A Report on Competitive Employment Histories of Persons Labeled Severely Mentally Retarded

copyright 1987 by The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps JASH 1987, Vol. 12, No. 1, 11-17 A Report on Competitive Employment Histories of...
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copyright 1987 by The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps

JASH 1987, Vol. 12, No. 1, 11-17

A Report on Competitive Employment Histories of Persons Labeled Severely Mentally Retarded Paul Wehman Virginia Commonwealth University Janet W. Hill Virginia Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Wendy Wood and Wendy Parent Virginia Commonwealth University The purpose of this article is to describe the competi­ tive employment experiences of 21 persons labeled se­ verely mentally retarded. Over an 8-year period from 1978 to 1986, 21 persons with measured intelligence levels under 40 were competitively employed with on­ going or intermittent job site support. A cumulative total of over $230,000 of unsubsidized wages was earned. Significant vocational problems included slow work rate and lack of appropriate social skills. The majority of the persons worked in part-time, entry-level service posi­ tions. The major suggestions for improving the quality of vocational interventions included (a) more creative and comprehensive job development and (b) more pow­ erful systematic instructional techniques. It was con­ cluded that, while this report extends the concerns of competitive employment literature to persons with more severe intellectual handicaps, much more innovative work needs to be performed with individuals who exhibit profound disabilities.

sons who are challenged with moderate, severe, and profound mental retardation. Specifically, there have been numerous studies and articles which describe suc­ cessful efforts to establish sheltered enclaves in industry (Mank, Rhodes, & Bellamy, 1986; Rhodes & Valenta, 1985), mobile work crews (Borbeau, 1985), schoolbased employment activities (e.g., Bates & Pancsofar, 1983; Brown et al., 1984), and supported competitive employment (Rusch, 1986; Rusch & Mithaug, 1980; Vogelsberg, 1985; Wehman, 1986; Wehman & Hill, 1985; Wehman et al., 1985). This work builds upon earlier work done by leaders in the field such as Bellamy (e.g., Bellamy, Horner, & Inman, 1979) and Gold (1972), whose research focused primarily upon devel­ oping work competencies in difficult benchwork man­ ual assembly. Consistent with these advances in research there have been changes in federal priorities and policy in employ­ ment. The Administration on Developmental Disabil­ ities (Elder, 1984) has spearheaded a major initiative regarding employment for persons with disabilities. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, U.S. Department of Education has published key policy reports (Will, 1984) on supported employment as well as sponsored major symposia on costs and benefits associated with employment of persons who are dis­ abled (e.g., February 24, 1986). Within the past 2 years, this office in conjunction with the Administration on Developmental Disabilities has funded 27 states for 5year periods to convert day program services to sup­ ported employment outcomes. These projects represent a major initiative to make systemic changes in adult service options for people labeled severely retarded. In addition to these efforts, the Social Security Adminis­ tration has also funded numerous transitional employ­ ment demonstration projects for persons with mental retardation.

Within the past several years there has been an inten­ sified interest in improving work opportunities for perThe present article was developed and disseminated through partial support of Grant G008301124 from the National Insti­ tute of Handicapped Research and Grant G008430106 from Special Education Programs, Secondary and Transition Serv­ ices. We are deeply indebted to P. David Banks for his efforts at assembling the data in the tables in this report. We are also grateful to the numerous job coaches who willingly collected the data from which this article could be developed. The work and support of Jill White, Carmen Mendez, Connie Britt, Walt Chernish, Jody Sands, JoAnn Marchant, Shelia Miller, Lance Elwood, and Connie Ford, all local service providers, is greatly appreciated. Finally, we are grateful to Sherril Moon, Mike Barcus, John Kregel, and Mike Shafer for their help. Requests for reprints should be sent to Paul Wehman, PhD, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Virginia Com­ monwealth University, 1314 West Main Street, Richmond, VA 23284.

