Self-Directed Employment: A Handbook for Transition Teachers and Employment Specialists. J. Martin, D. Mithaug, J. Oliphant, J. Husch, and E. Frazier. Baltimore MD: Brookes, 2002.
We have seen some far-reaching advances in employment services in recent years. The authors of Self-Directed Employment build upon and extend those advances in an important way by explicitly defining a process by which individuals with significant disabilities are clearly in charge of making career choices and decisions.
The book is primarily designed as a workbook for practitioners. Most of the material is presented in two major sections, comprising chapters 3 to 9. Section One is divided into four topics: making (initial) choices; exploring choices (through job shadows and a novel process called “situational interviewing,” which represents a cross between job shadowing and traditional informational interviewing); testing choices (through job try-outs and internships); and final choices. Section Two is divided into job-matching, satisfaction appraisal, and solving on-the-job problems. Each topic consists of several objectives, with specific activities and assessment procedures embedded in each objective, leading to a consumer choice. Each activity is spelled out in detail. Sample worksheets are provided within the body of the text, and blank worksheets are provided as appendices. The book is spiral-bound for ease in photocopying the worksheets.
The authors' work is deeply rooted in the ideology of self-determination, described in the first two introductory chapters. The historical introduction and conceptual overview of the concept is illuminating but possibly a little dense for a practitioner workbook. I found the distinction in chapter 2 between what the question is and who asks the question to be a particularly useful way to shift thinking. One might ask, for example, “What job best matches this individual's characteristics?” But then one can also ask the question, “Who is it who needs to figure this out?” In this book the authors provide a method for assisting consumers to ask and answer questions for themselves.
The book is rich with insights and suggestions to guide the process of career development. The process is fully individualized. For example, it is inconceivable that individuals from the same employment service agency using this process would wind up working together as a group. Perhaps this goes without saying, but I mention it because too many people still appear to sincerely believe that group employment represents an expansion, rather than a restriction, of vocational options.
A major strength of the book is the authors' insistence that meaningful choices must be based on direct experience of a job, “seeing it, feeling it, smelling it, and hearing it” (p. 32), not merely on a one-shot exposure, but multiple exposures to job situations and multiple opportunities to process information and make choices that add up to a career decision. Thus, the method involves a connected series of experiences that build on one another and lead to stable paid employment. Staff members act as a guide through the process, sometimes making strong suggestions perhaps, but never usurping the individual's autonomy as the final decision-maker. To begin the process, the individual is even provided with two different versions of a form to collect information about initial preferences and asked to select which form he or she would prefer to complete.
“What if?” sections are provided for each objective, and I found these extremely useful. They give a range of options in situations where the standard process might not match a particular individual's circumstances. At one point or another readers are reminded that they should add items, skip items, draw pictures to clarify something, or to skip whole objectives, as needed. These “What if?” sections also provide down-to-earth tips regarding how to think about various circumstances that might be encountered and how to interact with the consumer as a guide and facilitator.
The process is based on the authors' substantial direct experience in assisting people with employment over an 11-year period of model development and refinement. Following the presentation of the approach, additional chapters relate a series of stories of individuals who have gone through the process (chapter 10), and summary statistics documenting the outcomes of the demonstration project upon which the approach is based (chapter 11). The stories are rich in detail and, along with the “What if” sections, show the vast range and flexibility that is possible using what might at first glance look like a rigid “recipe” approach. So the process should be useful for both staff who need or expect a great deal of structure and those looking for a process they can adapt in individualized and creative ways.
In self-determination, the “rubber meets the road” at the point where an individual chooses something that his or her service providers do not agree with. So I looked carefully for how the authors deal with this issue, and I was not disappointed. A good example of the recommended approach can be found on p. 116:
Do not modify an individual's plan, even if the plan does not seem like a reasonable way to achieve the goal. What may not seem to be a good plan to you may be a good plan for the individual, or at least a necessary step in his or her reasoning process.
I was a little disappointed because of the scant attention paid to job search methods. Readers are advised to “sell your unique employment program” (p. 167) and to consult the “many good books that explain how to do marketing” (p. 72). Much supported employment marketing literature is mired in staff-controlled and agency-centered practices. My experience has been that mapping these practices onto a self-directed approach must be done with extreme care. As one notorious example, some job developers “market” their program by promising to reduce an employer's turnover rate. Once this concept is “sold” to an employer, the employment support agency has an incentive to make sure an individual who is placed there stays on the job, and consumer choice can easily take a back seat. Because the authors recommend working with the consumers to develop resumes, and many of the stories clearly describe normative job search activities, what is implicitly being recommended appears to be, rather than traditional supported employment job development, a hybrid process involving some elements that look like a typical job search and some elements that look more like program marketing. This seems to call for a fuller explanation. One issue in particular—how to establish consumer control over the disclosure of disability—needs a full account of a self-directed job development process.
A second weakness, in my view, is the lack of information on how to appropriately involve members of an individual's personal support network in career planning and job development. In relation to career planning, for example, mainstream career theorists are largely abandoning the notion of the self-contained rational utility maximizer as the model for understanding the decision-making process, and now talk about career development as a socially constructed activity involving conversations with family (Young et al., 1997), consultative approaches to decisions (Phillips, 1997), and “collective social value” as a legitimate decision-making orientation (Brown, 2002, p. 50). To be sure, the authors direct staff members to suggest that consumers “talk to friends and relatives” (p. 42) in thinking about career preferences, but a lot more could be said about how to do this in a way that maximizes positive input while minimizing the potential for undue influence.
Finally, the process promises to serve as a vehicle not only for obtaining a job, but also for ongoing career advancement. This may turn out to be a somewhat exaggerated claim. If one examines the postemployment process carefully, once a job is secure, job change is driven only by the express dissatisfaction of the consumer in relation to his or her current job situation. There is no provision for the continuing exploration of new options to increase career satisfaction. A discrepancy-based process alone is unlikely to advance many consumers into the primary sector of the labor market. A demonstration program job-type profile for participants—including some who have been in the program for many years—that “reflects the . . . entry-level job market” (p. 268) seems to bear this out.
None of these weaknesses diminish the value of Self-Directed Employment as a major contribution to our understanding of how to incorporate consumer choice and self-determination more explicitly into the employment process. As the authors point out, advances in employment services have occurred in a series of phases, and this process is likely to continue. The core process described in the book can easily incorporate new elements. For example, it would be a straightforward matter to assist an employed and satisfied consumer to cycle back through the process of exploring and testing potential new choices. Anyone interested in employment services will find that this book provides a wealth of practical service strategies and represents a challenging new way of thinking to guide the future development of services.