Thinking Outside the Box: Competitive Employment for Women with Severe Disabilities

By Wendy Parent, Lawrence, KS

Women with disabilities are reported to have the highest unemployment rates when compared to women without disabilities or men with or without dis­abilities (Doren & Benz, 2001). Unfortu­nately, women with disabilities who are working also tend to experience poorer employment outcomes. They tend to be over-represented in lower-wage occupa­tions and under-represented in higher skill jobs, managerial and professional positions, and non-traditional occupa­tions (O’Day & Foley, 2008; Rousso & Wehmeyer, 2001). For those women who have a severe disability the outcomes are even more staggering, with fewer than one-quarter actually participating in the labor force Oans & Stoddard, 1999; Smith, 2007).

It is encouraging to note that today women are working in larger numbers than ever before and those figures are projected to increase substantially by 2014 (U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, 2008). Of particular significance is the representation of women with severe disabilities who are participating in the competitive labor market as a result of the supported and customized employment services they are receiving (Parent, 2004). The creative, nontraditional employment situations developed using these approaches illus­trate some of the possibilities that can be achieved.

Supported and Customized Employment Opportunities

Supported employment is characterized by competitive employment in community businesses with individualized assistance by a skilled job coach who helps a person find a job and learn how to do the job, and provides follow-along support to keep their job (Wehman, Inge, Revell & Brooke, 2007). Examples of types of job supports include natural supports, assistive technology, job modifications, job carving, rehabilitation engineering, compensatory strategies, and behavioral training techniques. Customized place­ment strategies involve negotiating a rela­tionship between an individual and em­ployer that meets the needs of both and results in individually designed services, supports, and jobs (Callahan & Rogan, 2004; Button, 2007). The following are descriptions of some types of supported and customized employment, and ex­amples of how they’re expanding options for women with severe disabilities:

  • Created Jobs. Establish a new job or job duties that did not previously exist as a position within a business. For ex­ample, Sally’s position was created in the medical records department of a hospital to address the backlog of patient records by having her orga­nize medical documents in sequential order for filing in patients’ folders by medical records staff.
  • Carved Jobs. Redistribute job duties from one position to another, tailor­ing them to the job seeker’s unique skills and abilities. For example, Mary’s job coach carved a job at a veterinarian’s office where she works as an assistant with responsibility for feeding and walking the animals, freeing up coworkers to take care of customers and medical needs.
  • Resource Ownership. Purchase equip­ment, machinery, or other items that an individual owns and brings to the workplace as part of their employ­ment, offering an additional resource to the employer. For example, Cindy purchased a computer and educa­tional software with help from her re­habilitation counselor and was hired as a day care assistant, a job where she used the equipment to instruct and entertain the young children.
  • Business Within a Business. Develop a self-employment venture within an existing business setting. For ex­ample, Cathie brought magazine racks, magazines, and books to a coffee shop where she sells them to coffee shop patrons. She receives assistance from coworkers and the owner, who ring up her sales for a small administration fee.
  • Self-Employment. Become a small business owner and operator. For example, Judy has become an entre­preneur by making and selling her artwork, t-shirts, stationary, and miscellaneous items to local busi­nesses, art fairs, conferences, and through the Internet. She does this with support from school, adult services, and family.

One of the major factors that women with severe disabilities frequently iden­tify as contributing to these positive employment outcomes is the presence of an influential person or role model in their lives such as a mother, teacher, friend, advocate, or service provider (Parent, 2007; Rousso, 2008). For those of us who might find ourselves in that role, it is important to identify the things that we can do that have been found to make a difference. Following are some suggestions:

  • Explore our own attitudes to insure we do not have gender-biased beliefs that influence our actions and the mes­sages we send.
  • Have high expectations that encour­age women with severe disabilities to set high goals and strive to accomplish them.
  • Avoid gender stereotyping of what women and men can and cannot do that may limit possibilities.
  • Promote techniques that enhance self-esteem and self-determination to better prepare women with disabili­ties to speak up for themselves.
  • Become aware of creative employ­ment strategies as described above and introduce these options to women with severe disabilities and those who support them.
  • Provide opportunities for women with disabilities to gain experience and skills that enhance their employment outcomes. Encourage postsecondary education and/or training through technical colleges or apprenticeships.
  • Facilitate linkages with other female role models, mentors, and peers who have similar experiences.
  • Arrange essential disability and generic employment services, supports, and accommodations.


As stated by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, “Women have come a long way in our society, and the future holds even greater promise” (Chao, 2008). The Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau has established the increasing of women’s employment opportunities as the number one goal of their 2007-2015 strategic plan (U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, 2007). It is imperative that women with severe disabilities are included in these efforts. Supported and customized employment strategies can contribute significantly to these desired outcomes, enabling more women with severe disabilities to become employed and experience the economic, personal and social benefits that competitive work provides.


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Editor’s note: Wendy Parent is Research Associate Professor and Assistant Director, Lawrence Site, at the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities, Lawrence. She may be reached at 785-864-1062 or Reprinted with permission from Impact: Feature Issue on Employment and Women with Disabilities (Summer/Fall 2008) published by the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. The entire issue is available online at: or by calling (612) 624-4512.