While it is clear that during the last 3 years there has 11


Wehman, Hill, Wood, and Parent

been a powerful movement toward expanding inte­ grated employment opportunities for people labeled severely handicapped, it is equally clear that relatively little published literature has appeared to document the competitive employment success of people who would be diagnosed as severely retarded. Competitive employ­ ment is defined as work for at least minimum wage in work environments where there are predominantly nonhandicapped workers (Rusch, 1986; Wehman, 1981). Level of cognitive intelligence is, of course, not the only indicator of severely handicapping conditions. Nevertheless, an IQ below 40 generally communicates a need for significant vocational intervention. This is especially true when considered in relation to an indi­ vidual's concomitant behavioral and physical charac­ teristics. In the Rhodes and Valenta (1985) study of a model demonstration of an industry-based enclave, five of eight workers had measured intelligence of over 40. In our work in Virginia only 8% of the entire study pop­ ulation has been reported to have IQs under 40 (Hill, Banks, Hill, & Wehman, in press; Wehman et al., 1985). Most of the persons had IQs in the 40 to 55 range. Brown and his colleagues (1984) report nonpaid and paid integrated work opportunities for individuals with severe handicaps. However, with the notable exception of the excellent benchwork models described by Bel­ lamy and his associates (Bellamy et al., 1979; O'Bryan, 1986), which have focused on the most challenged populations, relatively few reports exist which detail the progress and problems of persons who have IQs in the range of severe mental retardation who are actually working or have worked in competitive employment, enclaves, or work crews. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide an indepth look at the work histories of individuals labeled as severely mentally retarded whom we have helped gain competitive employment over the past 8 years. Specifically, we wish to report on a population with measured intelligence below 40 in terms of their de­ mographic characteristics, nature of employment, fi­ nancial data, and supervisor evaluation data. It is the intent of this report to see how these results might have implications for similar vocational interventions with other populations such as those labeled deaf-blind, au­ tistic, and multiply handicapped.

Method The data presented in this article were collected by professional service staff who work as industry-based employment specialists. Each of the five employment specialists either have bachelor's or master's degrees in special education, psychology, rehabilitation, or social work. The data reported in this paper were accumulated throughout the period from 1978 to 1986. The staff were trained by the authors in data collection and in

how to check the accuracy of their data. This competi­ tive employment program is based at a major university in the southeastern United States and focuses exclu­ sively on supported competitive employment (e.g., Rusch, 1986; Wehman, 1985; Wehman & Kregel, 1985). Briefly, this approach emphasizes vocational inter­ vention directly at the job site after the person is hired. It requires the use of a skilled human services profes­ sional who can provide specialized placement and train­ ing support. The major components of this approach include job placement, job site training, ongoing assess­ ment, and permanent follow-along through the clients' life of employment. Major features which are different from traditional job placement practices include the placement of individuals who are not "job ready" as well as the presence of a permanent on-site employment specialist or job coach to provide training and advocacy support. A curriculum which describes this model in more depth can be found in Moon, Goodall, Barcus, and Brooke (1985). All data collected have been drawn only from place­ ments of clients for which we had full responsibility. Clients were referred to us from schools, day programs, parents, and rehabilitation counselors. They were drawn from three different geographical locations in the state. A screening committee made up of program staff at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center considered each of the many referrals received. Referrals were made from parents, teachers, rehabil­ itation counselors, and adult activity centers. Client selection for placement was based on a variety of factors such as parental support and requests, travel needs of clients, research needs of our program, and job availa­ bility. There was less interest or concern about the entering skill level of the person since the supported employment approach was used to overcome whatever client deficits were present. All client data were stored in a Franklin ACE 1000 computer along with data from many clients with a measured intelligence of over 40. These data are contin­ ually updated by a computer programmer and a data entry specialist. To summarize, clients were referred for services into competitive employment. Those whom we could work with had continued levels and amounts of data col­ lected. It is these data which are profiled in this report.

