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Customized Employment
Applying Practical Solutions for Employment Success

Volume II


Office of Disability Employment Policy

Section 1: Job Seeker Exploration
Section 2: Self-Representation and Customized Employment
Section 3: Negotiating with Employers
Section 4: Developing Self-Employment and Microenterprise
Section 5: Securing Assets for Customized Employment
Section 6: Resources

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) within the U.S. Department of Labor is committed to improving employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. To achieve this goal, ODEP established a Customized Employment initiative to build the capacity of workforce systems to serve all customers, including individuals with disabilities. The strategies developed through this initiative can assist all workforce customers who have complex needs and may require more individual assistance to achieve their employment goals. The Customized Employment initiative also focuses on using universal strategies that can be used to serve any customers with barriers to employment, not just individuals with disabilities.

Customized Employment: Applying Practical Solutions for Employment Success is the second in a series of Customized Employment portfolios. The first portfolio, Customized Employment: Practical Solutions for Employment Success, provides a general overview of the following topics:

This second piece expands on those topics and provides ideas on how to use these strategies with job seekers for their own Customized Employment success.

Copies of the Customized Employment portfolios can be ordered from the Office of Disability Employment Policy at 866.633.7365 or read online at

Information for these portfolios came from:

For additional information on Customized Employment, contact:

877.889.5627 (TTY)

NCWD/A Partners

Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston
Center for the Study & Advancement of Disability Policy
Law, Health Policy & Disability Center, University of Iowa College of Law
Marc Gold & Associates/Employment for All
National Association of Workforce Boards
National Conference of State Legislatures
TransCen, Inc.

Customized Employment: An Overview

The Customized Employment process is a flexible blend of strategies, services, and supports designed to increase employment options for job seekers with complex needs through voluntary negotiation of the employment relationship with an employer. The job seeker is the primary source of information and drives the process. The Customized Employment process begins with an exploration phase, which lays the foundation for employment planning. Planning results in a blueprint for the job search where an employment relationship is negotiated to meet the needs of both the job seeker and the employer.

Job Seeker Exploration

Time spent engaging with the job seeker to explore their unique needs, abilities, and interests, as well as their complexities, is essential to establishing successful employment. Unlike traditional testing or standardized assessment, Customized Employment engages the job seeker in controlling the exploration process, and captures their preferences and connections in the community. The job seeker selects friends, family, and colleagues to participate in the exploration phase so that they can share positive perspectives and potential connections to employment opportunities. At the conclusion of the exploration phase, the job seeker makes decisions about their employment goals and potential employers to approach.

Customized Planning

Information gathered from the exploration process is the foundation for Customized Employment planning. The Customized Employment planning process should result in a blueprint for the job search. There are also numerous tools-including profiles and portfolios-that can be used to capture, organize, and represent the information that is collected during exploration and planning.

Employer Negotiations

An essential element in Customized Employment is negotiating job duties and employee expectations to align the skills and interests of a job seeker to the needs of an employer. This negotiation results in a job description that outlines a customized relationship between employer and employee. Options for customizing a job description include job carving, negotiating a new job description, job creation, and job sharing. Other points of potential negotiation include job supports, the hours or location of the job, or specifics of supervision.

Job Seeker Exploration: Laying the Groundwork for Customized Employment


Suitable employment for job seekers with complex lives rarely comes from newspaper want ads, job postings, online career ads, or signs in shop windows. Customizing the relationship between employers and job seekers can offer an effective alternative. Employment professionals need to get beyond comparative, competitive evaluation strategies and embrace a more person-focused strategy-job seeker exploration using a discovery approach.

What Do We Mean by Exploration?

Exploration is a strategy that asks employment professionals and job seekers to discover all the facets of the individual's life that relate to employment. It is only from this in-depth exploration that we can truly customize an employment relationship.

Exploration can be accomplished in a number of ways, depending on the needs and preferences of the job seeker. Many job seekers will wish to engage in a process of self-exploration, often facilitated by others. This involves answering questions, reflecting on ideas and past experiences, and identifying personal issues and challenges. Other job seekers may wish to participate in a peer group such as a job club in which members assist each other in shared exploration. Still other job seekers, especially those with significant complexities, will benefit from facilitated exploration, a process in which an employment professional, family member, or friend spends the time necessary to understand the job seeker's strengths, needs, and preferences.

This article will focus primarily on facilitated exploration. It is written for the employment professional who may have the opportunity to act as a facilitator in the exploration process.

