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Career development for adolescents and young adults with mental retardation.

Career development activities by professional school counselors at the elementary, middle, and high school levels can help students with mental retardation make meaningful career choices as adults. School counselors can be advocates and providers of career development activities that link the individualized educational process for students with disabilities to career success. Career development activities that promote career goals, career interests, transferable occupational skills, decision-making skills; and the refraining of occupational opportunities can lead to greater vocational satisfaction in adulthood for people with mental retardation.


Career development is vital to a quality lifestyle for people with all forms of mental retardation. However, existing research on the career development of people with moderate to severe mental retardation focuses on occupational choice rather than career development (Rumrill & Roessler, 1999). Occupational choice reflects a person's vocational decision at any point in time, whereas career development reflects an ongoing, developmental process that incorporates and integrates personal and environmental information (Super, 1980; Szymanski & Hanley-Maxwell, 1996). Career development is a dynamic process that requires individuals to engage in the ongoing assessment, analysis, and synthesis of information about the world of work and self (Callahan & Gardner, 1997; Hagner & Salomone, 1989).

Career development activities that begin in the elementary school years promote career development, occupational readiness, and career resiliency among adolescents and adults who function within the moderate to severe range of mental retardation (Black & Langone, 1997; Moran, McDermott, & Butkus, 2001). Levinson, Peterson, and Elston (1994) noted that a major advantage of early career development activities for students with mental retardation is that early intervention provides ample time for vocational exploration and the acquisition of skills necessary for vocational success in a preferred occupation. In addition, career development activities may lead to increased job satisfaction and promote sustained patterns of employment among people diagnosed with mental retardation (Levinson et al., 1994; McCrea & Miller, 1999; Szymanski & Hanley-Maxwell, 1996; Wadsworth & Cocco, 2003).

Unfortunately, there has been a paucity of controlled outcome research with regard to the benefits of earth career intervention for students with mental retardation. The heterogeneity of individual characteristics and the life circumstances of students with developmental disorders make it difficult to establish a causal relationship between early interventions and adult employment outcomes. Bucher, Brolin, and Kunce (1987) investigated the adult employment status of 153 students who were educable mentally retarded and 81 students who were severely learning disabled and who, as grade school students, all received a competency-based, life-centered career education curriculum developed by Brolin (1985). Completion of the career education curriculum in grade school was significantly related to the future employment levels of all students with mental retardation and of females with severe learning disabilities. More recently, Heal (1999) conducted a survey of 713 young adults who had been students in special education programs and found that career development activities such as work opportunities, the intensity of vocational preparation, and the percentage of time spent in career education courses were predictors of increased employment, self-esteem, independence, and job security.

School counselors have an important role in creating and advocating educational opportunities that have a positive long-term impact on the vocational choices available to students with mental retardation (Milsom, 2002). This article provides the rationale for, and illustrates the importance of, the role that professional school counselors have in the career development of students who are diagnosed with mental retardation.


School counselors and other educators share responsibility for the educational opportunities provided within the curricula to all students, including those with disabilities (American School Counselor Association, 2003; Schmidt, 1999; Williams & Katsiyannis, 1998). Campbell and Dahir (1997) in Sharing the Vision: The National Standards fin, School Counseling Programs identified academic, personal/social, and career knowledge and skill areas that all students should acquire. Included in these standards are career development activities designed to "provide the foundation for the acquisition of skills, attitudes, and knowledge that enable students to make a successful transition from school to the world of work, and from job to job across the lifespan" (Campbell & Dahir, p. 19). Similarly, the National Career Development Association (NCDA, 1993) also emphasized school counselor involvement in the career development of all students.

Furthermore, federal legislation mandates that school districts attend to the career development needs of students with disabilities. For example, Public Law 98-524, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984, requires that school districts assess the career interests and aptitudes of students with disabilities. Moreover, Public Law 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990, mandates the development of transition plans as part of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process for students with disabilities. These transition plans are designed to outline a set of coordinated activities to assist students in transitioning to postsecondary activities including employment or education (McCrea & Miller, 1999).

