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9. Work-focused circles of support for people with intellectual disability

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Also known as Job Development Circles or Employment Circles of Support

What is a circle of support?

Circles of support are ‘small groups of individuals who agree to meet periodically with an individual with disabilities and help her/him secure that necessary for a decent quality of life’ (Brown & Kessler, 2014, p.91). Circles of support are guided by developing a vision of the desirable future around the focus person (Spagnolo et al., 2017). They can be comprised of family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers, people from community groups such as religious organisations, and sometimes staff from service providers (Spagnolo et al., 2017).

Circles of Support operate on principles of personal empowerment. These include: (1) involvement of invested and interested people, (2) focus on the individual’s preferences, talents and dreams, and (3) emphasis on personal strengths, not deficits (Spagnolo et al., 2017, p.3).

How are circles of support been used to support employment?

Circles of support have also been used to support people with intellectual disability, mental illness or significant disability to seek or maintain employment.

Job development circles have been used in the US as a way to generate work opportunities by drawing on the social capital of people around the person with intellectual disability (Brown & Kessler, 2014). The person with intellectual disability generates a list of people they know who work outside the home for money. This list is used as the basis for seeking support to make contacts into workplaces or for recruiting individuals to support certain tasks (such as supporting transport to work) to aid the jobseeker (Brown & Kessler, 2014).

In a different project in the US, circles of support have been used to support people with mental illness in supported employment settings (Spagnolo et al., 2017). This model is based on research that suggests that ‘natural’ supports (that is, people who are not in paid roles to support the person with a disability) are best placed to support a person with significant disability into employment and in the workplace. To support employment, a circle of support works with the person to determine their goals in relation to employment and utilizes the support network to assist the person achieve this goal (Spagnolo et al., 2017).

In the UK there are example of circles of support being used in the workplace to support workers with intellectual disability. One guide to this suggests that circles of support in the workplace can assist with:

  • Getting to know people
  • Learning new skills
  • Learning how to act
  • Getting advice or problem-solving
  • Keeping track of work tasks (Burke & Ball, n.d.).

In Australia, Employment circles of support (ECOS) have been used for people with intellectual disability or autism in one project in Victoria.

ECOS uses circles of support with the focus of assisting the person into paid employment. The person chooses the path they would like to take and their circle members. The circle meets regularly to discuss how they can assist the person to get a job, develop their skills and nurture their abilities (Bytschkow, 2016, p.5).

In this model, the Employment circle of support is comprised of:

  • the person with disability
  • family members, friends and ‘outside’ supports (such as a teacher or coach)
  • a mentor (that is ‘someone who makes a commitment to support the person to be job ready’ including spending unpaid time in the workplace to support the person with disability learn their role)
  • an employer (‘who offers long term work experience with an aim of offering a paid job’), and
  • a paid facilitator (Bytschkow, 2016, p.6).

The circle meets regularly (6-8 weekly) and discusses the employment goals of the individual and strategies to achieve these. The focus person (person with a disability) is encouraged to chair the meetings.

The aim is to find long term work placement in accordance with the individuals’ skills and interest, with employment as the outcome (Bytschkow, 2016, p.7).

Circle members undertake various activities including approaching employers to seek a long term work placement or job, introducing the person to the employer, mentoring the person in the workplace, assisting them to learn skills, supporting transport to the workplace, among other things (Bytschkow, 2016).

The ECOS project was run in 2016 and involved 5 participants aged 14-21 with most still being at school. Most attended a work placement one day per week. Following 12 months, two were offered ongoing employment and others continued with education options (Bytschkow, 2016). No independent evaluation is available.


Brown, L., & Kessler, K. (2014). Generating integrated work sites for individuals with significant intellectual disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 40(2), 85

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

Bytschkow, T. (2016). Assisting people with disabilities into work. A workbook and guide to creating your own employment circles of support, Disability Advocacy and Information Service, Wodonga,

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,

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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