Why Is the Exploration Phase So Important?

Exploration is a critical first step in the Customized Employment process. Once planning identifies the job seeker's strengths, needs, and interests, a plan can be developed describing how those skills can best be utilized. Unless we first discover information about the job seeker's life, we often develop goals for the job seeker rather than goals by the job seeker. Exploratory time is necessary to understand the job seeker's lifestyle, personal goals, preferences, experiences, and needs. It is also critical to identify the complexities that the job seeker brings to potential employment relationships. Formal testing and vocational evaluation procedures may be used to supplement this exploration when specific additional information is needed to complete the picture.

Note of Advice Regarding Consent, Confidentiality, and Pre-Employment Inquiries

The process of exploration involves working with an individual to understand his or her strengths and interests. The job seeker must drive the process and identify whom they want to participate. It is critical that facilitators working with a job seeker have the job seeker's permission to speak with the range of individuals who might be part of the exploration process. In addition, prior to exploration there should be an explicit discussion with the job seeker explaining that this exploration process may involve inquiries into whether and to what extent the job seeker has a disability. It is vital that the job seeker be informed that the information requested is intended for use solely in connection with the voluntary affirmative action efforts of the Customized Employment process. The job seeker must be informed that (1) the specific information is being requested on a voluntary basis; (2) the information will be kept confidential in accordance with applicable law; (3) the refusal to provide such information will not have an adverse effect on the provision of employment services; and (4) the information requested will be used only in accordance with applicable law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Workforce Investment Act.

Facilitating Exploration: Ingredients for Success

A positive attitude sets the pace for all exploration activities. It is essential to maintain the focus on the job seeker's interests, strengths, and needs to determine the conditions under which the job seeker will "shine" as an employee. If you are the exploration facilitator, you need to:

In addition, when discussing disability, staff should focus on the individual's abilities and the accommodations and auxiliary aids and services that may be needed in order to use these abilities, rather than on limitations.

Skills Necessary for Facilitated Exploration

The facilitator must use the following skills in this exploration phase in order to achieve success.

There is a great deal to be learned about the job seeker if all parties begin by sharing their picture of the job seeker from different-yet optimistic-perspectives that relate to work.

Listening carefully to all parties in the exploration process creates a clearer understanding for everyone. However, employment professionals must also be observant and pay attention beyond the original answers and surface meaning. Go beyond simple questions and answers as your primary strategy for gaining insight.

All parties involved in the exploration process must reflect on their thoughts, memories, and aspirations for the job seeker. The time spent in reflection with the job seeker, family, and others allows everyone to see personal information from an employment perspective while sorting out the complexities in the job seeker's life.

Describing the job seeker should be done in a positive, comprehensive, robust, and non-evaluative manner, whether verbally or in written form. This is important because it:

Give and take
Discussion and compromise are necessary in the exploration process to ensure that everyone achieves a win/win outcome. The facilitator will need to negotiate with the job seeker and other participants on an array of topics, from setting times to meet to seeking clarity on the details of the desired type of employment.


Note of Advice Regarding Disclosure of a Job Seeker's Disability

Inquiring about disabilities may be useful in assisting an individual to move into employment. However, service providers need to be aware of the rules governing pre-employment inquiries into whether and to what extent an individual has a disability. See "Note of Advice Regarding Consent, Confidentiality, and Pre-Employment Inquiries" on p. 2 about when and how to share this information. Generally speaking, service providers may not disclose to others disability-related information about the job seeker. Remember that information concerning a disability needs to be kept confidential unless the individual gives explicit consent. (For additional information, see "Appendix A-Description of rules relating to disability-related information" in Strategies and Practices for Effectively Serving All One-Stop Customers-A Framework for Systems Change and the U.S. Department of Labor Civil Rights Center at

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Techniques for Discovering Information

There are several ways that facilitators can explore the job seeker's employment-related goals and interests to uncover pertinent information.

Good observation skills are vital to effective exploration. A skilled observer will note the time the job seeker takes to move from one area to another and their interactions with both familiar people and strangers. The facilitator will also find the chance to observe the job seeker as he or she makes decisions to respond to different cues. The employment professional should observe the job seeker in different situations and a range of environments. It is also important to observe routines that can give a picture of how full or empty the job seeker's day is, and whether or not accommodations are needed.

Another exploration tool is conversations with the job seeker and family, friends, teachers, and support people selected by the job seeker to be part of this process. Conversations should be free-flowing but use a subtle structure to keep the process on track. It is important to consider words chosen, body language, and tone.

