work experience while young people are still in high school, particularly paid jobs – where students are integrated into authentic workplaces alongside co-workers without disabilities (Luecking, 2009 quoted in Wakeford & Waugh, 2010, p.11).

Having a paid working experience prior to exiting high school is the number one predictor for youth with intellectual disabilities pursuing CIE [competitive integrated employment] after graduation (Wehman et al., 2018. p. 140).

One American study (Joshi et al., 2012) found that work experience, as a major predictor of post school employment, also applied to young people with mild intellectual disability who were students in special education settings. These students ‘were 5.704 times as likely to ever engage in employment after school if they engaged in paid-employment experiences while in school’ (Joshi et al., 2012, p.104).

Work experience has many benefits for people with intellectual disability. It:

  1. Supports the learning of people with intellectual disability about what they can do and builds confidence;
  2. Enables families and other supporters (such as teachers and job coaches) to see what is possible for the person;
  3. Is a good way to gather information about a person that can be used to build their Vocational Profile
  4. Is a safe way for potential employers to be introduced to a person with intellectual disability (Crosbie et al. 2019, p. 38).

Work experience is also valuable for older people with intellectual disability, even after they have left school. One Australian study of people with intellectual disability found that work experience was the most common preparatory activity that led to employment for the older adults they interviewed. Work experience was found to provide connections and experience that resulted in future work, frequently with the same employer who had offered work experience (Meltzer et al., 2016). The research included multiple case studies of mature aged people with intellectual disability and the outcomes of their work experience, for example:

I started work experience here and then I started working here (25-year-old man, regional, working in a social enterprise plant nursery).

That’s when I came here for work experience. After that I got the job (34-year-old woman, regional, working in a social enterprise plant nursery) (Meltzer et al., 2016, p.20).

In a study of students with intellectual disability attending post-secondary education in the US (in Universities and colleges), students identified that paid on-the-job training was ‘one of the most important aspects of vocational training that allows them to be much better prepared for attaining successful post-graduation employment’ (Petcu et al., 2015, p.367).

The problem

However, in general, there are fewer opportunities available for people with disability to gain work experience (Wakeford & Waugh, 2014). People with disability often miss out on early opportunities to gain paid or unpaid work experience, for example, when they are at school (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Carter et al., 2017; Honey et al., 2014; Luecking & Luecking, 2006), and many people with intellectual disability have had little or no work experience by the time they finish school (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Brown et al., 2018). One QLD study of students with intellectual disability found that nearly one third of students had not received work experience whilst in school (Davies & Beamish, 2009).

Lack of access to work experience for people with intellectual disability is particularly critical. Given that many people with intellectual disability learn well while ‘doing’ or in situ (Crawford, 2011), lack of access to work experience means they lack opportunities to learn skills relevant to work, and to build their knowledge of workplaces and of their own interests (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Lee et al., 2019).

What works as a solution?

  1. Get work experience early, before leaving secondary school (Molfenter et al, 2017; Wakeford & Waugh, 2014).
  2. Regardless of age or stage of life, explore a wide range of work experience options.
  3. Expand work experience opportunities by getting tailored support. Support can include:
    1. person-centered exploration of an individual’s strengths, preferences, interests, and needs’ (Wehman et al., 2018, p.134). This might involve vocational assessments as well as discussions with the person, their family and friends. It is a standard feature of the customized employment approach (Wehman et al., 2018).
    2. The provision of onsite supports to maximise opportunities for success (for example, on-site training, job coaching, customization of job tasks, personal care support, travel training, assistive technology etc.) (Petcu et al., 2015; Scheef, 2019).
    3. Programs that incorporate work experience into the final years of school, vocational training or tertiary education. These models show positive employment outcomes for participants (ARTD Consultants, 2019; Lee et al., 2019; White et al., 2019; Wakeford & Waugh, 2014; Molfenter et al., 2017; Petcu et al., 2015). For example: Ticket to Work (Wakeford & Waugh, 2014), and the Integrated Practical Placement Program (IPP) (White et al., 2019).
  4. Utilise social networks to unearth opportunities for work experience. Social capital (that is, the personal and professional networks in the job-seeker’s life) is a critical component of success in fostering employment. Many people with intellectual disability rely on the social networks of family and friends to link to employment opportunities (Southward & Kyzar, 2017; Meltzer et al. 2016; Inge et al. 2018).Work-related circles of support have been used to generate possible work experience opportunities for people with intellectual disability (Burke & Ball, n.d.; Spagnolo et al., 2017).
  5. Build relationships with employers through negotiation around mutually beneficial job roles, seeking feedback, engaging employers into the school or post-secondary education program, utilizing existing employer networks, provide training to employers about how to work with people with disability (Scheef, 2019).
  6. Utilise a range of funding sources (for example, from the school, from individualized funding) to ‘braid’ funding together to support early work experiences (Molfenter et al., 2017).


