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Vocational evaluation in supported employment.

One of the most significant advances in vocational rehabilitation services has been the recent supported employment movement. Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act (P.L. 99-506) define supported employment as competitive work in integrated work settings for individuals with severe disabilities for whom competitive employment has not traditionally occurred and who, because of their disability, need intensive, ongoing services to perform such work. Currently, 27 states are implementing supported employment programs given grants from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and the Administration on Developmental Disabilities. Of particular importance to the supported employment movement was the recognition of supported work as a legitimate vocational rehabilitation outcome. Changes are occurring nationwide, allowing less restrictive vocational options for those previously segregated.

Integrated work options for individuals with severe disabilities have evolved as the result of many factors. Among these factors has been a dissatisfaction with low placement rates, low wages, and other limitations of sheltered services; advances in the preparatory nature of school vocational training programs; and demonstrations of the vocational potential of individuals with severe disabilities (Kieman & Stark, 1986; Rusch, 1986; Mcloughlin, Gamer, & Callahan, 1987).

Some supported employment programs have evolved through the establishment of new agencies or through the conversion of existing agencies from sheltered to supported work services. More commonly, supported employment services have been offered as additional services to those of existing agencies. In either case, supported employment programs operate within an overall vocational rehabilitation structure that was created long before supported employment, as we know it today, existed. As a result, many difficult issues are currently being faced in relation to blending the features of an existing service system with emerging beliefs and practices.

One particularly critical aspect of the vocational rehabilitation system that poses a dilemma for supported employment is vocational evaluation. Traditional vocational evaluation assumptions and practices have been called into question when applied to supported employment candidates (Gold, 1980; Wehman, 1981). The purpose of this paper is to examine these traditional approaches and offer an evaluation model that is compatible with the underlying principles of supported employment.

Problems with Traditional Evaluation

Vocational evaluation can be defined as any activities designed to: (a) describe an individual and his or her functioning needs; (b) specify the outcomes to be achieved through rehabilitation; and (c) identify the interventions and services required to achieve those outcomes (Berven, 1984). There are at least five features of traditional vocational evaluation that have been called into question by supported employment practitioners. The first involves the use of the vocational evaluation process as a screening device to select or reject individuals considered able or unable to benefit from vocational services (Berven, 1984). The use of vocational evaluation procedures and instruments has resulted in the exclusion of many individuals with severe disabilities from the labor market (Rudrud, Ziarnik, Bernstein, & Ferrara, 1984). This problem was underscored by Schalock and Karan (1979) who noted:

There is little evidence suggesting that changes in traditional psychological and vocational assessment practices have occurred (Karan, 1977). At present, perhaps because other alternatives simply do not exist, vocational rehabilitation agencies are using assessment procedures originally developed for less handicapped individuals and are applying them invalidly to the more severely handicapped. Thus, one must constantly wonder how many severely handicapped persons, who might otherwise become useful, productive, and employable, will continue being either underserved of even eliminated from further VR consideration as a consequence of inappropriate assessment practices (p.34).

A related screening function of traditional vocational evaluation has been to distinguish between individuals who are job ready" for placement in a community job, and those who are not. Classifications of "not job ready" have typically resulted in placement in a sheltered workshop (U.S. Department of Labor, 1979).

Supported employment models have been designed to serve individuals who do not necessarily meet traditional criteria for job readiness" or employability" (Wehman, 1986). Such models strive to offer immediate opportunities for work and community participation rather than emphasizing readiness and preparation (Bellamy, Rhodes, & Albin, 1986). Advocates of supported employment have argued that all persons, regardless of the severity of their disability, should be considered capable of community employment (Brown, et al., 1984; Rusch, 1986; Mcloughlin, Garner, & Callahan, 1987). Thus, evaluations designed to accept or reject a person for services have no place in supported work programs. Moreover, advocates of supported employment consider placement in a sheltered setting as a form of segregation, and, therefore, an unacceptable rehabilitation outcome (Rusch, 1986; Brown et al., 1986).