While job seekers, family, and friends are likely to be comfortable with a conversational style, more structured conversations with service providers, counselors, and other professionals may help to provide information in a manner more consistent with their experience. Interviewing may also be effective with job seekers and non-professionals when seeking perspective on more routine parts of a person's day that may lend themselves to shorter responses.

The "Where" of Exploration: Consider a Range of Places

Home is where most job seekers are most "who they are." Going to a job seeker's home, if invited, establishes trust that the process is primarily about them-not the agency, the system, or the labor market. The job seeker's home is a place to understand the complexity of that person's life. Home is also where, for most people, life intricacies are worked out, such as preparing meals, enjoying hobbies, sharing rides, and the basic organization of day-to-day activities. Such visits help the employment professional understand the number of people living there, their intensity in the job seeker's life, and possible contributions they may offer the job seeker when developing employment options.

Familiar community places
Since most jobs are performed in the community, it is necessary to go into the community with the job seeker. Visiting a place that is part of the job seeker's daily routine can give information on responses to that setting, such as the job seeker's skills, pace, dress, acquaintances, and social interactions. Job seekers can help identify these places when sharing their daily routines with the facilitator.

New places in the community
When the employment professional observes the job seeker engaging in novel activities, it is important to learn how the job seeker identifies where to go, responds to the natural cues in a new environment, and meets strangers. This information will be critical as you recognize strengths or needs for the work environment, and consider strategies to support the job seeker in the new job.

The "Who" of Exploration: Identifying a Range of People

Job seeker and immediate family
Information should be gathered initially from the job seeker and then from trusted family and friends, as appropriate, who are willing to participate in developing employment for the job seeker. They can provide insight about the job seeker's distinct characteristics.

Community connections
This group may consist of extended family, neighbors, church members, or other connections in the community. These individuals can have insight into the job seeker's unique abilities and interests. They may also be resources to "open doors" when contacting targeted employers.

Personal representatives
Job seekers often use a personal representative to assist and potentially represent them to an employer. This can be a counselor, job developer, advocate, employment professional, or other qualified person. The personal representative may or may not be the facilitator of the exploration phase of the Customized Employment process. If the personal representative is not the facilitator, in order to understand the job seeker's background and negotiate effectively with employers, the representative should be involved in the exploration process.

Service providers, counselors, teachers, and other professionals
Professionals who care about the job seeker can offer an important perspective. Try to ensure that the professional either has or had direct contact with the job seeker. In addition to those professionals who have regular, direct contact with the job seeker, there is often an array of people in other staff and service roles who might be able to offer insight and information.

Making Time for Exploration

Many people say they don't have time for such an in-depth exploration. However, without adequate time for exploration a job seeker is likely to remain either chronically unemployed or chronically changing jobs. Different methods and services are required to reach a different outcome. More time spent on exploration will pay off in less time spent on the job search, successful outcomes, and longer retention.


Describing Sue's Activity

Sue creates needlepoint items to be framed for her family. Most of the items are family names that she puts together by counting the number of holes for each letter to create a template. She takes care to use the colors in the recipient's home, and makes one item a week. While she usually uses material that has ten stitches to an inch, she prefers 22 holes to an inch, which is very small and detailed work. Her work is precise, with each stitch being even and going in the same direction. She has been offered money for these creations from others outside the family. She typically works alone, late at night. Her mother purchases the materials to reduce Sue's frustration when making choices.

This description is useful in exploration because:

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A Note of Advice

Not spending enough time on these activities could result in a less comprehensive picture of the job seeker and potentially create the danger of overlooking some complexities that may impact employment. Also, remember that the exploration process is meant to uncover information regarding the job seeker's strengths and interest, not to test or assess the job seeker.

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Self-Representation and Customized Employment

Customized Employment entails the voluntary negotiation of an individually tailored relationship between a job seeker and an employer. Job seekers with more complex life situations have typically had assistance in customizing relationships with employers. Using an intermediary to negotiate the deal with employers can be helpful. This person is often referred to as a personal representative. However, many job seekers wish to represent themselves. This brief addresses issues and provides suggestions for anyone who is working with a job seeker who wants to self-represent when negotiating a customized relationship with an employer.