Results Demographics The data on 21 persons are described in Table 1. These data represent all of the people who were placed with IQs under 40. They are not a selective sample. The persons ranged in age from 18 to 63 and obtained measured IQ scores ranging from 24 to 39. The average age of this group was 27, and the average measured


Competitive Employment Histories

Table 1 Demographic Profile of Individual Workers Labeled Severely and Profoundly Retarded Name Lucy Frank Frank Ali Chris Carl Heather Ted Mickey Mickey Mickey Margie Margie Margie Andy Andy Andy Les Andrew Mac Rita Jane Felix Taylor Wendell Bubba Horace Arnold







34 35 31 55 64 37

25 31 27 34 36 38

— 38

— 31

— 24

— 33

— —

— —

23 23 27 23 22 19 21 26 37 22 21

36 39 37 35 27 39 24 29 37 38 32

Company name Howard Johnson's Restau­ rant Chi Chi's Restaurant Morrison's Cafeteria Community Alternative Inc. Truckstops of America University of Richmond General Medical Medical College of Virginia ARA Services ARC Camp Baker ARA Services Little Creek Officer Club Atlantic Cleaners Colonial Cleaners Clark's Restaurant Cimmaron Rose Harry's Lounge Pancakes-N-Pickles J. C. Penny Company St. Benedictine HS Bradlee's #570 Rustler's Steak House Miller and Rhodes Western Sizzlin/Chester Community Alternative Inc. Grace Lutheran Church Western Sizzlin Restaurant Plata Grande Restaurant

intelligence was 31. Four were functionally nonverbal or had severely impaired speech; the others had very limited sentence expression. All were ambulatory. None had independent travel skills prior to placement. Only two had attended an integrated school, while six had never received any special education. The remaining 13 went to special schools for special education programs. As can be seen from Table 1, a number of persons were replaced into second and third jobs as it became nec­ essary. Nature of Work Virtually all individuals worked in entry-level service positions in profit and nonprofit companies (see Table 2). The ratio of handicapped to nonhandicapped per­ sons was usually at least 1:10. Positive work behavior was seen as a major work asset for a number of the individuals even though most had no previous employ­ ment. Slow work speed, poor endurance, and unac­ ceptable work quality were major problems. Not all clients have specific obstacles or assets indicated for them in the table because the evaluating employment specialists did not observe any distinguishing character­ istics in this area. The major source of reason for job separation was a form filled out by the employment specialist at the end of any job change made by clients. Financial Benefits and Costs Table 3 shows hours worked, wages accumulated, and so forth. It is notable that none of the persons had

Start date

End date

Months worked






10/24/84 09/16/85 07/27/83 05/04/85 10/23/85 03/02/81 02/16/79 10/27/80 06/08/81 08/23/81 04/20/81 07/07/82 11/28/83 02/13/83 05/29/84 08/06/84 03/09/85 01/29/85 03/09/81 09/17/85 11/04/85 12/02/85 10/02/85 01/09/84 03/30/83 02/19/86 01/19/86

09/09/85 12/18/85 01/02/85 02/12/85 Current 11/01/81 Current 06/03/81 07/20/81 Current 06/25/82 08/05/83 Current 02/27/83 06/29/84 02/22/85 08/13/85 Current 02/20/84 Current 02/28/86 02/28/86 Current Current Current 02/28/86 Current

10.51 3.06 17.25 9.33 94.98 8.02 91.17 7.20 1.38 60.98 14.16 12.94 33.81 0.46 1.02 6.57 5.16 19.75 35.42 12.16 3.81 2.89 11.66 32.43 41.79 0.30 8.08

Client residence

Group home Superv. apartment Parent Group home Adult home Parent Group house Parent