Second, traditional vocational evaluations typically occur in artificial, simulated environments such as evaluation centers. Individuals being evaluated are given a series of psychometric tests, work samples, and in-house situational assessments for the purpose of diagnosis, placement, and prediction (Rudrud, Ziarnik, Bernstein, & Ferrara, 1984). These activities are also largely artificial and simulated, bearing little resemblance to actual community jobs. On-the-job evaluations within community work environments have been the least utilized vocational evaluation technique (Genskow, 1980).

The assumption that relevant information about the abilities and needs of people with severe disabilities can be obtained using artificial settings and tasks has been repeatedly questioned (Brown et al., 1984; Halpern, 1984; Frey, 1984). Indeed, one of the central tenets of the supported employment movement has been a reliance on the use of actual job settings, or natural environments, for assessment as well as for training (Wehman, 1981; Panscofar, 1986). Natural environments present a cornucopia of sights, sounds, smells, etc. which all impact upon one's work performance. Within these natural work environments are the actual tasks and materials comprising one's job. The most fair, reliable, and useful way to evaluate an individual with severe disabilities is within the actual work setting using materials that are naturally present. It is virtually impossible to approximate all of the unique conditions present in an actual work setting outside of that setting. To attempt to do so compromises the reliability and validity of the information obtained, as well as the resulting decisions made regarding the evaluee.

Third, reliability and validity data regarding many traditional assessment tools is either absent or lacking (Botter-busch, 1980). Further, as Schalock and Karan (1979) noted, assessment procedures have been used inappropriately with people with severe disabilities for whom the instruments were not designed. In addition, the setting, tasks, and evaluator are often unfamiliar to the person being evaluated. All these factors contribute to potential reliability and validity problems with the methods and results of traditional vocational evaluation.

Fourth, the settings in which evaluations are conducted have traditionally been closely associated with sheltered work facilities. A survey of vocational evaluators found that 66% were employed within rehabilitation facilities (Thomas, 1986). Economic and organizational forces within these facilities exert a significant influence on evaluation processes and outcomes (Murphy & Hagner, 1988). In many instances individuals become subtly socialized into the sheltered work facility as a part of their evaluation and are evaluated in part on their ability to adapt to sheltered settings and workshop tasks. Individuals evaluated within facility-based centers tend to be referred for employment to the very facility in which they were evaluated (Murphy & Ursprung, 1983; Murphy & Hagner, 1988).

Fifth, vocational evaluation has traditionally been viewed as a separate and discrete component of the rehabilitation process. Evaluators are not typically involved with individuals after the assessment has been completed, and little, if any, follow-up information is collected to find out where evaluees are eventually placed or how well they do (Pruitt, 1986).

By contrast, evaluation in supported employment is best understood as one continuous integrated process. That is, rather than being a discreet component, evaluations occur prior to job placement and throughout the term of employment. None of these criticisms are new. The applicability of traditional assessment approaches to job seekers with severe disabilities has been questioned for many years (Neff, 1970; Olshansky, 1975; Revell & Wehman, 1978; Schalock & Karan, 1979). For example, Neff (1970) cautioned that work behavior cannot be understood simply as a conglomerate of isolated psychological and behavioral traits because such behavior is highly dependent on the situation in which it occurs. Neff argued that "the site of the vocational evaluator ought to be the workplace" (p. 29). Calls for reform have met with little success. However, the remarkable surge of supported employment programs has added a sense of urgency to the search for alternatives to traditional approaches.

Current Responses to the Dilemma

There have been two types of responses to the dilemma that supported employment has created in relation to traditional vocational evaluation practices. Perhaps the most common response has been an attempt to graft supported employment onto an otherwise traditional rehabilitation facility as an additional service, with only minimal modifications of, or disruptions to, other aspects of the organization. From the perspective of vocational evaluation, supported employment settings become additional resources for a brief "situational assessment" and supported employment becomes one more step in a continuum of potential placement recommendations. The difficulties with this simplistic response should be obvious: the continued use of artificial, segregated environments for evaluation and placement; the continued reliance on a "continuum" of services; and the use of "readiness" criteria for community participation all conflict with the very principles underlying the supported employment approach. In fact, it might not be appropriate to call such grafts a "response" since it is not clear whether a dilemma has even been recognized.

