Abstract

Studies of the general population indicate that social networks influence a person's employment situation and career, especially in regard to how a person finds and gets a good job. Recent studies suggest that networks may function in similar ways for people with certain disabilities. In order to learn about the role that social networks played in career development, in this study I explored the social networks of 5 young working people with intellectual disabilities.

Disability status appears to contribute uniquely to employment outcomes, beyond the influence of other personal characteristics and abilities. In particular, severity of intellectual disability or co-existence of multiple disabilities is associated with significant negative impact (Heal & Rusch, 1995; Wagner et al., 1991). Yet, some studies suggest that the quality and extent of an individual's social networks may supercede or mediate the impact of identified disability status and prior experience (Devlieger & Trach, 1999; Gerber, Ginsberg, & Reiff, 1992; Heal, Khoju, Rusch, & Harnisch, 1999). Formal service-oriented networks provided by interagency agreements, collaborative planning, and joint funding for training and support services have been shown to have a positive relationship to employment of youth with disabilities (Aspel, Bettis, Test, & Wood, 1998; Hasazi, Furney, & DeStefano, 1999). Likewise, using informal self–family–friend networks may improve the probability of finding employment for some young people (Doren & Benz, 1998; Hagner, Butterworth, & Keith, 1995).

Research with youth who have disabilities generally indicates that social network intimates, such as family members and friends (called “strong ties” within the social network literature), influence an individual's career interests and aspirations by informally modeling and sharing information about their own occupations and their expectations for the individual (Benz, Doren, & Yovanoff, 1998; Fulton & Sabornie, 1994; Morningstar, 1997). Studies within the general population (Granovetter, 1995) and with groups representing a range of disabilities (Devlieger & Trach, 1999; Doren & Benz, 1998; Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Morningstar, 1997) further suggest that family members and friends can use their own networks to help an individual who is young or who has few work experiences make connections to other people. They also can provide emotional and instrumental supports that help an individual succeed in a workplace (Gerber, Ginsburg, & Reiff, 1992; Rogan, Hagner, & Murphy, 1993; Stoloff, Glanville, & Bienenstock, 1999; Unger, Parent, Gibson, Kane-Johnston, & Kregel, 1998).

However, researchers who work with individuals in the general population and with those who use augmentative communicative devices have noted that it can be a disadvantage to rely on family and friends when trying to find new career opportunities, because they tend to share the same information and resources (Carey, Potts, Bryen, & Shankar, 2004; Granovetter, 1995; Stoloff, Glanville, & Bienenstock, 1999). On the other hand, having many “weak ties” (such as acquaintances) in one's social network is an advantage because they can help an individual get access to a variety of job opportunities not otherwise known by those closest to an individual (Carey et al., 2004; Granovetter, 1995; Potts, Carey, Bryen, & Cohen, 2004). Weak occupational ties (even past ones) more often lead individuals to find jobs than do strong ties, common social acquaintances, or job agencies (Carey et al., 2004; Lin & Dumin, 1986). Further, an individual in a lower status position is more likely to improve his or her occupational position by using weak ties rather than strong ones (Lin & Dumin, 1986). The adage that “the rich get richer” seems to apply to social networks and careers. An individual who participates in a variety of social and work settings over time is more likely to have a larger and more diverse network of acquaintances, who each have access to other social networks whose members possess knowledge about and access to other careers (Butterworth, Hagner, Helm, & Whelley, 2000; Carey et al., 2004; Granovetter, 1995).

Individuals with disabilities tend to have smaller and less diverse social networks (Devlieger & Trach, 1999; Knox & Parmenter, 1993; Potts et al., 2004; Rosen & Burchard, 1990), and, thus, they may be disadvantaged in their career development. Also, people who are unemployed or have less prestigious jobs—as is often the case for youth with disabilities—are less likely to have people in their social networks who can help them access better jobs (Lin & Dumin, 1986). Further, if people have limited information about or low expectations for an individual, they are less likely to use their own networks to help that person (Carey et al., 2004; Granovetter, 1995).