Parent Parent Parent Supv. apartment Parent Parent Parent Parent Parent Parent Parent

ever worked before and had no previous earnings. Most lived at home and went to school or participated in adult activity centers. Those who are reported with work levels of less than 20 hours of work per week did so in order to stay in school for longer periods of time. The cumulative earnings of this group were over $231,000 in unsubsidized wages. The average job coach hours are also reported on a monthly basis in Table 3. This figure was taken over the life of the individual's employment and reported in order to give a sense of the per place­ ment and maintenance cost involved. A rate of $20 per hour was established for our employment specialists' services by the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services. Hence, one can multiply the total intervention hours of 5,232 by the $20 per hour rate and obtain an estimate of costs for all clients. Supervisor Evaluations Regular supervisor evaluations were also collected in order to determine the individual client's performance according to the company. A copy of the evaluation form can be found in Wehman (1981) and Moon et al. (1986). A number 5 indicated excellent performance with no room for improvement, with a number 1 indicating poor, and a 3 adequate. As Table 4 illustrates, most of the individuals in this report were rated as adequate or better after a month or so of work. Inter-


Wehman, Hill, Wood, and Parent

Table 2 Nature of Job


Type of job held

Ratio of handicapped to nonhandicapped work­ ers in inte­ grated job setting

Greatest obstacle

Greatest asset

Lucy Frank Frank Ali Chris

Food-dish/pot washer Food-dish/pot washer Food-dish/pot washer Janitor/housekeeper Janitor/housekeeper

1:18 1:15 1:15 1:15 1:30

Continued supervision Continued supervision Low endurance Continued supervision

Likable personality

Carl Heather

Food-front dining area Assembler/bench worker Food-back kitchen util­ ity Food-dish/pot washer

2:12 1:8

Aberrant behavior

Likable personality Work attitude

Poor social skills

Attendance/prompt­ ness Attendance/prompt­ ness Likable personality


Poor appearance

Attendance/prompt­ ness

1:50 2:14


Fast work skills

Ted Mickey Mickey

5:75 2:12

Work attitude Public transportation

Margie Margie

Food-back kitchen util­ ity Food-back kitchen util­ ity Laundry Laundry

Margie Andy

Laundry Food-dish/pot washer

1:10 1:20


Work attitude

Andy Andy

2:3 1:3

Transportation Interest/attitude

Work attitude Parental support

Distractibility Low endurance Slow work Slow work

Fast work skills Fast work skills Likable personality Public transportation

Felix Taylor Wendell

Food-preparation Food-front dining room Food-front dining room Janitor/housekeeper Janitor/housekeeper Stock clerk/warehouse Food-back kitchen util­ ity Janitor/housekeeper Food-dish/pot washer Janitor/housekeeper

Bubba Horace

Janitor/housekeeper Food-front dining area

1:5 1:10

Attendance/tardiness Insubordination/aggres­ sive/violent Aid interference

Likable personality Attendance/prompt­ ness Work attitude


Food-dish/pot washer


Slow work

Work attitude


Les Andrew Mac Rita Jane

1:8 1:10 1:10 1:5 1:5 1:20 1:10 —

Reason for separation

RES-moved away RES-took better job TER-slow work TER-aberrant behavior TER-required continued prompting N/A TER-poor attendance/ tardiness N/A LO-seasonal w/return TER-low quality work N/A TER-poor job match RES-transportation prob­ lems N/A RES-does not want to work LO-economic situation RES-does not want to work RES-parent initiated N/A RES-moved away N/A LO-economic situation LO-economic situation N/A N/A N/A TER-poor attendance/ tardiness N/A

Note. TER, terminated; RES, resigned; LO, laid off; N/A, not applicable (currently employed). estingly, however, the performance, on-task behavior, and client appearance decreased over time in the job.

Discussion The data described in this article present both a positive and a negative commentary on competitive employment prospects for people labeled severely men­ tally retarded. On the one hand, it is a significant development that people with lengthy negative clinical files and IQ scores that averaged about 30 for the first time received an opportunity to work in real jobs for real pay and integrated with predominantly nonhandi-

capped persons. When one considers that less than 15 years ago it was observed to be a major accomplishment for a person with severe retardation to put together a bicycle brake in an isolated experimental setting (Gold, 1972), the prospect of people with a similar degree of intellectual impairments working in real jobs in the community for real pay is encouraging indeed. The cumulative earnings of over $231,976 compares very favorably with a zero level total for those who are in adult activity centers or the very low subminimum wages usually earned in sheltered workshops. The abil­ ity to have such new disposable income can radically change lives as well as long-term outlook and freedom

