Home  >>  Blog  >>  Supported employment programmes for young adults with learning disabilities

Supported employment programmes for young adults with learning disabilities

There are 1.4 million people in the UK classified as having a learning disability but according to recent estimates, just 7-10% are currently in paid employment – despite a willingness and ability to work (Mencap, 2016, and Office of National Statistics, 2015).

The UK Government’s White Paper Valuing Employment Now: Real Jobs for People with Learning Disabilities (2009) acknowledged that those with learning disabilities appear to ‘have been left behind.’ How do EPs better support these young people and their families during transition in order for them to achieve their ambitions?

Barriers to Achieving Paid Employment

Young people with learning disabilities face many barriers to achieving and maintaining paid employment. These barriers include ‘within person cognitive deficits’ such as difficulties in concentration, attention, memory, processing, language, organisation and/or social communication skills (Department of Health, 2011, Terman et al., 1996).

The social model of disability necessitates consideration of systemic factors such as low expectations of people with learning disabilities by professionals, their families and of themselves, and a lack of training and work experience opportunities for young disabled people more generally (Wilson, 2003, and Humber, 2014).

For many young learning disabled people, aspirations of social inclusion and independence remain closely associated with achieving paid employment (Hall and McGarrol, 2012), yet career development has been given scant attention in the theoretical literature (Patton and McMahon, 1999).

The Policy Context

Eighteen years ago Valuing People (Department of Health, 2001), together with the Welsh and Scottish equivalents Fulfilling the Promises (Learning disability Advisory Group, 2001) and The Same as You? (Scottish Executive, 2000) championed the rights, independence, choice and inclusion of people with learning disabilities, and identified employment as a priority area of need.

The Special Educational Needs Disability Code of Practice (2015)

The SEN Code of Practice extended the remit of EPs to include young adults up to the age of 25 years old and this required a more thorough consideration of the transition process for young people leaving school. The Code requires that the process of transition be given formal consideration at each annual review from Year 9 onwards. As well as providing guidance about young people accessing FE opportunities, two ‘pathways to employment’ are specified alongside traditional apprenticeships: traineeships and supported internships.

What do we know about existing transition planning from the wider literature?

Much dissatisfaction has been conveyed about how well the legislation and guidance around transition planning works for young people with learning disabilities and their families in practice. For example, the results of a questionnaire by Ward et al. (2003) completed by 272 parents of young people with learning disabilities reported the following based on the 1994 Code of Practice:

  • One in five of the young people who had left school since transition planning became a legal requirement did so without any planning as far as their parents were aware.
  • One third of those still at school did not have a transition plan.
  • Where transition planning had occurred, families felt that there was a mismatch between the topics that they wanted information about and what was covered.
  • The most common positive themes of the process which emerged were in reference to work experience or link placements, which gave the young people new experiences, a sense of a next step, time to get accustomed to new locations and a means of informed choices (p.134).
  • Parents also valued the commitment of school staff to consider the support needs, talents, wishes and interests of the young people when discussing the most appropriate placements for them.

The North Somerset ‘People First’ Transition Project Team

Using focus groups to understand different information needs in preparation for transition, the views of 27 young people were sought, alongside 19 parents and 19 supporters. More information about employment was the most frequently mentioned topic by the young people.

Many parents felt uninformed about the process of transition and were concerned about their young person’s ability to take on responsibilities and have their care needs met, as well as how they would be treated by the wider public (Tarleton and Ward, 2005). Parents stated that more information was needed about the options available locally, a view also conveyed through 149 parental interviews conducted by O’Brien (2006).

Are professionals and policy makers pushing young people in another direction?

With the aim of identifying factors that lead to successful transition to employment for young people with learning disabilities, Kaehne and Beyer (2009a) conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 British professionals (SENCos of special schools and staff from employment advice services). Just four of the respondents identified ‘employment’ to be the aim of the transition process. Kaehne and Beyer (2009b) argue that opportunities to gain work experience achieve better outcomes for young people with learning disabilities compared to pursuing FE, since this may serve to sharpen their sense of confidence and hone their adaptive skills.