School counselors, with their training in career counseling, life-span development, and assessment, are the logical school personnel to coordinate these activities. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) supports school counselor involvement in transition planning (1999), yet Milsom (2002) found that 32% of the high school counselors who completed her survey indicated they did not participate in the transition planning process for students with disabilities. Myrick (1997) noted, "Most educators agree that school counselors should participate in the decision making process and meet with members of the [IEP] staffing team" (p. 319).


Over the past several decades, there has been a tremendous shift in traditional work and in supported employment settings for people with more severe forms of mental retardation (Mank, Cioffi, & Yovanoff; 2000; Pierce, McDermott, & Butkus, 2003). In the past, the career choice for many people with mental retardation was largely determined by the work activities offered in local institutional settings (Sowers, McLean, & Owens, 2002). More recently, tenure with a single employer has been a desirable outcome of career development activities; however, job tenure is unlikely to be the future occupational trend for many workers (Szymanski & Parker, 2003). The future career paths of many students with mental retardation are likely to reflect a succession of employed positions at different settings rather than a single, sustained placement, because employment and job tenure continue to be low for adults with mental retardation (Pierce et al., 2003; Pumpian, Fisher, Certo, & Smalley, 1997; Schaffer, Banks, & Kregel, 1991). As a result, a career trajectory for an employee with a severe cognitive disability may include a succession of short-term employment situations that positively contribute to the employee's existing job skills and professional portfolio (Pierce et al.; Pumpian et al., 1997). Due to the cyclical nature of the labor market experience for most people with mental retardation, long-term career goals that complement short-term employment activities can promote a positive outlook toward employment (Enright, 1997; Pierce et al.; Sowers et al., 2002).

In addition to sustaining vocational growth through successive employment opportunities, career development activities may assist students, parents, and educators in identifying and clarifying individual factors that are key components in occupational engagement (Schmidt, 1999). Although intelligence is associated with career maturity and the development of decision making skills, factors other than skills, abilities, and personality play a major role in career development and satisfaction for people with mental retardation (Morris & Levinson, 1995; Pierce et al., 2003). Factors such as interests, social opportunities, emotional rewards, and economic benefits influence career choices (or most adolescents, including those with cognitive limitations (Szymanski, Hershenson, Enright, & Ettinger, 1996). These same factors--interests, social preferences, and emotional rewards--influence the employment choices of adolescents and young adults diagnosed with mental retardation (Enright, 1997; Pierce et al.).

The ASCA National Model (ASCA, 2003) provides a framework for school counselors to help all students to "develop career awareness," "develop employment readiness," "acquire career information," "identify career" goals," "acquire knowledge to achieve career goals," and "apply skills to achieve career goals" (Campbell & Dahir, 1997, pp. 25-27). School-based learning opportunities are particularly important for people with cognitive developmental disabilities who, unlike their peers without cognitive disabilities, may have limited opportunities to participate in social, work, volunteer, and community activities; and thus may have limited exposure to occupational role models (Callahan & Garner, 1997; Sowers et al., 2002). Career development activities within the educational setting may be the best opportunity for a student with mental retardation to explore the world of work before entering private or state-federal vocational rehabilitation service programs for adults that focus primarily on job placement and tenure. Individualized career development curricula can help document that students with severe cognitive impairments and their parents, educators, and advocates have information from which to make meaningful choices about the activities and outcomes of the IEP.


Career development activities for students with mental retardation comprise a process in which the student must be an active and informed participant (Szymanski & Parker, 2003). Career development activities should be an important component of preparing students with mental retardation to enter the world of work (McCrea & Miller, 1999). However, career development activities should not end as employment begins (Reid, Deutsch, Kitchen, & Azanavoorian, 1997). Career education should be a dynamic and lifelong process because people with intellectual disabilities are always changing (Kanchier, 1990). Education and rehabilitation systems, however, have not always applied theories and models of typical career development to people with mental retardation even though students with mental retardation can benefit from many of the same activities as students who do not have a cognitive disability, (Pumpian et al., 1997).

Activities must be adapted to meet the needs of students with mental retardation because the interaction of the developmental nature of mental retardation and the developmental nature of career education can lead to a variety of impediments in career instruction for people with mental retardation (Morris & Levinson, 1995). Without the guiding influence of a normative maturation process in areas outside of the vocational arena--social, financial, educational, and emotional--it is difficult to propose a model that includes the tremendous developmental heterogeneity of individuals who are diagnosed with mental retardation (Szymanski & Hanley-Maxwell, 1996).

