The Four Letters That Are Changing Employment Opportunities for Youth with Autism
by Anne Roux
December 9, 2015
You might not have realized it, but four letters began to change the world for transition-age youth with autism in July 2015 when legislation called WIOA, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, went into effect. Employment outcomes for youth with autism have long fallen short of acceptable. Only about 58% of young adults ever work for pay between high school and their early 20s, according to the 2015 National Autism Indicators Report. Now, WIOA aims to move that needle, and states are hurriedly assembling plans to address its requirements.
The WIOA isn’t actually new. It’s a complex and lengthy law that reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 which created workforce development centers to provide job training and improve workforce readiness across our nation. Much of WIOA isn’t even targeted at employment for persons with disabilities. But when Congress hit “go” on the bipartisan WIOA legislation, it also effectively extended the Rehabilitation Services Act until 2020 - an act which governs state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services. The wave-making aspect of the WIOA was how it set into motion a plan to maximize employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities and to ensure that transition-age youth have opportunities for improved postsecondary outcomes in the future.
At least three of the more substantial changes in WIOA will affect the employment preparation of students with autism during and after high school:
First, VR will play an earlier role in the transition process for some special education students.
While VR often doesn’t get involved with helping students transition into employment until the last year of high school, the WIOA specifies that 15% of public VR funds should be set aside for pre-employment transition services to begin by age 16. The goal is to help students identify a career path and build the skills needed for that path. A career pathway refers to high-quality, rigorous training designed to meet the needs of the labor market or a specific occupation, or to attain further education. Therefore, the WIOA helps move the VR discussion from a focus on getting a job to a focus on stepping stones to build a career. This earlier focus on employment aligns with the federal system’s change efforts of the Employment First movement, as exemplified in states like Ohio.
The menu of WIOA pre-employment transition services includes: job exploration counseling, work-based learning experiences, counseling on post-secondary opportunities, workplace readiness training, training on self-advocacy, and other services if funds are available. According to the law, all students with an IEP or 504 plan qualify for these pre-employment transition services regardless of whether they will be eligible for VR services in the future.
Second, greater coordination across agencies aims to ensure that everyone who is disabled and wishes to receive vocational services can be served.
Addressing the fragmentation in the current vocational services delivery system, the WIOA specifies that pre-employment transition activities must be coordinated between the local VR office, special education, state agencies serving those with developmental disabilities, and the local workforce development system.
Third, the WIOA specifies competitive, integrated employment as the preferred outcome along with pay above minimum wage.
Earlier versions of the Rehabilitation Services Act stated that employment in an “integrated” setting was preferred; it now clearly specifies “competitive, integrated employment” throughout the RSA. This means full- or part-time work at a rate of pay not below that paid to workers without disabilities for the same work. This work must also occur within an environment that offers equal opportunities for interaction with workers who do not have disabilities. In other words, WIOA places a focus on community-based work by discouraging employment in non-integrated (sheltered) work settings with substandard pay.
For young adults under the age of 24, current pay rates that fall below minimum wage must be justified. For those who are starting out in non-integrated job settings with sub-minimum wages, documentation must state why other options were not possible or appropriate. For those who continue in sub-minimum wage jobs, determination must be completed every 6 months documenting the person’s inability to participate in a competitive integrated job that pays above the minimum wage. Finally, other provisions (Section 511) disallow schools from contracting with providers who pay below minimum wage.
What does this mean for youth with autism?
Increasing expectations for job training and competitive employment is obviously good news for all people with disabilities. It is especially welcoming news, though, for people with autism whose employment rates fall far below people with other types of disabilities. The WIOA promises to close loopholes by making it difficult to deem someone unemployable before fair attempts at employment are even made. It aims to overhaul the transition process itself – by connecting youth to pre-employment services in a more effective and efficient way. This is essential for transition-age youth with autism who have higher rates of disconnection from employment in the first years after high school. Theoretically, the WIOA also opens doors to collaboration and training between special educators, VR specialists and community employers, which is critical for people with autism who may have challenging behaviors and co-occurring conditions that require additional planning and training on the part of employers and job support staff.
The WIOA makes important promises. The changes contained in this legislation will hopefully translate to new and improved employment opportunities for youth and adults with autism, which could ultimately mean an improved quality of life. But understanding whether the WIOA will actually make a difference requires our vigilance in ensuring its requirements are implemented as intended. Ultimately, vigilance depends on measurement, reporting, and monitoring of state-level outcomes. It is our mission at the Life Course Outcomes Research Program to track outcomes of policy efforts like these and share the results. Stay tuned as we monitor whether the WIOA will succeed at improving transition outcomes for youth with autism.
Anne Roux, MPH, MA is a nationally renowned autism researcher, author and family advocate. She leads the production of our National Autism Indicators Report series and other publications.