Kaehne and- Beyer (2010) have been critical of processes that ‘recycle’ people with learning disabilities through college courses over a number of years without evidence of an improvement in their employability. The authors suggested that supported employment programmes have been underexposed compared to pathways into FE due to uncertainty about long-term prospects.

However, supported employment programmes have been criticised as further marginalising those with more complex needs in their selection bias of the most able learners (Hall and McGarroll, 2012). The authors critique much of the research in this field as comprised largely of interviews with policymakers and practitioners, for their narrow and outcome focused approach.

What are the potential outcomes of supported employment programmes?

The positive psychological effects of paid employment for this group have been well documented, including increased self-esteem and quality of life (Banks et al., 2010), increased independence and choice (Wistow and Schneider, 2003) and improved social inclusion (Jahoda et al., 2009).

Where young people’s views of supported employment or work experience schemes have been sought, positive outcomes such as enjoyment of their work-based placement, pride in their achievements, and increased confidence and self-esteem are reported (Skellern and Astbury, 2012).

As part of the Regional SEN Transition to Employment (Real Opportunities) Project in Wales, interviews were conducted with 24 young people with learning disabilities who participated in supported work experience. They expressed that they liked doing practical things, being treated like adults and meeting new people (Beyer et al., 2016). Interviews with 25 family members also demonstrated that the young people increased in confidence and were better able to meet new people as a result. Positive benefits for employers were also reported via questionnaire, suggesting that they would be more open minded about employing young people with learning disabilities in future.

Are workplaces accommodating of those with additional needs?

MacIntyre (2013) critiques policies aimed at improving the employability of disabled people as deficit-focused, which often put the onus on young people with disabilities contributing financially rather than challenging the inclusivity of practices within the labour market. The model of supported employment seeks to reconcile this criticism by focusing not only on equipping young people with marketable job skills but also advocating for organisations to be more accommodating of difference.

MacIntryre found that for this to be successful, it relies on people with disabilities forming positive relationships in the workplace and highlights a number of instances where a lack of support from colleagues or employers led to placements breaking down. She therefore advocates for policy makers and practitioners to ‘consider the additional and personalised support that young people with learning disability will need to overcome barriers of social exclusion’ (MacIntyre, 2013, p.869).

The emerging role of EPs in supporting post-16 transitions

In recent years, EPs have worked to define their role in collaborating with other key stakeholders, including young people, their parents and professionals in the field of adult education to plan for successful outcomes.

In research on developing a competency framework for the initial training of EPs working with the Post-16 age group, Atkinson et al. (2015) surveyed 24 EPs on what aspects of transition should be included in the training curriculum for EPs. ‘Transition to employment’ was something which many considered a priority. They stated the need for EPs to become familiar with programmes and pathways offered by educational establishments and training providers and the support that they have in place for young people with SEND.

Person Centred Planning

Person Centred Planning (PCP) approaches have achieved recognition by EPs, social workers and other professionals as a means of facilitating successful transitions from school to FE or employment. This is achieved by enabling people with various SENDs to overcome the barriers that exist by focusing on strengths and looking beyond any recognised impairments (Brewster and Ramcharan, 2010).

As part of this process, transition planning programmes such as MAPS (Forest and Lusthaus, 1989) and PATH (O’Brien et al., 1993) seek to establish a ‘Circle of Support’ determined by the young person, who are then consulted about their dreams, aspirations and wishes in order to best plan for their future. This can be a complex and time-consuming process (Killbane and Thompson, 2004, Medora and Ledger, 2005). There is evidence to suggest that these approaches are least likely to be accessed by young people with mental health problems, challenging behaviour, autism or restricted mobility (Robertson et al., 2005). However, research has demonstrated that it is possible to engage those with complex communication needs by using flexible methods and tools, such as Talking Mats, to indicate their preferences (Cameron and Murphy, 2002).