Szymanski and Hanley-Maxwell (1996) provided a framework for career development activities for people with mental retardation that is particularly useful for school counselors who need to integrate their own services with the services offered by other members of the student's IEP team. The authors proposed that career development is a process that results from the dynamic interaction of individual, contextual, mediating, and environmental factors. This ecological model of career development organizes career interventions into the following areas that are particularly important in the lives of young people with mental retardation: (a) individual factors (e.g., aptitudes); (b) contextual factors (e.g., labor market); (c) meaning factors (e.g., values); (d) work environment factors (e.g., adaptations); and (c) output factors (e.g., productivity expectations). The choice of intervention within this framework depends upon the characteristics of the student, the context in which the student lives or will live, values and beliefs, future opportunities, and past experiences (Szymanski & Hanley-Maxwell).


Career development is a lifelong process of getting ready to choose, choosing, and continuing to make choices (Brown, Brooks, & Associates, 1996). The NCDA (1993) noted, "Helping individuals increase self-understanding of their abilities, interests, values, and goals is a vital foundation of the career development process" (p. 2). The NCDA suggested that career development activities help students develop positive work habits (e.g., organization, following directions, completing assignments on time), set goals, make informed decisions, identify interests and abilities, and explore jobs (e.g., job shadowing, apprenticeships). The career development activities of a professional school counselor may include advocacy, team building, problem solving, and serving as a liaison between service providers and students with mental retardation and their parents (Wood-Dunn & Baker, 2002).

An assumption of career development is that future job and career choices will be more sophisticated and successful than previous choices (Pumpian et al., 1997). Currently, students with and without disabilities who lack knowledge of the world of work and who fail to develop the skills needed to be successful in occupational choices do not experience career success in that manner (Szymanski & Parker, 2003). Consistent with the career development patterns of many young adults who do not have a disability, regular job movement by young adults who have mental retardation needs to be considered positively in terms of promotion and career mobility rather than as a sign of failure (Pierce et al., 2003). Career development activities and planning can provide young adults and their support network with information to guide job movement in a manner that will lead to career resiliency and the accomplishment of career goals (Moran et al., 2001).


School counselors can help students, parents, and IEP teams develop career goals through (a) providing accurate information about the world of work, (b) matching students' interests and abilities to career opportunities, and (c) encouraging students to broaden their options as a precaution against future changes in the labor market (Schmidt, 1999; Szymanski et al., 1996). These activities are consistent with trait and factor models of career development and occupation choice based on the work of Parsons (1909) (e.g., theory of work adjustment, Dawis, 1996). Parents of adolescents seek vocational information, consultation, and advocacy from professional school counselors because they perceive limited vocational prospects for their child who has mental retardation. Future researeh needs to focus on the benefits of collaboration between parents of students with mental retardation and school counselors because the counselors can help parents access important information regarding future labor market trends, typical career trajectories in a variety of occupational groups, and career development activities that can be adapted to assist students with career success. Such information is critical if young people and their parents are to participate meaningfully in planning that focuses on the future needs and preferences of the student (Whitney Thomas, Shaw, Honey, & Butterworth, 1998). School counselors also have an important role in advocating for broadbased career plans that focus on the student's interests and abilities and that will increase future career options.

Vocational exploration activities implemented at the elementary- and middle-school levels can prepare students with mental retardation to make career choices in young adulthood (Black & Langone, 1997). School counselors should choose relevant career competencies based on those outlined in the ASCA National Model (2003) and first described by Campbell and Dahir (1997). For example, school counselors can help the IEP team contextualize classroom activities such as choice making and social skill development as important components of vocational preparation. Middle-school classroom guidance lessons may focus on helping students develop a knowledge of personal interests and abilities and foster an awareness of careers as a succcssion of related paid and unpaid work activities (Black & Langone; Reid & Bray, 1997).