My purpose in this exploratory case study was to further extend the research base on how social networks function to influence careers by examining the experiences of young adults with intellectual disabilities, a population that has been studied less often in this regard. A secondary purpose was to consider, in light of prior research, how informal and formal elements of social networks might be used advantageously by these youth to further all aspects of their career development.

Method

Focus Persons

Through professional contacts with local schools and businesses, I identified 5 individuals with varying degrees of intellectual disability who agreed to be the focus persons for the study. Using the resulting convenience sample, I purposively targeted individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 who had an employment goal or were employed so that it would be possible to explore whether and how social networks influenced early career experiences. The 3 oldest—Vanessa, (a 26-year-old Hispanic female); Mark (a 25-year-old White male), and Scott (a 24-year-old Black male) were employed full time by a large financial institution with a longstanding commitment to hiring and supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities in the workplace. The other 2—Lana (a 20-year-old Black female) and Robert (an 18-year-old White male), who left public school in 2005 and 2007, respectively, were students in a community-based, non-diploma-granting transition program for individuals ages 18–21 with moderate to severe disabilities. They participated in parttime work experience with support from public school staff. Scott was a 2002 graduate of the same community-based program. Vanessa received a certificate of attendance in 2000 for her participation in general academic and vocational classes at a comprehensive high school. Mark received a diploma from a vocational-technical high school in 1999. All 5 resided with their families and spoke English as their primary language, although Spanish was the primary language for Vanessa's parents.

Data Sources

I observed each person in their work settings at least once (total of 9 observations) to become familiar with their work situations and develop some initial rapport. I then individually interviewed them about their social activities and networks and how their network members influenced their career situations. I also asked them to nominate up to 5 network members who could tell me more about their social networks and career influences. I completed 3 network member interviews per focus person except in one case where only 2 could be completed (a total of 14 network member interviews). One attempted interview was declined. I did not attempt interviews with 4 other nominated individuals because further conversations with the focus persons and their family members led me to conclude that those nominees were unlikely to have additional information due to their extremely limited contact with or actual knowledge of the focus person (see Table 1).

Table 1

Network Members Nominated for Interviews

Network Members Nominated for Interviews
Network Members Nominated for Interviews

Focus person interviews

I created semi-structured interview formats based on interview questions and techniques used by other researchers to elicit social network information about people with disabilities (Butterworth et al., 1993; Carey et al., 2004; Hagner et al., 1995). In the first part of the focus person interviews, I asked them to list their regular activities in four domains (home; community: work; and school, if applicable). I then asked them to list individuals with whom they typically interacted in each domain and to provide additional information about activities with each person (e.g., sample interactions, frequency, history, reciprocity, career-talk involved). I also asked the focus person to identify which of their network members they thought could tell me the most about them, other people that were important to them but not mentioned, and which individuals I should and should not interview. In the second part of the interview, I asked the focus individuals to briefly describe their current and previous work experiences and the names of people who helped them get the jobs, those with whom they talked about their jobs, and whether they had talked with anyone about leaving or changing jobs. I also asked them to list any jobs they might like to have and identify people who might be able to help them learn about, get, and do those jobs. Next, I asked a series of open-ended hypothetical questions about different aspects of career development (e.g., If you wanted to learn more about other jobs, what would you do? If you wanted to get promoted at your job, what would you do? If you wanted to change something at your job, what would you do?).

Network member interviews

During the first part of the network member interviews, I asked members to list the names and relationships of people whom they thought were most important to the focus person. Next, I asked them to describe activities that they themselves often did with the focus person in home, community, work, or school settings and to list other activities and people with whom the focus person typically engaged. During the second part of the interview, I asked network members about their current and previous jobs and to list jobs they thought the focus person might like to have, which I added to the list of potential jobs identified by the focus person in his or her own interview. For each potential job listed, I asked the network members whether they knew anyone who had that job or employed/supervised people in that job and their relationship to anyone so identified. Finally, I presented the network members with a list of career tasks (e.g., knowing about various types of work, identifying job likes/dislikes, getting a job, keeping a job) and asked them about how they or others had or could be involved in each of these tasks with the focus person for each of the previously identified jobs.