A more sophisticated version of this response has been to adopt a number of modifications of vocational evaluation practices in an effort to bring them into closer alignment with supported employment principles. Menchetti, Rusch, and Owens (1983) have outlined a "contemporary" approach to assessment which they contrast with "traditional" approaches. The contemporary approach consists of (a) the measurement of adaptive behavior, (b) the use of socially valid measures of work behavior, and (c) a "process assessment" in the context of skill training. More recently, Bates and Panscofar (1985) and Panscofar (1986) have advocated the use of "criterion referenced" assessment tasks. These tasks are developed by actual observations of the skills exhibited by employees of local businesses.

Although these approaches are more consistent with the intent of supported employment, they fall short of answering the criticisms of traditional evaluation. They continue to rely heavily on special environments and artificial tasks. Tasks imported into special evaluation environments necessarily omit a great many significant features of criterion environments. For example, no matter how accurately the job of cross-checking billing records for an insurance company is simulated, unless the lighting, the temperature, the personalities of nearby workers, the expectations projected by the supervisor, the pay, the company benefits, and an indefinite number of other features of the job are duplicated accurately, the comparison of behavior in one setting to that in another setting remains problematic. A great deal of behavior is irreducibly situation-specific (Kazdin, 1979), and even seemingly minor variations in setting can have large and unpredictable effects on behavior. The fundamental objection raised by proponents of supported employment remains un-addressed by these modifications: "resembling" is not the same as "being"; "realistic" is not the same as "real."

Moreover, many "contemporary" features of these newer evaluation tools remain firmly rooted in "traditional" knowledge and behavior. For example, the skills measured by one survival skill instrument recommended by Menchetti, Rusch, and Owens (1983) - the Vocational Assessment Curriculum Guide - are all derived from questionnaires administered to the staff of sheltered workshops.

An alternative response to the vocational evaluation dilemma has been influenced by the "train, don't test" tradition of Mark Gold (1980), that is, to reject most vocational evaluation altogether. Advocates of this response attempt to "place first", then gather information about an individual's skills solely on the job. In actuality, however, this approach still requires some amount of information-gathering in order to find an appropriate job match, to account for the needs and interests of the potential employee, to begin the process of job development, training, and so forth. Furthermore, the evaluation required by federal statute to determine eligibility and to develop a rehabilitation plan (34 CFR Sec. 361.33) must still be satisfied, regardless of the approach. While some may reject vocational evaluation as it is currently practiced, it is clear that information must be secured and an assessment process conducted in any supported employment program.

A Model of Evaluation for Supported


A vocational evaluation model must provide a means for collecting essential work-related information without violating the principles upon which supported employment is based. In the model suggested here, evaluation is viewed as continuous and ongoing, rather than preliminary and separate. Not only is information collected to guide the process of developing employment sites, but it is also gathered and utilized to make training and supervisory decisions, and to determine the suitability of a particular job for both the employee and employer. Thus, evaluation information and procedures can be broken down into pre-employment and post-employment phases.

Pre-Employment information and Procedures

The individualized nature of supported work mandates that jobs and supports be structured around individuals rather than individuals being "placed" into existing programs or slots. This people first rather than job-first orientation requires that the person responsible for assisting the prospective employee in securing employment must get to know that individual. Although this premise appears obvious, it has often been overlooked.

For some individuals, a structured interview can be a rich source of self-report and observational data. Evaluators have been urged to give renewed emphasis to more qualitative interview data, as opposed to purely quantitative data (Berven, 1984). However, office interviews offer a restricted sample of behavior within a relatively limited setting. In addition, verbal interview formats require sophisticated communication and introspection skills that not all job seekers possess.

One way to get to know someone is simply to spend time with him or her in a variety of daily activities and familiar environments. For example, the agency staff person might interact with an individual with a severe disability at his or her home, accompany that person to lunch at a restaurant, and spend some leisure time together engaged in a preferred activity. By doing so, one can gather information related to personality characteristics (e.g., likes and dislikes, behaviors in various settings and activities), and skill areas such as transportation/ mobility, social/communication, and functional academics. This information lends itself to deciding what general type of job might best suit the person. That is, questions can be answered such as: would the person prefer a sit-down/sedentary or a stand up/active job, or a combination of both? Might a job that entails using fine motor skills and delicate materials be better than one that requires gross motor actions and heavy duty materials? Would the person prefer a quiet environment or one full of action?