Career Interests

People with developmental disabilities may lack realistic information about occupations and careers on which to base their interests. Job experiences play an important part in the development of maturity with regard to vocational interests, abilities, and traits (Black & Langone, 1997; Levinson et al., 1994; Pumpian et al., 1997). Career interests may be stimulated through short-term job tryout experiences and job shadowing experiences that include documentation of preferences and performance. Information regarding the student's preferences of activities, work environments, emotional and monetary rewards, and supervision can help students and parents to identify congruent short-term occupational choices and long-term career outcomes. Likewise, accurate information regarding performance may assist the student and transition planning team in identifying the training, work experiences, effort, and timeline that will be required to achieve the student's career preferences.

Often, volunteer, leisure, and daily living activities offer opportunities to assess career interests. Frequently, observations of behavior and emotional stability conducted across educational, social, and work settings are used to assess personality and interests (Kanchier, 1990). Although a community-based assessment of work behavior is often a preferred way of assessing the interests and abilities of people with mental retardation, inventories such as the What I Like to Do Inventory (Meyers, Dringard, & Zinner, 1978) and the Audio-Visual Vocational Preferences Test (Wilgosh, 1994) can be used to assist students in identifying their career interests.

School counselors serving elementary schools can collaborate with teachers to help students with mental retardation develop career interests and the ability to make choices among vocational activities. For example, instructional activities at all grade levels may be designed to provide students with exposure to a wide variety of job-related skills (e.g., following directions) and habits (e.g., timeliness) (Levinson et al., 1994). These activities may assist the student and others in the development and documentation of IEP goals by promoting awareness of the choices and interests that lead to future occupational success (McCrea & Miller, 1999). In addition, occupational preferences may be identified through classroom guidance and individual planning activitics (ASCA, 2003). For example, classroom activitics may be designed to provide the student with exposure to a wide variety of job related environments (e.g., working in a group vs. alone) and patterns (e.g., repetitive consistency vs. sporadic activity). The identification of preferences can help the student define preferences that may translate to preferred occupational environments (e.g., working with others as a crew vs. working independently) and preferred occupational activities (e.g., assembly work vs. customer service).

Transferable Skills

Career planning can play a key role in creating a strategy to identify, develop, and maintain a vocational skill set that will transfer over a succession of employment opportunities. For example, a vocational skill set that will transfer to multiple employment opportunities in clerical and reception occupations may include social skills (e.g., appropriate socialization with peers and customers), mechanical skills (e.g., the use of office equipment), safety skills (e.g., seeking assistance), communication skills (e.g., telephone etiquette), and hygiene skills (e.g., appropriate dress and professional appearance). Individuals with mental retardation often have difficulties generalizing work behavior to new work settings; thus, the opportunity to practice skills across employment contexts is an essential part of developing a career that is resilient to changes in the labor market (Szymanski, 1999). Career development planning beginning in early childhood and extending though adulthood is essential to providing a continuity of work activities that promotes the acquisition of new skills rather than the stagnation of work skills in the pursuit of tenure (Pumpian et al., 1997; Rumrill & Roessler, 1999). The development of skills congruent with abilities, aptitudes, and aspirations within multiple vocational contexts can promote employability and career advancement.

The opportunity for students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to explore a variety of activities in the academic, social, leisure, vocational, and domestic domains is critical in career development for people with mental retardation (Levinson et al., 1994). School counselors at the elementary level can work collaboratively with teachers to help increase students' awareness of their own abilities and interests that may transfer to future career opportunities. School counselors can assist students who are enrolled in middle school to develop a better awareness of the transferability of abilities and preferences to a variety of careers and occupational opportunities. Career planning may assist high school students and parents in the development of multiple career plans that rely on a common set of transferable skills to promote employment resiliency in a changing economy (Szymanski, 1999). School counselors may be a key resource for students and families faced with the diverse activities available through the IEP proccss at the elementary, middle, and high school levels with the future goal of career succcss as an adult.