Examples of supported employment and work experience placement schemes

In Ireland, Trinity College Dublin has begun offering a Certificate in Arts, Science and Inclusive Applied Practice, which is a two-year fulltime programme for adults with learning disabilities designed to support successful transitions into independent life and employment. Students attend college for three days a week, participating in lectures, completing coursework, sitting examinations, and engaging in work placement (Doyle, 2017). It was conceptualised in order to give participants a flavour of the social experience of attending university while at the same time preparing them in a practical way for the real-life challenges of paid employment.

Project SEARCH

Project SEARCH originated in America with the aim of helping high school graduates with learning disabilities access paid employment opportunities. Melling et al. (2011) highlight Project SEARCH as an example of how employers, schools and colleges have come together to deliver positive benefits for employers.

For one academic year participants rotate through three different placements with an active partner from the field of business, education, vocational or community rehabilitation providers, social security administration or long-term support agencies. The programme is designed and run collaboratively between a local specialist provision and partnership organisation, meaning the young people are supported by a SEN teacher (who has knowledge of their strengths and difficulties as learners) and a job coach (who matches students with placements according to their interests and has expertise in making necessary adjustments).

Project SEARCH defines a successful outcome as achieving ‘competitive employment in an integrated setting’ (i.e. alongside co-workers without disabilities). This is further defined as year-round (non-seasonal) employment for 16 hours per week or more with pay in line with the minimum wage or higher.

Project SEARCH in the UK

There are 32 sites in the UK that operate Project SEARCH, including Cricket Green School in the London Borough of Merton, now in their 7th year of running the programme. Historically the majority of special school leavers transition to life skills courses at nearby adult education colleges, with few reported to have entered employment fulltime upon leaving school.

Students opting to enrol in Project SEARCH complete a wide variety of placements in the local NHS hospital trust, which acts as the partnership organisation. Work experience placements have included sterilising operating equipment, sorting supplies, preparing and serving food in the cafeteria, cleaning, porterage and portering.

According to an independent review by Dr Dan Grant of Project SEARCH at Cricket Green School, 66% of participants over three years were reported to have been offered paid employment opportunities upon completion of the programme. This compares favourably to the overall employment figure of UK-wide participants in Project SEARCH, which according to Kaehne’s (2016) attempt to evaluate employment outcomes of Project SEARCH participants, stands at 51.5%. He recommends the need for further research to identify the contributory factors that set Project SEARCH apart from other work experience or supported employment programmes.


The existing literature is clear that a significant number of young people with learning disabilities aspire to achieve paid employment as a post-transition goal, but many access FE which is seen as a ‘default’ option due to a lack of other established pathways. This delays their entry to the job market and often fails to equip them with the transferrable skills needed to access paid employment.

Parents have expressed that more needs to be known about what alternative options are available locally. EPs have an important role in enabling the voices of young people with learning disabilities to be heard, and their needs to be met.

Supported employment schemes present a possible alternative route for young people to access paid employment. However, knowledge about what is available is not widely shared at present. Project SEARCH is one option which exists locally to assist young people with learning disabilities to achieve paid employment, if that is their goal.


Atkinson, C., Dunsmuir, S., Lang, J., and Wright, S. (2015) Developing a competency framework for the initial training of educational psychologists working with young people aged 16–25. Educational Psychology in Practice, 31(2), pp.159-173.

Banks, P., Jahoda, A., Dagnan, D., Kemp, J. and Williams, V. (2010) Supported employment for people with intellectual disability: the effects of job breakdown on psychological well-being. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities 23, pp.344-354.

Beyer, S., Goodere, L., and Kilsby, M. (1996) The Costs and Benefits of Supported Employment Agencies. London: The Stationery Office.

Beyer, S., Meek, A., and Davies, A. (2016) Supported work experience and its impact on young people with intellectual disabilities, their families and employers. Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities, 10(3), pp.207-220.

Brewster and Ramcharan (2010) ‘Enabling and supporting person-centred planning’ in Grant, Ramcharan, Flynn and Richardson (Eds.) (2010) Learning Disability: A Life Cycle Approach (2nd Ed.) (2005) McGraw Hill – Open Uni Press.

Cameron, L., and Murphy, J. (2002) Enabling young people with a learning disability to make choices at a time of transition. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol 30(3), pp. 105-112

Department of Health (2001) Valuing People – A new strategy for learning disability for the 21st century. London: HMSO.