To Self-Represent or Not

When customizing an employment relationship, all parties should carefully consider whether a job seeker should self-represent or have a personal representative negotiate on his or her behalf. Employers are used to having job seekers go through the typical procedures of application, resume submission, and interviewing. If job seekers approach an employer in an attempt to customize, they are likely to be caught up in those traditional procedures. Employment professionals can consider the following when helping job seekers make the decision whether or not to self-represent.

Advantages of self-representation:

Advantages of using a personal representative:

Those Who Self-Represent Should Follow the Same Customized Employment Process

If the job seeker plans to self-represent, he or she should follow the same customized planning process recommended for those choosing a personal representative. Employment professionals can still have a supporting role. Employment professionals can:

Each of these areas is discussed further below.

1. Conduct exploration
The process starts with an in-depth self-exploration by the job seeker. If job seekers choose to self-represent, they still need to personally identify their hobbies, passions, and interests. Employment professionals can help the job seeker consider potential business locations, personal connections, and educational and work experiences. The professional can support the job seeker to involve family, friends, and other trusted professionals when identifying connections that may lead to employment. See "Job Seeker Exploration: Laying the Groundwork for Customized Employment" for additional information on the exploration phase.

2. Create a Customized Employment plan
The exploration phase provides a foundation for the Customized Employment plan. Even if the job seeker is self-representing, an employment professional can facilitate plan development. The job seeker directs the plan, decides whom to involve, and maintains the focus on his or her vision and career goals. Just as if the job seeker chose a personal representative, the customized planning process should culminate in a document that serves as a blueprint for the job search.

3. Develop representational materials
Representational materials are important, as they can provide structure in the negotiation process. These materials can take the form of a resume, brochure, or pictorial portfolio. Whatever form is chosen, these materials should provide information about the job seeker, highlight his or her job attributes, and support the need to customize an employment relationship. The portfolio can guide the job seeker through the presentation to prospective employers; it can also offer a personal touch necessary to establish a connection. Employment professionals can support job seekers in collecting and organizing their representative materials as they prepare for presentations.

4. Prepare for presentations
Unlike personal representatives, job seekers will likely be making a customized presentation for the first time, creating the need to practice. Employment professionals can consider the following steps to help job seekers prepare:

5. Offer partnering and backup support
When a job seeker decides to self-represent, customized negotiations should still be a shared effort. Having an employment professional offer partnering support can diminish the stress of shouldering the entire responsibility. Job seekers should be encouraged to take the lead and direct the process, but have access to professional backup as necessary.

6. Use connections
Personal connections should be the primary resource for identifying potential employers. Employment professionals can highlight the importance of asking the job seeker's friends, family, and other personal connections for ideas, contacts, and referrals to potential employers.

7. Negotiate with employers
The final aspect of the customized process involves negotiating with employers. It is best to approach an employer with the intent to offer a business proposal. The proposal highlights the job seeker's customized contributions, based on their plan, in exchange for the employer's willingness to negotiate a tailored job description. The following guidelines can be offered to enhance the presentation by the job seeker:


Making Sure the Job Seeker Is Ready

When a job seeker is considering self-representation, the following questions should be explored to ensure that the job seeker is prepared. If the job seeker feels uncomfortable with his or her capacity in any of these areas, even with partnering and support, a personal representative may be the best route to ensure success.

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Negotiating with Employers for Customized Employment Opportunities

The aim of Customized Employment is to align the job seeker's profile to a collection of job tasks that help an employer meet a specific need. Therefore, successful Customized Employment opportunities are developed by appealing directly to the employer's circumstances and needs, rather than trying to sell an employer on the general notion of hiring people with barriers to employment. In fact, negotiations with employers can only begin, and will only be successful, when everyone involved in the negotiation sees the benefit to the employer.

Typically, an employer will be willing to consider customizing job tasks for a prospective employee if this act:

Thus, effective negotiation with employers rests on having an understanding of an employer's workplace. This requires examining necessary tasks of the business and developing a plan that proposes increased efficiency and other benefits to the business via customizing job assignments to match the job seeker's skills, interests, and need for accommodation and support.

A quick reminder before we start...

There are two necessary initial steps in the customized job search process:

Practical Steps for Employer Negotiation

Once potential employers have been identified through exploration, there are four practical steps for negotiating with employers for Customized Employment:

  1. Become acquainted with work site needs
  2. Identify tasks that can be customized for the job seeker
  3. Negotiate an employment proposal
  4. Ensure post-hire success for the job seeker and employer

1. Become Acquainted with Work Site Needs

The employment professional can become acquainted with work site needs by conducting informational interviews, asking for a tour of the business, and showing an interest in meeting the employer's needs.