Family members, school personnel, and relevant others can be an additional source of information. These people can be interviewed in the setting where they typically interact with the individual, which often provides opportunities to further observe behaviors and interactions. Finally, information from secondary sources such as personal files may provide details of past work experiences, past Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals, strengths and weaknesses, academic functioning, and so forth.

The social network of an individual, including his or her family and community contacts, can also be assessed during the pre-employment phase. An individual's support network of acquaintances, relatives, and community contacts can have a powerful influence on job performance and stability (Karan & Knight, 1986). For example, family members or neighbors might provide reliable transportation to and from work. Therefore, evaluators should focus at least as much attention on the social networks which surround an individual as on the individual in isolation, and ascertain how, where, and when networks provide, or fail to provide, support. Community contacts are also a valuable source of job leads (Azrin & Besalel, 1980). Follow up studies of special education students have shown that, of those who are employed, many found their jobs informally, through family members or other social contacts (Hazazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985). Other relevant information which can help in decision making includes the location of the individual's home in relation to area businesses and public transportation options.

It may take anywhere from several days to several weeks to gather necessary assessment information. At no time in this phase is it necessary to use a special evaluation center or even the agency headquarters. No special equipment or tools need be used, other than a structured form upon which to record consumer profile information. Mcloughlin, Garner, & Callahan (1987) provide an excellent example of such a form.

The evaluation process continues as the agency person who knows the prospective worker begins job development. As job leads are developed, general job site inventories may be used to assess the characteristics of the work setting in relation to those of the individual (Brown et al., 1986). Once a prospective job has been secured, a more in-depth job or task analysis allows the agency staff person to document the steps involved in completing the job. By doing so, the staff person can determine if any preliminary modifications are required in the worksite or job design.

The amount of time needed to implement a functional, ecological evaluation parallels that of traditional evaluations. That is, traditional intake, testing, and situational assessment procedures may last from several days to several weeks. The outcomes of the two methods of evaluation, however, are very different. A functional evaluation leads directly to job placement, whereas traditional evaluations typically lead to sheltered placement and readiness training.

Post-Employment information and Procedures

Evaluation continues after the employee begins working. Strong consideration should be given to maintaining the involvement of the same agency staff person who conducted the assessment and who was involved in securing the job placement. Such a practice lends continuity and cohesion to the process for both the supported employee and the employer.

Comparison of the employee's performance with that of nondisabled coworkers helps identify areas of discrepancy for instructional intervention or job modifications and adaptations (Brown, 1984). Specifically, a task analysis which lists the specific steps of the job is used as a basis for comparing the performance of the employee with severe disabilities. When discrepancies occur, decisions are made whether to teach the task as is, or to make modifications aimed at increasing independence. The discreet and ongoing collection of data during training serves to document progress toward the acquisition of required job tasks (Mcloughlin, Gamer, & Callahan, 1987).

The second area requiring assessment is the social interaction and social climate of the workplace. Each work environment is to some extent a unique social system, with its own customs, expectations, traditions, and rituals (Hirszomicz, 1983). A great deal of informal, or "surplus" interaction occurs within any work setting (Henderson & Argyle, 1985; Peponis, 1985), and adaptation to the social aspects of work cannot be ignored or merely assumed. Moreover, a considerable amount of support is naturally available within work environments (Nisbet & Hagner, 1988) that can be utilized or adapted as a means of providing needed job support for workers with severe disabilities. Sathe (1983) and Wilkins (1983) have developed assessment methods for the culture of a work organization within the context of business management that could be adapted for use in assessing the social aspects of work from a rehabilitation perspective.

A third area of importance is the assessment of job satisfaction, which should occur after the individual has accommodated to the job and periodically thereafter. The assessment of consumer satisfaction is integral to any responsible provision of services. Job satisfaction, in particular, is an important component of career development which has consistently shown a negative correlation with such variables as job loss, absenteeism, and interpersonal problems (Dawis, 1984). The traditional service structure within vocational rehabilitation has been designed around the employee who will succeed at and keep for life the first job obtained. Chubon (1985) has called this the "one shot" approach to rehabilitation. But it is not unusual for workers in our society to change jobs numerous times, sometimes even adopting a "try-out" approach to a job. Ideally, the ongoing nature of supported employment services will allow for this degree of flexibility. Non-traditional methods of assessing job satisfaction have been developed that are suitable for workers with even the most severe disabilities (York, 1986).