Analyses

To analyze the interviews, I used descriptive techniques recommended for relational network data (e.g., Miles & Huberman, 1994; Scott, 1991). Specifically, I analyzed individual's social networks by creating within-case tables, narratives, and graphs that described each focus person's social activities, network membership, and the influences of network members on careers. In order to receive feedback on accuracy and completeness. I shared these products in person orally and in written form with each focus person and with 12 of 14 network members. (Two network members were unavailable.) Then, I developed cross-case tables to contrast activity, relationship, and career patterns among the participants. To display examples of these activities as they related to commonly identified career development tasks, I used a simple framework—income—that was based on a review of career development literature (Beveridge, Craddock, Liesener, Stapleton, & Hershenson, 2002). I also reviewed each case in light of previous research on the influence of social networks on careers of people with and without disabilities. Finally, I selected 2 individuals who had provided contrasts of small and large networks and who also illustrated career development at early and later stages within the given age range.

Findings

Summary Points: Social Activities and Career Influences

Table 2 presents the number of social network members by roles as identified by the focus persons and the interviewed network members. Social networks mostly included family and others related to the focus person's primary status as student or worker. That is, students' friends and acquaintances were mostly associated with school. Employees' friends and acquaintances were mostly associated with work. Participants had few acquaintances apart from their current roles as students or workers. Only one student and one employee had friends outside of school or work. Further, analyses of interaction patterns (type, frequency, participants) across focus persons showed that their social and community activities were mostly family-focused or involved family members. The women had less variety of social and community activities.

Table 2

Number of Social Network Members Identified Within Roles

Number of Social Network Members Identified Within Roles
Number of Social Network Members Identified Within Roles

Examples of how informal and formal network members influenced the focus persons' careers are highlighted in Table 3. Family members played a supportive role in many aspects of participants' career situations. Work acquaintances, primarily those in supervisory roles, had a strong influence on the career situations of employed participants as did school staff. Friends and nonwork-related acquaintances had little reported influence on participants' career situations. Most of the interviewed network members had not considered how their own career connections might provide access to career opportunities or resources for the focus persons. The exceptions were the managers who worked at the financial institution, which had a company-wide culture and program for systematically promoting career development. The types of careers represented in the focus persons' networks are shown in Table 4.

Table 3

Examples of Informal and Formal Career Influences

Examples of Informal and Formal Career Influences
Examples of Informal and Formal Career Influences
Table 4

Jobs Held by Network Members

Jobs Held by Network Members
Jobs Held by Network Members

Vanessa: Small Network/Employer-Supported Career Development

Vanessa belonged to a close-knit family. She lived with her father, mother, and 10-year-old niece, who was like a sister to her. She helped out when needed around the house and often helped her niece with homework. Vanessa was also close to her older sister and her sister's children, whom she visited regularly. She had an older brother but did not see him often. Vanessa and her boyfriend often went out for dinner or to see a movie. Vanessa's father drove her to a bus stop every day, where she caught the company shuttle to work, and he met her again in the evening after work.

Vanessa attended a large high school, where she received special education services to complete requirements for a certificate. She had work experience and classes in child care while still in school. The school connected her to an adult service employment agency, which found her current job as a support services representative in a large financial services company.

Vanessa handled the more complicated tasks of document processing, which included scanning, batching, recording data, and completing quality checks. She was focused and detail-oriented and was frequently called upon by team members to help them solve work-related problems. When she noticed a mistake made by a coworker, she offered gentle correction. She engaged in occasional good-natured banter with coworkers and participated in company-sponsored volunteer activities, such as a Thanksgiving food drive.

