Cross-disability Peer Employment Support

What is peer employment support?

Peer employment support is a method for people with disabilities to help one another in meeting their emotional, social and practical needs. The support provided by individuals with similar experiences often leads to better health outcomes and quality of life. Decades of experience in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and the Independent Living movement have shown the great benefits of mutual support to individuals struggling with addiction, health and disability. Peer support has also been important as a source of encouragement and inspiration among people with disabilities, as they are better able to connect given the shared and lived experience.

The Issue: Hopelessness and Isolation

Many individuals with disabilities feel very hopeless about their employment opportunities and career future. In many instances, people with disabilities have been discouraged from working, been told that they could not work or had negative experiences at work. As a result, many people with disabilities have lost hope and come to believe they cannot work. For many people with disabilities, social isolation and exclusion is a huge barrier to achieving employment. Today we know that most people find their jobs through people they know, such as being recommended for a job or learning about new job opportunities. For a large number of people with disabilities, paid providers and other individuals within the disability services sector are the main sources of social connections. Consequently, many people with disabilities do not have as many opportunities as non-disabled individuals to learn about job opportunities, develop relationships of trust and receive recommendations for employment.

How can peer employment support help?

The use of peer employment support can help to improve overall outcomes and feelings of hopelessness and isolation. In particular, peer employment support can increase integration into mainstream society, provide more natural supports and decrease feelings of isolation by expanding social networks. Lastly, a key feature of this model is the ability to improve one's sense of hope and provide a more positive outlook on employment potential.
Peer employment support is important because many individuals with disabilities are often segregated from mainstream society and do not have the same level of access to employment opportunities as non-disabled individuals.

Listed below are some of the key benefits and roles of peer employment support:

  • Build hope and support the belief that employment is a possibility for everyone through positive role-modeling

  • Provide emotional support and advice with a higher level of credibility through the shared experience

  • Assist with navigation of and access to the employment system

  • Expand social networks and develop close relationships with others with similar experiences

The goals of this project are to improve awareness, encourage the use of peer employment support given the known benefits and improve the ability of people with disabilities to obtain meaningful employment opportunities.

Challenges for Vocational and Rehabilitation Programs

Improving the "capital" (resources) available to an individual is vital to achieving employment and economic self-sufficiency. Succesful employment is most often achieved when individuals are supported to address all the 3 forms of capital to overcome issues of unemployment, underemployment and poverty:

  • Human: Training and skills that improve an individual's ability to perform a job, such as education and specialized skills.

  • Material: Tangible and economic supports necessary for an individual to work, such as stable housing, reliable transportation and work tools.

  • Social: Relationships and connections that people make which enable them to obtain and maintain a job, such as improved social networks and peer support to cope with stressors.

Unfortunately, most vocational, rehabilitation, habilitation and clinical programs often focus on developing the "human capital" of individuals, without realizing the impact and equal importance of material and social capital. In fact, research suggests that social capital contributes to the other two forms by linking individuals to valuable resources. It is important that any and all services and supports for people with disabilities, including peer support, address all 3 forms of capital which are essential in achieving and maintaining employment.

Agenda for change- Where do we go from here?

In the fall of 2009, NYAPRS, in partnership with the New York Association of Independent Living (NYAIL) and the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State (SANYS), conducted a series of meetings, interviews and focus groups with providers of peer-run programs throughout New York State. Based on the contributions of over 60 leaders and cross-disability (psychiatric, physical, developmental) providers, key themes and areas for improvement were identified, which must be addressed in order to make peer employment support practices more widely available and accessible.

  1. Cultural and Systemic Change: For peer support to truly have an impact on the employment and economic outcomes of people with disabilities, a cultural change is necessary within currently available services. Peer support cannot simply be an "added" service. Providers and advocates must continue working on the transformation of disability services and supports to ensure these embrace the belief that everyone can work and that promoting employment is at the core of facilitating the community integration and quality of life of people with disabilities.

  2. Cross-disability approach: A cross-disability approach can help improve the efficiency of services and increase awareness of rehabilitative services within the community. By multiple disability groups and providers working together to provide peer employment support, a stronger network of services and advocacy coalition would be created.

  3. Funding advocacy: Funding support is needed for peer employment programs and support initiatives to offer cross-disability resources and support. Advocates and service administrators must continue advocating for funding dedicated to expanding peer employment support services.

  4. Increase capacity for self-advocacy: The ability of individuals with disabilities to advocate for themselves as well as and their communities is crucial to improve employment and economic outcomes.

  5. Focus on social capital: An often forgotten component of capital that is essential to obtaining and maintaining jobs is social capital (the relationships and connections that impact one's ability to maintain a job). It is essential for peer support not to reinforce self-segregated networks of people with disabilities, but to serve as a bridge to the community at large. It is a challenge for all peer providers and advocates of peer services to develop the best strategies to foster true community-based employment and integration.