Competitive Employment Histories

Table 3 Financial Benefits Table


Lucy Frank Ali Chris Carl Heather Ted Mickey Margie Andy Les Andrew Mac Rita Jane Felix Taylor Wendall Bubba Horace Arnold

Total intervention time reported in job coach hours

Cumulative months worked

Cumulative wages earned

65.05 485.02 185.35 225.13 1,058.03 143.00 617.58 385.49 361.20 222.04 56.55 160.40 49.51 107.45 310.45 112.35 147.55 27.17 272.29 37.10 199.35 5,232.06

6.11 13.57 17.25 9.33 94.98 8.02 91.17 69.55 60.91 8.05 5.16 19.75 35.42 12.16 3.81 2.89 11.66 32.43 41.79 0.30 8.08 522.38

1,890.00 2,581.36 9,506.25 5,494.00 33,902.00 4,103.75 50,836.32 33,405.40 28,612.15 2,504.60 462.30 6,460.60 19,604.20 3,221.50 639.00 897.00 3,480.05 9,032.60 12,194.00 161.00 2,988.00 231,976.08

Table 4 Supervisors' Evaluations of Workers with Severe and Profound Handicaps Mean Evaluation item

Time Initial Latest evaluation evaluation

Arrives and leaves on time Maintains good attendance Takes appropriate meals and breaks Maintains good appearance Performance comparable to others Communication not a problem Consistent attention to job tasks Overall appraisal of proficiency

4.36842 4.57895 4.50000 4.22222 4.00000 3.68421 4.21053 3.16667

4.70588 4.72222 4.61111 4.05556 3.87500 3.77778 3.88889 3.27778

(Gersten, Crowell, & Bellamy, 1986). The total cost of services for these individuals is $107,000; therefore, for each public dollar spent, over $2.00 was earned by these workers. Although there are some vocational rehabili­ tation administrators who might not find this costefficient, by and large, given the measured intelligence of this population and its historical earning power, this is a favorable outcome. Most of these people had no previous work history; they had limited communication and travel skills, no academic skills, and most have not had the benefit of community-based programs in integrated schools. And now, even those who resigned or were terminated have an established work history on which to base future employment encounters. By using a supported employ­


ment approach, real work was obtained, causing a multitude of benefits to occur, such as: (a) the oppor­ tunity to interact with normal people; (b) the opportu­ nity to earn decent wages, pay taxes, and so forth; (c) the opportunity to establish a work history for eventual advancement; and (d) the opportunity for their families and others to view them in a competent role. Data from supervisor evaluations, hours of on-site staff intervention, and job retention suggest that these workers have the capability to succeed in competitive employment, assuming there is appropriate professional staff support, ongoing or intermittent, at the job site. This is highly encouraging since it further expands the base of knowledge from which current supported em­ ployment programs are now being developed and new programs and policies are being planned. Furthermore, it significantly complements the work done by the University of Oregon group (e.g., Mank et al., 1986) as well as numerous other state-of-the-art vocational pro­ grams nationally (e.g., Kiernan & Stark, 1986; Rusch, 1986). Specifically, it begins to document that positive, paid, vocational outcomes can accrue for people with severe intellectual impairments. A number of additional strategies and efforts have to be made in providing supported employment to these 21 clients as well as many others who provided excep­ tionally difficult barriers. Below are listed 10 points which employment specialists may need to utilize in overcoming these barriers to competitive employment. 1. Make placements in more flexible settings. 2. Complete more extensive job analyses (do the job before making placement). 3. Provide total support to employer (employer hires program, not just client). 4. Allocate and expect far more staff intervention time to be required. 5. Employment specialists should expect to be com­ pleting parts of job for client, for a number of weeks. 6. More systematic intervention and data systems will be required for feedback purposes. 7. Expect more adaptations needed to schedule, ma­ terials, job description, and so forth. 8. Develop early/ongoing communication with par­ ents (commitment). 9. Provide support systems for job trainers to combat uncertainty/uneasiness (team work approach). 10. Exceptionally strong commitment from trainers, employers, parents, and related personnel needed. While, of course, a number of these points are impor­ tant for any level disability, experience of many em­ ployment specialists clearly supports the full combina­ tion of all of these points placed together as a package. There is a seeming incompatibility between the gen­ erally positive supervisor evaluations and the reasons given for job separation. The best explanation is that employers generally are reluctant to provide negative