She said that her sister had encouraged her to do something besides child care work, and she liked her current job. She reported that her family wanted her to stay with the company and continue her career, which is what she wanted to do. She wanted to learn how to handle the department phone system and obtain additional computer skills. She knew that she could approach her managers for information about job and training opportunities. She was worried about her reading ability, but eager to learn. Her family and managers agreed that she should stay with her current employer because she liked the work, was good at it, and they could prepare her to advance in her career. Her managers believed that Vanessa saw herself in a career as opposed to just a job because she took on more responsibilities when given the opportunity. They noted that she had made great gains in her skills and have encouraged her to take in-house development classes so she will have a “leg up” when interviewing for other positions in the company. They noted that her difficulties with reading and self-confidence were Vanessa's primary hurdles. They said that she had a great deal of patience and knew how to speak to other people on the team in a professional manner. They considered her a “top performer” and a “right hand” assistant.

Robert: Extended Social Network/Emerging Opportunities

Robert lived with his parents. His two older sisters resided in the area, and he liked to visit with his infant niece. He occasionally helped his mother with cooking and his dad with handyman work. He also liked heavy metal music, riding his bike, and hanging out with his friends in the neighborhood. Sometimes he talked with his friends about work, but not often. Along with one of his closest friends, Robert participated in Boy Scouts and Special Olympics. In the year this interview was conducted, he traveled out of the country for a Special Olympics competition. He joined the local YMCA where he liked to use the weight equipment. He and his father attended a quarterly “Guys Night Out” with other father–son pairs at a popular local restaurant with an arcade.

This was Robert's first year in the community-based school program. He enjoyed talking to other students, even one girl who could not verbalize. He knew that he made her happy by talking to her. Sometimes he told her about what he did at work. Part of his school day was often spent at an apartment near the university where he was learning meal preparation and housekeeping. He also spent time on the campus and in the local community. He was learning money management, shopping, interview skills, how to get around the community, and how to become involved in recreational activities. Although Robert usually brought his lunch, he occasionally liked to go to one of the pizza shops.

Twice a week, Robert took the public bus to a small parochial middle school with a paraeducator and a fellow student. There, he and his schoolmate learned various janitorial tasks, such as vacuuming classrooms and cleaning the locker room. Robert did not particularly like this kind of work, but he did like the people at the school. Robert did not hesitate to approach the school secretary or principal with a work-related question or to say “hi” in passing. The students at the school often said “hello” and occasionally “thank you for cleaning.” Robert thought the cleaning work was “boring” and “yucky.” His parents and Ted told him to hang in there until the placement ended in a few weeks. He knew that one of his teachers was looking for another kind of work experience for him.

Previously during high school, Robert had some unpaid work experiences in retail settings, and one of his teachers said he would be good in a customer service position. One of the paraeducators and his parents told Robert that they thought it was important for him to start finding nice work clothes (such as khaki pants with a shirt and tie) that were different from the baggy black jeans, muscle-shirts, and hooded attire that he liked to wear to school and when “hanging out.” Robert thought that his mom was looking for a job for him at a grocery store. His mom and the paraeducator had mentioned that he could work at the same financial institution as others in this study, perhaps in the graphics department. Robert talked with the paraeducator about working at a dining hall on campus, but he told Robert that this job would involve a lot of cleaning tasks. Robert said that he would like to work in a car body shop and told his family, friends, and teachers that this is what he was most interested in doing. He believed that his cousin's friend might be able to help him get a job working with cars someday. His mom believed that he could probably be helpful around a car or bicycle repair shop.

Discussion

In light of prior research on how social networks influence careers of individuals in the general population, I examined 5 individuals (who had a wide range of intellectual abilities, high incidence disabilities, or used augmentative communication) and reported on potential career advantages and disadvantages suggested by their experiences. The social networks of the focus persons in this study provided an advantage in the form of access to family members who supported them in their roles as workers. Also, some family members had extensive career ties available to them, although they did not actively use their own networks to promote the focus person's career development. Likewise, 2 of the focus persons had a wider set of friends and acquaintances, which could be tapped, although in most instances they had not been considered as potential career resources. Not surprisingly, school and adult agency personnel within the participants' formal service network served as important career resources for the focus persons.