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

Brown, M., Mahoney, K., & Harry, M. (2018). “It’s Like Two Roles We’re Playing”: Parent Perspectives on Navigating Self-Directed Service Programs with Adult Children with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities. Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 15(4), 350-358. doi: 10.1111/jppi.12270

Burke, C. & Ball, K. (n.d.) A guide to circles of support, Foundation for people with learning disabilities, London,

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 (3), 365. doi: 10.3233/JVR-170909

Crawford, C. (2011). The Employment of People with Intellectual Disabilities in Canada: A Statistical Profile from

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.

Davies, M. D., & Beamish, W. (2009). Transitions from school for young adults with intellectual disability: Parental perspectives on “life as an adjustment”. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 34(3), 248-257. doi: 10.1080/13668250903103676

Honey, A., Kariuki, M., Emerson, E., & Llewellyn, G. (2014). Employment status transitions among young adults, with and without disability. Australian Journal of Social Issues (2), 151.

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

Joshi, G.S.; Bouck, E. & Maeda, Y. (2012) Exploring employment preparation and postschool outcomes for students with mild intellectual disability. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 35(2):97–107.

Lee, E. A. L., Black, M. H., Tan, T., Falkmer, T., & Girdler, S. (2019). “I’m Destined to Ace This”: Work Experience Placement During High School for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord, 49(8), 3089-3101. doi: 10.1007/s10803-019-04024-x

Luecking, D. M., & Luecking, R. G. (2006). A Descriptive Study of Customizing the Employment Process for Job Seekers with Significant Disabilities. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 37(4), 14-21.

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.

Molfenter, N.F, Hartman, E., Neugart, J. and Web, S. (2017) Let’s Get to Work Wisconsin: Launching youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the workforce, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 47: 379–390, DOI:10.3233/JVR-170910

Petcu, S. D., Chezan, L. C., & Van Horn, M. L. (2015). Employment Support Services for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Attending Postsecondary Education Programs. Journal of Postsecondary Education & Disability, 28(3), 359.

Scheef, A. R. (2019). What and Who Works: Strategies for Facilitating Work Experience Opportunities for Students Enrolled in Postsecondary Education Programs, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 16, 3: 223–231.

Scheef, A. R., Barrio, B. L., Poppen, M. I., McMahon, D., & Miller, D. (2018). Exploring Barriers for Facilitating Work Experience Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities Enrolled in Postsecondary Education Programs. Journal of Postsecondary Education & Disability, 31(3), 209.

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, Vol.52(1), pp.26-37.

Spagnolo, A.; Gill, K.; Roberts, M.; Lu, W.; Murphy, A.; Librera, L. & Dolce, J. (2017). Instruction Manual for Facilitating Circles of Support for People with Mental Illnesses in Supported Employment Settings, Temple Collaborative on Community Inclusion, New Jersey,

Test, D., Mazzotti, V., Mustian, A., Fowler, C., Kortering, L., & Kohler, P. (2009). Evidence-based secondary transition predictors for improving postschool outcomes for students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32, 160-181. doi:10.1177/0885728809346960

Wakeford, M., & Waugh, F. (2010). ‘Ticket to Work’ An employment and transition model for students with a disability

Wakeford, M. & Waugh, F. (2014). Transition to employment of Australian young people with disability and the ‘Ticket to Work’ initiative, National Ticket to Work Network,

Wehman, P., Taylor, J., Brooke, V., Avellone, L., Whittenburg, H., Ham, W., . . . Carr, S. (2018). Toward Competitive Employment for Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What Progress Have We Made and Where Do We Need to Go. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43(3), 131-144. doi: 10.1177/1540796918777730

Wehman, P., Schall, C., McDonough, J., Kregel, J., Brooke, V., Molinelli, A., & Thiss, W. (2014). Competitive employ-ment for youth with autism spectrum disorders: Early results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 487-500. doi:10.1007/s10803-013-1892-x

White, G., Kiegaldie, D.,Hunter, S. (2019). The integrated practical placement program: a program of social inclusion in the workplace for people with disability. Holmsglen and the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

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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