Wehman, Hill, Wood, and Parent

written feedback on workers with severe disabilities. Hence, a halo effect seems to have emerged. The other possible reason is that over a long period of time less on-site observation occurs by the employment specialist when it appears all is going well for the client. It may very well be that more systematic planned visits, regard­ less of how positive the client's performance is, become an essential. There is a more sobering, less positive side to these data as well, however. For example, many of the people, especially those at the school age level, were unable to get 35 to 40 hours of work per week. Also they were, for the most part, placed in entry-level service positions which some critics feel were demeaning. There is no question that significant employment specialist support hours were necessary and will continue to be. It is evident that job retention of 55 to 60% is not what we would ultimately like to see. It is evident as well that only localities which offer this type of employment model will be able to make such vocational opportun­ ities available. Therefore, if one is labeled as severely mentally retarded and grows up in a particular part of the state or country, there may be no job for that person, although the vocational technology is clearly emerging which suggests otherwise. Even though the people in the report had relatively low IQs, they did not have the serious ambulation or sensory problems which affect many individuals with severe and profound disabilities. In reviewing what appear to be discrepancies between some of the reasons for job separation and obstacles encountered by different clients, it may be helpful to recognize that these factors are not always necessarily consistent. For example, in Mickey's first job his major obstacle was a lack of adequate social skills, but ulti­ mately what caused his job separation was a seasonal change, in the amount of work the restaurant had available. A similar type of illustration can be found with Mac who exhibited low endurance, but the reason for his job separation was because his family moved away. In closing, what can we say we have learned about this group? First, this report adds to and extends the accumulating evidence about the nonsheltered work potential of people with severe retardation. It should be observed as well that if this study group was expanded to a population with IQs under 45 within our overall data bank (Hill et al., in press), that the number would increase by another 55 clients. Second, limited social skills and inability to relate to nonhandicapped peers was a major problem of many of these 21 persons and was a cause of separation. Thus, more programs in integrated settings must be undertaken. Third, as noted earlier in this section, job development and cultivation of the "right" job is more important than ever for people with complex learning problems. Finally, more knowl­ edge is necessary in how to apply systematic behavioral

instructional techniques in fast-paced nonsheltered work settings. Clearly, major challenges lie ahead vocationally for these persons. It is important to expand our base of knowledge with unique and innovative vocational ar­ rangements.

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Competitive Employment Histories

VA: Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Virginia Commonwealth University. Wehman, P. (1981). Competitive employment: New horizons for severely disabled persons. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. Wehman, P. (1986). Supported competitive employment for persons with severe disabilities. Journal of Applied Rehabil­ itation Counseling, 17(4), 26-30. Wehman, P., & Hill, J. (Eds.) (1985). Competitive employment for persons with mental retardation (Vol. I). Richmond, VA: Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Virginia Commonwealth University. Wehman, P., Hill, M., Hill, J., Brooke, V., Pendleton, P., &


Britt, C. (1985). Competitive employment for persons with mental retardation: A follow-up after six years. Mental Retardation, 23, 274-281. Wehman, P., & Kregel, J. (1985). A supported work approach to competitive employment of individuals with moderate and severe handicaps. Journal of The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 70(1), 3-11. Will, M. (1984). Supported employment: An OSERS position paper. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education. Received: April 15, 1986 Final Acceptance: November 22, 1986

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