The performance, social acceptance, and satisfaction of the supported employee should be monitored periodically over time to determine if progress is being made and if, in fact, the job continues to be a good match for the person. Ongoing evaluation should continue for the duration of the job. If the job proves to be a poor match, an alternative job should be sought based on hypotheses generated from this experience. For example, based on initial information, a supported employment specialist developed a job for one supported employee that involved very routinized and sporadic coworker contacts. Prior information led the specialist to believe that frequent or unpredictable social interactions would be stressful to the employee and jeopardize the chance for success. In fact, this employee expressed dissatisfaction with the social isolation experienced on the job and requested a change. A second job in an environment with a more social atmosphere turned out to be far better suited to this employee's needs. Table I summarizes the pre- and post-placement components of evaluation in supported employment.

The evaluation strategies delineated above can be implemented in nonintrusive ways so that employers and coworkers are not impositioned. If the agency person is discreet, an employer may not even be aware of the evaluation procedures being used. In situations when employers have been involved, they seem to be very receptive and accommodating. After all, job analyses, job modifications, and data collection procedures are not uncommon to business environments.


The recent evolution of supported employment has challenged traditional service ideologies and practices for people with severe disabilities. In order to respond to current trends, traditional rehabilitation practices such as vocational evaluation must be reexamined and revamped. Concepts of vocational evaluation should be expanded in at least three directions. First, the person with a disability should not be the sole focus of assessment. Such factors as workplace environment, worker social networks, and workplace cultures are equally legitimate and necessary foci of assessment attention.

Second, the context in which assessment occurs should be of primary importance. That is, behavior should be assessed within the same settings in which it is ultimately expected to occur.

Third, the process of vocational evaluation should cover the entire scope of career-related services: job-seeking, placement, training, and follow-along. Rather than being viewed as a pre-placement phase unto itself, evaluation should be considered as a service that is integral to the provision of these other services. To a large extent, the separation of vocational services into distinct phases is artificial. The same job can be viewed from different perspectives and have different facets, depending on one's approach to the job. For example, a job can have an "employment" component, in which the employee receives income and other satisfactions in return for production. The same job can have a "training" component, in which the job position represents a possible jumping off point for some further career opportunity. Also likely within this job would be an "evaluation" component, whereby the employer and the employee size up the relative advantages and disadvantages of the relationship on an ongoing basis in light of their needs and other prospects. The issue is not whether to evaluate first, then train, then place; or to place first, then train, then evaluate. All three components occur together.

Whenever any evaluation is performed, the all-important first step is to determine what question is being asked and for what purpose information is being gathered. Within a supported employment context, the question is not "which people belong in community settings?" Nor is it correct to ask "in which of a series of continuum options should this person be placed?" Correctly understood, supported employment principles are incompatible with a "continuum" approach to services (Taylor, 1988). The appropriate questions are, " in which community settings is this person likely to be successful?", "what adaptations are required?", and "what support services should be provided?" The purpose of vocational evaluation is to provide a structured approach for obtaining answers to these questions. We have argued that more than mere tinkering and repackaging is required if vocational evaluation is to serve the needs of supported employment programs, and have attempted to outline a model of vocational evaluation which is compatible with the basic belief that people with severe disabilities can be successfully employed if placed in individually appropriate settings and provided training and ongoing support.


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 Table 1
Pre- and Post-Placement Evaluation Components in Supported
 Pre-employment Evaluation Components
Job Seeker
 Conduct structured interviews
 Spend time together in a variety of daily activities and
 familiar environments
 Gather information from family members and significant
 Read: personal files
 identify existing and potential social supports
Potential Work Setting
 conduct general job site inventories
 Conduct task analyses
 Observe general social climate
 Post-employment Evaluation Components
Job Task
 Compare work performance with that of
 nondisabled coworkers
 Evaluate work performance
Workplace Culture
 Examine natural supports
 Evaluate social swills
Job Satisfaction
 Obtain feedback from supported employee
 Obtain feedback from employer and coworkers
 Evaluate job match
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Author:Hagner, David
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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