Conduct an informational interview
One of the best ways to begin to understand the employer's needs is to conduct an informational interview-that is, to ask the employer key questions that will lead to more knowledge of the business and its operations. Employers are generally quite willing to meet when there is a sincere desire to learn about the business. The purpose of the informational interview is not selling the employer on Customized Employment; it is simply a prelude to potential negotiations that may occur after more is learned about the business. The employment specialist should come to the meeting armed with a few straightforward questions.


Questions to Consider Asking on an Informational Interview

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Ask for a tour
Another method for understanding workplace needs is to tour the work site. A tour is a good way to clarify operational procedures, identify specific tasks, and pinpoint opportunities where customizing a position would benefit that employer. It is often necessary to visit the business more than once to learn about operations and identify potential tasks that could be customized.

During the tour, identify possible challenges or areas of operation that are particularly troublesome for the work site. Things to consider:

Through these observations and discussions during the informational interview and tour, the employment professional can begin to think about specific tasks that match a job seeker's interests or capabilities.

Show an interest
As you are becoming acquainted with work site needs, one of the most important things to convey to an employer is your interest in helping the operation run more efficiently. The primary objective of these initial meetings is to find out how an employer operates. Illustrating how Customized Employment could benefit an employer through creating task lists and negotiating the employment proposal are the next steps.

2. Create a Task List

Once the workplace is understood, a task list can be an effective tool to present the idea of Customized Employment and begin the negotiation process with an employer for a particular job seeker. Task lists present potential tasks that might be reassigned, established, or restructured for the job seeker. The task list leads to a customized job description that will be part of a negotiation.

Tasks lists may be extensive or brief, depending on the business and job seeker. There may be different tasks from different departments. These task lists become a "menu" from which responsibilities for customized jobs might be chosen during the negotiation. Sample task lists created from visits to three companies who later hired job seekers for customized assignments are given on the right.

In each of the examples, the lists reflect specific tasks as they are performed in a specific workplace. That is, instead of simply listing "collating," the list refers to "collating new hire packets," or "collating press kits." From each of these examples, jobs were eventually customized for job seekers based on assigning them selected tasks from the lists (not necessarily all of the tasks). And in each case the employer benefited from reassigning the tasks, as will be shown in the example in the next section.


Characteristics of an Effective Task List

A good task list:

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Book Distributor
Department Potential Tasks
Human Resources - Collage new hire packets
- Distribute paychecks
- File personnel information
- Shred old files
Marketing - Tear the covers off unsold paperbacks and magazines to return to publisher for rebates
- Attach security covers on music CDs and movie DVDs
- Collate press kits
- Fax press releases
Administration - Log and photocopy accounts received
- Mail billing statements
- Restock printers and photocopiers
- Meter outgoing mail
- Clean conference rooms and kitchens

Retail Clothing Store
Department Potential Tasks
Stockroom - Attach security devices
- Hang clothes
- Price stock
- Size stock
- Steam clothes
Sales Floor - Mark down clearance items
- Straighten and size racks and tables
- Return stock from fitting rooms to racks
- Clean mirrors, displays, and windows
- Vacuum the sales floor

Dentist Office
Potential Tasks
- File patient charts using color-coded and numerical systems
- Run routing slips and pull patient charts
- Take deposits to the bank
- Stamp envelopes and patient reminder postcards
- Take mail to the post office
- Escort patients to treatment areas
- Distribute mail to office staff

3. Negotiate the Employment Proposal

After the task list is complete, it is time to start thinking about negotiation. Remember that negotiations can only be effective when there is a perceived value to the employer. The negotiation presentation should include a description of the specific tasks that can be performed by the job seeker, the on-site and follow-up support to be provided, and, most importantly, how such an arrangement will benefit the business. Employment proposals can be informal and verbally negotiated or formal and in writing, depending on the relationship with the employer and business operating policies. A sample written proposal follows this article.

Effectively negotiated Customized Employment results when the job seeker and the employer jointly agree to the answers to these questions:


Seven Steps to Successful Negotiation

Successful negotiations include several specific steps. These steps utilize a fundamental feature of good-sense negotiation: Start negotiating strengths (tasks to be performed) first, then negotiate job seeker needs.

Step 1
Present tasks from the task list that might be reassigned.

Step 2
Outline how these tasks might be reassigned to the job seeker you are representing.