Decision-Making Skills

A key component of career development activities for elementary-aged students, adolescents, and young adults is training in decision making (Campbell& Dahir, 1997; Reid & Bray, 1997). The American Academy of Pediatrics (2000), Sowers et al. (2002), as well as Wadsworth and Cocco (2003) noted that peopl ewith Mental retardation should be taught decision making skills before beginning career development activities. The ability to indicate a preference and choose an outcome that is in one's self-interest is a skill that is a key component of career development and many other quality-of-life decisions (Whitney Thomas et al., 1998). Learning activities may include practice in making incrcasingly important decisions that affect lifestyle and satisfaction (American Academy of Pediatrics). Beginning in elementary school, students may be taught steps of decision making through classroom guidance lessons (Shevin & Klein, 1985). Guided decision-making exercises and planned opportunities for students to make important decisions and experience consequences in a safe environment are frequently used methods of teaching decision-making skills (Levinson et al., 1994).

Reframing Existing Opportunities

Career choice presupposes the existence of alternatives from which to choose (Reid & Bray, 1997; Sowers et al., 2002). However, there may be a limited number of career options for students with severe cognitive deficits (Pierce et al., 2003; Reid & Bray). Contextual factors such as the availability of day services, funding resources, and the capacity of a vocational program to serve a new consumer may influence immediate post-high school career plans (Hilton & Gerlach, 1997). The courses of occupational change that are common among peers (e.g., relocation) may not be realistic options for people with mental retardation, who may be dependent upon family and local case management resources, and who often lack the financial means to relocate to obtain preferred employment or post-high school training (Wehman & Kregel, 1998).

School counselors can help the student and members of the IEP team to connect the interest, ability, and temperament factors most salient to the student with occupational opportunities (Melchiori & Church, 1997). Such information can be used to emphasize features in existing activities that contribute to occupational growth and to create opportunities congruent with career preferences in available employment and training programs. For example, through career exploration activities, the salient features of a career as a firefighter for a student with moderate mental retardation are the opportunity to gain respect through wearing a uniform, the perceived social opportunities with fellow firefighters, and the enhanced self-esteem through identification with valued community members. These same components can be constructed within a sheltered work experience that permits that student to train as a "fire safety officer," wear a white shirt as a uniform, conduct fire safety and fire extinguisher checks with staff, participate in fire drills, and meet with firefighters during a routine business inspection. The student's interest and skills in emergency preparedness will increase the student's value to future employers concerned about on-the-job safety and may help this student achieve a succession of work opportunities that are increasingly congruent with and incorporate the student's long-range career goals (e.g., fire department custodial staff, maintenance assistant, clerical assistant). Similar to adolescents who do not have disabilities, young people with mental retardation need career guidance to compete for preferred jobs.


Personal career planning is a lifelong activity that assists students in selecting jobs consistent with a career path and maintaining progress in employment consistent with a vision of the future (Rumrill & Roessler, 1999). However, it is a challenge for many young people with cognitive and communication deficits to participate fully in career planning (Whitney-Thomas et al., 1998). School counselors have an important role in assisting the transition planning team to utilize techniques in designing and implementing career development activities that are effective with students with mental retardation.

Consistent with ASCA's National Model (2003), a collaborative, developmental approach to preparing students with mental retardation for the transition to employment permits school counselors to make use of school and community resources while still meeting the career development needs of all students. Although IDEA legislation does not require formal transition planning to begin until a studunt is 14 years of age, it is critical that school counselors promote career development activities for students with mental retardation in the elementary grade levels to promote career success for those students as adults (Black & Langone, 1997). To make meaningful career choices and to set goals that lead to the attainment of those choices, students with and without mental deficits require the same important career development competencies outlined in the ASCA National Model (2003). As advocates for all students, school counselors can be instrumental in making sure the career development needs of students with mental retardation are met.

"Having a career does not mean being placed in a job but having the opportunity to make choices" (Hagner & Salomone, 1989, p. 154). The goal to empower students to make choices as they progress through the lifelong developmental vocational experience is a critical feature of career development interventions (Szymanski & Hanley-Maxwell, 1996). The important role of career development in the future of young people with severe developmental cognitive disabilities cannot be overlooked, and professional school counselors can provide the link between the classroom and the world of work that will enhance future career success and satisfhction.


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John Wadsworth, Ph.D., CRC, NCC, Amy Milsom, DEd, LPC, NCC, and Karen Cocco, Ph.D., all are assistant professors in Counseling, Rehabilitation & Student Development at the University of Iowa, Iowa Cir. E-mail:
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Author:Cocco, Karen
Publication:Professional School Counseling
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Date:Dec 1, 2004
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