*Doyle, A. (2017) Creating Transition Pathways for Young People with SEND: An Example from Ireland. Edpsy.org.uk website, retrieved 28.08.19

Forest, M. and Lusthaus, E. (1989). Promoting educational equality for all students: Circles and MAPS in Stainback, S, Stainback, W. and Forest, M. (Eds.), Educating All Students in the Mainstream of Regular Education (pp. 43-58). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Hall, E. and McGarrol, S. (2012) Bridging the gap between employment and social care for people with LD: Local area co-ordination and in-between spaces of social inclusion. Geoforum 43, pp. 1276-1286

Humber, L.A. (2014) Social Inclusion through employment: the marketization of employment support for people with Learning Disabilities in the UK. Disability and Society 29(2), pp. 275-289.

Jahoda, A., Banks, P., Dagnan, D., Kemp, J., Kerr, W., and Williams, V. (2009) Starting a job: the social and emotional experience of people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disability 2, pp.421-425.

Kaehne, A. (2016) Project SEARCH UK – Evaluating Its Employment Outcomes. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities. Vol. 29(6), pp.519-530.

Kaehne, A., and Beyer, S. (2010) ‘Stroppy’ or ‘confident’? Do carers and professionals view the impact of transition support on young people differently? British Journal of Learning Disabilities 39, pp.154-160.

Kaehne, A., and Beyer, S. (2009a) Transition Partnerships: The Views of Education Professionals and Staff in Support Services for Young People with Learning Disabilities. British Journal of Special Education, 36(2), pp.112-119.

Kaehne, A. and Beyer, S. (2009b) ‘Views of professionals on aims and outcomes of transition for young people with learning disabilities.’ British Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol 37(2), pp. 138-144.

Learning Disability Advisory Group (2001) Fulfilling the Promises: Proposals for a framework for services for people with learning disabilities. Cardiff: Welsh assembly Government.

MacIntyre, G. (2014) The potential for inclusion: Young people with learning disabilities experiences of social inclusion as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 17(7), pp. 857-871.

Medora, H., and Ledger, S., (2005) Implementing and Reviewing PCP: Links with Care Management, Clinical Support and Commissioning. In Cambridge, P. (Ed.), Person Centered Planning and Care Management with People with Learning Disabilities. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Melling, K., Beyer, S., and Kilsby, M. (2011) Supported employment for people with learning disabilities in the UK: the last 15 years. Tizard Learning Disability Review, Vol. 16 Issue 2, pp. 23-32.

O’Brien, G. (2006) Young adults with learning disabilities: a study of psychosocial functioning at transition to adult services. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 48, pp.195-199.

Patton, W. and McMahon, M. (1999) Career development and Systems Theory: A New Relationship. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Skellern, J. and Astbury, G. (2012) Gaining employment: the experience of students at a further education college for individuals with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42, pp.60–67

Scottish Executive (2000) The Same as You? A review of services for people with learning disabilities. Glasgow: Scottish Executive.

Tarleton, B., and Ward, L. (2005) Changes and choices: Finding out what information young people with learning disabilities, their parents and supporters need at transition. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol 33(2), pp. 70-76

Terman, D.L., Larner, M.B., Stevenson, C.S., and Behrman, R.E. (1996) Special education for students with disabilities: Analysis and recommendations. The future of children: Special education for students with disabilities 6, pp.4-24.

Ward, L., Mallett, R., and Heslop, P. (2003) Transition Planning: How Well Does It Work for Young People with Learning Disabilities and Their Families? British Journal of Special Education, v30 n3 p132-37

Wistow, R., and Schnieder, J. (2003) Users views on supported employment and social inclusion: a qualitative study of 30 people in work. British Journal of Learning Disabilities 31(4), pp. 166-173

About Charlotte Richardson

Charlotte works for a LA Autism Outreach Service and is also a parent of a child with complex needs. Her professional interests include autism awareness, parent partnership and post 16 employment opportunities for young adults with Learning Disabilities.

View all posts by Charlotte Richardson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.