Step 3
Highlight the skills of the job seeker and how these skills can be used to complete the tasks.

Step 4
State the potential benefits to the employer as a result of assigning identified tasks to the job seeker.

Step 5
Discuss what your role (and your organization's role) will be in supporting the job seeker.

Step 6
Make the "ask"; that is, directly pose next steps to the employer. Does this look like it will work for you? Do you have more questions? Is there anything else I can do to make this work for you? Can we set a start date?

Step 7
Reiterate the potential benefits of the arrangements to the employer: How it will increase other workers' productivity, save money, generate more sales, etc. Additional negotiating points will include the hours of the job, wages, support and accommodation strategies, and productivity and outcome expectations.

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4. Ensure Post-Hire Success

The deal should never be considered sealed, however, until all the parties are satisfied with the outcomes of the arrangements. Even after the job seeker starts the job, there are often circumstances where renegotiating specific job aspects may be necessary.

One aspect of ensuring post-hire success is seeking continuous feedback from the employer. Based on the feedback provided, be ready to adjust supports and services. When evaluating post-hire activity, personal representatives can ask:

Remember, both the job seeker and the employer are customers of the person assisting with negotiation! This means doing what was promised and providing support to the job seeker and the employer in the agreed-upon fashion. Such follow-up not only helps identify areas where task assignments and supports need to be adjusted-it also shows the employer that you are sensitive to and considerate of the business's ultimate benefit.


Customized Employment Success Story

Colin is a job seeker with a particular interest and skill in organizing clothing and personal items. His initial task list, developed during the exploration phase, included sorting clothing inventory, sorting items according to size and color, and matching misplaced items. He cannot read but can recognize numbers and colors. He wanted to work in a retail store near his home.

After an informational interview and follow-up visits to a nearby retail clothing store, Marie (his personal representative) found that the store's shoe department was in constant chaos: shoes in the wrong boxes, shoes not returned to the shelves after customers tried them on, and lack of organization in the back room. Customer volume made it difficult for the sales department to keep up with these tasks.

Marie helped negotiate a customized position, called a "sales associate assistant," in the store's shoe department with tasks reassigned from sales associate job descriptions. An example of how the business benefited from this arrangement is illustrated in the table below.

Refined Task List, Assigned to New Employee Benefits to the Business as a Result

- Receives and unpacks shoe shipments
- Sorts shoes into size categories
- Puts sensors and tags on shoes
- Delivers shoes to proper rack
- Retrieves returned shoes

- Work flow of shipments reorganized so all shoes are always in the right place and everyone can find the right shoes
- Fewer customer complaints about the department
- Improved customer satisfaction
- Increased sales

It was an easy matter for the employer to agree to this newly created sales associate position once it was clear how it would solve an ongoing operational problem and ultimately add to the store's bottom line. As the store manager said, "Nothing beats showing me how you can make my life easier!" A starting wage was negotiated that mirrored the starting hourly wage of the store's sales clerks, and the hours were negotiated based on the store's needs and the job seeker's availability. Production expectations were adjusted several times once the new employee began the job, since it was a new arrangement for the store. Making the arrangement work after the hire was also a key to an ultimately successful negotiation. See the attached sample employment proposal for Colin's Customized Employment opportunity.

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Developing Self-Employment and Microenterprise: A Customized Employment Option

Self-employment is a Customized Employment option that matches a job seeker's dreams and talents to economic activity while designing support strategies that promote success. According to the U.S. Census, small business ownership represents the largest market segment of new and expanding employment options in the United States. The self-employment rate is growing by more than 20% annually, and microenterprises (companies comprising one to five workers) generated over 40% of all new jobs in the past decade. Currently, small businesses in this country create more jobs than Fortune 500 companies!

Who Can Own a Small Business?

Anyone can own a small business if proper support, adequate financing, and paying customers can be secured. Individuals with complex disabilities resulting from autism to cerebral palsy to schizophrenia to spinal cord injury own and operate businesses.


Examples of Small Businesses Started by People with Disabilities

Construction equipment rentals and cost estimation, accounting and bookkeeping, pet gift baskets, mobile dog grooming, art and photography, technical and popular writing, snack and drink vending, apparel manufacture and retail, property inspection and management, landscaping, catering, jewelry-making, truck driving, computer repair and assembly, desktop publishing, small engine repair, power-washing services, firewood delivery, flower arrangement, water filtration systems sales, greeting card design, farming… the list goes on and on.