The three older focus persons had an advantage not previously identified in the social network research on youth with disabilities, namely, an employer who systematically supported career development for all employees. The employer enhanced the potential of the focus persons' social networks by encouraging a team approach at the work site; regularly communicating about performance among employees, supervisors, and managers; and providing opportunities for skill development and access to new work experiences. These activities created connections with acquaintances at multiple levels in the employment hierarchy and provided those network members with knowledge of the focus persons' abilities and interests.

The most evident disadvantage experienced by the focus persons was that family members and family activities dominated participants' social networks, and they had few community acquaintances. Especially significant is that the focus persons had few work experiences (and, therefore, few work acquaintances beyond those in their current setting) who knew them. Thus, they had extremely limited access to the types of “weak ties” that most often lead to career opportunities for individuals in the general population.

Limitations

When discussing the implications of this study, it is important to consider that the sample of 5 individuals was selected through a combination of convenience and purposive sampling for exploratory purposes. The fact that the 3 oldest focus persons all worked for the same employer, who had a strong commitment to career development, may make their experiences somewhat atypical. Further, all of the participants were relatively young. Additional issues and insights would most likely be revealed through a longitudinal examination of the qualities of individuals' networks and careers.

Implications

Conversations among researchers about the role of natural or typical supports in the workplace (e.g., Test & Wood, 1996, and related commentaries) have helped to illuminate the importance of social relationships for employment and overall quality of life. Others concerned about the employment of individuals with intellectual disabilities have specifically recommended expanding and cultivating social networks (cf. Hagner, McGahie, & Cloutier, 2001; Hoff, Gandolfo, Gold, & Jordan, 2000; Sowers, McAllister, & Cotton, 1996). Based on the experiences of the focus persons in this study, I have a similar recommendation. However, research has not yet been conducted to examine this phenomenon in any detail with this population. Given that many youth with disabilities have limited work experiences, it would be useful to determine whether expanding the number of volunteer, work, and other community experiences leads to more acquaintances in the individual's network. Researchers should especially consider the mechanisms through which acquaintances acquire such knowledge of the individual that make them willing to actively promote the person within their own networks. Also, perhaps as was evident in this study, individuals already have within their more extended network of family and friends many career development opportunities, which could be tapped if they knew and actually used strategies for doing so.

There are several strategies for capitalizing on social networks that are recommended as best practice and can be readily implemented by professionals, families, and young adults themselves. Callahan and Garner (1997) recommended creating a vocational profile as an early step in planning for employment. The focus person's profile should list family members, neighbors, friends, and social groups to which the person belongs and employers with whom each person on the list is connected. Further, the profile should include a list of businesses near the focus person's home and those readily accessible through the person's means of transportation. These lists represent an initial network of career opportunities to be systematically explored. By joining additional social groups and leisure activities, young people with disabilities can increase their social skills and confidence as well as extend their network of acquaintances who can become allies in the search for career opportunities that are a good match for the focus person (Hagner et al., 2001; Hoff et al., 2000). Each new acquaintance can provide direct and indirect leads to employers, and, as indicated in prior research among the general population, acquaintances who view an individual in a positive light are an especially potent resource for career connections and support.

Socioecological frameworks suggest that individuals' career opportunities and decisions are influenced by choices that they perceive within their society or culture, events that affirm or transform their career identities, and their engagement with others who may, or may not, have power and resources to assist them (Hodkinson & Sparkes, 1997; Szymanski, 1998). Future researchers should more fully examine over time the functions of career-related social networks of individuals with intellectual disabilities and specific strategies for employing social networks to their advantage across career development tasks. From a practical perspective, having a better understanding of informal social networks can lead to increased awareness and empowerment of young people and families regarding their influence on employment, thereby placing greater control of the career development process into their hands (Morningstar, 1997; Szymanski, 1994).

Table 3

Continued

Continued
Continued

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Author notes

Author:

Laura T. Eisenman, PhD (eisenman@udel.edu), Associate Professor, University of Delaware, School of Education, WHL 213, Newark, DE 19716