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Why Consider Self-Employment?

Self-employment is not for everyone, but it is a career option with unique considerations. Job seekers may consider owning a full-time or part-time small business because it:

An Option for Saving Money!

Self-employment represents one of the few options to grow wealth for people who receive benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). For instance, the resource limit for individuals receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is $2,000. However, a business owner who receives SSI can potentially have more resources in their business account as long as those funds are required for the business. Profits and personal withdrawals can then be managed to maintain appropriate resource levels for SSI eligibility.

Assisting the Potential Small-Business Owner

Employment professionals can provide a range of supports and services to assist a job seeker to start their own small business. This can be achieved through the following strategies.


Remember, it is important to start with an exploration process with the potential business owner to provide a foundation for business plan development and to ensure that the job seeker truly wishes to pursue self-employment before initiating the business-related steps. See "Job Seeker Exploration: Laying the Groundwork for Customized Employment" for more information.

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1. Establish a Support Team
Many job seekers benefit from a business team, selected by the job seeker, that helps sculpt the job seeker's ideas, interests, aspirations, and talents into a profitable enterprise.

Membership varies, but teams typically include a combination of family members, employment professionals, and an expert in small-business development. Each can bring unique assets to the team.

2. Create the Business Plan
Businesses can truly benefit from a formal business plan. It should be noted that over 80% of small businesses are successful in the U.S., and since the majority of those do not have business plans, some flexibility in planning is recommended. However, a business plan is an absolute requirement of state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) departments and SSA.

The process of creating the business plan is as important as the plan itself!


Accessing Support for Business Plans

Even though many community resources advise on business plans, few individuals exist who actually write plans. Accessing an expert with experience in working with job seekers with disabilities may be necessary to develop a plan for someone who cannot read or write, or has limited understanding of the impact of self-employment income on their benefits. Be sure that the business plan clearly articulates the specific duties of the business owner, any supports that are necessary, and the expected business roles of any employees and supporters.

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3. Secure Funding
Funding for small businesses is available from numerous sources. Many microloan programs exist nationwide for those who qualify for and can afford the payments. Various state systems also provide numerous opportunities for financing that do not load an individual down with debt. For example:

A collaborative funding approach is best, with each partner providing expertise and a portion of the financial assistance. (See "Blending or Braiding Public Funds: Securing Assets for Customized Employment" for more information about collaborative funding approaches.)


Using a Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS) to Fund Self-Employment

SSA is actively promoting business ownership to stimulate the employment of job seekers with disabilities through the Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS). A PASS plan leverages an individual's SSI payments to use in pursuing a career goal, and is one of the few financial options that can provide actual operating cash to businesses. PASS remains a critical complement to VR and/or WIA resources. For more information on PASS, see the resource section at end of this article.

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4. Line Up Training (If Necessary)
Training for prospective business owners can be critical. This includes training to refine a skill required to produce goods and services in the business, such as attaining a welding certificate or a chef's diploma. Training also can include attending classes in business ownership, many of which are available at no or low cost through local Small Business Development Centers (SBDC-see the resource section for website). Both employment professionals and potential small business owners can also benefit from such classes because they provide networking opportunities: a chance to meet potential suppliers, customers, and mentors.

Stories of Self-Employment

Molly shared her interests in technology with her employment professional, who then arranged funding for a series of Microsoft certification classes. Molly began working as a part-time computer instructor at the local community college. However, panic attacks resulting from her psychiatric disability and exhaustion from her fibromyalgia caused her to lose that job. With assistance from the local VR office and a business design team including a local SBDC advisor, she began a mobile computer repair business specializing in assisting the growing community of retirees interested in learning basic computer and internet skills. The business soon branched out to include desktop publishing, specializing in formatting and printing local church and civic club newsletters.

Kevin is a man with developmental and behavioral disabilities who spent many years in a segregated facility-based employment setting (a sheltered workshop) before enrolling in a community employment project funded by the state Developmental Disability Council. Kevin's interest in being a mechanic became clear, but no jobs were available for a young man without experience.

After many attempts, a local small engine repair shop agreed to have Kevin disassemble and clean a few motors every week. Because the single owner did not want employees, a business-within-a-business was created for Kevin to do disassembly and parts cleaning. In return for the space to operate this complementary service and for mentoring in mechanics from the host business owner, Kevin paid a small percentage of his earnings to the shop. VR support, general fund expenditures from the local developmental disabilities agency, and an SSA PASS plan provided Kevin with hand tools, work benches, a parts washer, and work clothes. Over seven years later, Kevin works 20 to 30 hours a week and charges approximately $30 per hour for his services.

Small Business Resources Online

For a more complete listing of resources, see and

Securing Assets for Customized Employment: Blending or Braiding Public Funds

A critical element in the Customized Employment process is the development and implementation of an individualized plan for employment based on the job seeker's talents, aspirations, and choices. The plan includes specified supports or services that the job seeker needs to become successfully employed. An individual budget can be developed to implement this plan that uses financial support from a range of public agencies in order to achieve the job seeker's goals. These agencies can include, but are not limited to:

These public agencies each have funds that can be blended or braided. Using funding from multiple sources can allow for more creative planning and contribute to a successful outcome.

What Is Blended Funding?

Blended funding occurs when public funders authorize their dollars to be utilized within an individual budget to respond to identified needs or gaps in services and supports. These funds may be blended into one lump sum for use as needed, or divided into budget categories. Regardless, the use of the funds is under the direction and control of the job seeker, with assistance from a host agency.

What Is Braided Funding?

Braided funding also involves more than one public funder authorizing their dollars to be included in an individual budget. However, with braided funding, each public funder maintains control of its dollars. Each tracks expenditures for agreed purposes and evaluates return on investment.

A New Level of Collaboration

Blended and braided funding approaches require a new level of coordination and collaboration among public funders. Each funding source has different reporting requirements, payment arrangements, funding cycles, and approaches to evaluating return on investment.

To meet multiple stakeholder needs, one agency may become the lead or single point of responsibility for assessing service impact. This agency may also monitor expenditures through a negotiated set of reporting requirements.

Balancing Job Seeker Control

Agency accountability for public expenditures must be balanced with job seeker control, choice, and decision-making. Job seekers and funding agencies must also decide who will provide the services, and determine resource allocation to cover costs.

The Advantages to Blending or Braiding Funds Are Significant

Blending or braiding funds can:


Understanding the Challenges

It is important to realize that blending and braiding funds is not without challenges. Some public funders are reluctant to blend their dollars in an individual budget because of the loss of control over how the funds will be spent. Others have reporting requirements that expect all funds to be tracked and accounted for after being allocated to an eligible job seeker in need of specific supports and services. These requirements can sometimes limit flexibility.

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So What Next? Thinking About Self-Directed Accounts

Whatever the collaborative funding method chosen (blended or braided), dollars can be placed in individual self-directed accounts. Such accounts hold one or more sources of employment service dollars that are dedicated to the job seeker and their employment plan. Fundamental to this funding approach is the principle that the job seeker has choice and control regarding the services and supports used, including the selection of traditional or nontraditional employment provider(s).

Where to Find Funding to Blend or Braid for Self-Directed Accounts

No single source of funds or resources is likely to respond effectively to multiple barriers to employment. Consider the following funding sources that authorize self-directed accounts to support enhanced coordination of resources.

Resources for Self-Directed Funding
Agency Program
Health and Human Services: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Home and Community-Based Waivers
  • Individual budgets for long-term supports
Social Security Administration Ticket to Work
  • Voucher for employment services delivered by an Employment Network
Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS)
  • Excludes income or resources saved for vocationally related objectives that would otherwise be counted in determining SSI eligibility
Department of Labor: Employment and Training Administration Individual Training Account (ITAs)
  • Voucher to purchase skills development training/resources
Health and Human Services: Office of Community Services Individual Development Accounts (IDAs)
  • Matched savings plans for buying a first home, starting a business, or pursuing postsecondary education
Education: Rehabilitation Services Administration Individual Employment Plan, Title IV of WIA
  • Cash advance or purchase of services for employment-related objectives
Mental Health: Center for Mental Health Services Mental Health Block Grant
Person-centered recovery plans used for
  • Rehabilitative services
  • Service coordination
  • Self-directed care
  • Behavioral health care
State Developmental Disability Agencies State and local initiatives State and local initiatives

Braided Funding Success Story

Mary is a young woman who has a disability as the result of a car accident. This accident led her to drop out of college and begin receiving monthly SSI payments. She registered for services at her local One-Stop and expressed interest in a career in graphic design. In collaboration with VR and a Medicaid support coordinator, a counselor at the One-Stop formed a work group to look at options to contribute resources to an individual account to implement the Customized Employment plan that Mary developed.

The group arranged funds so that WIA paid for computer classes at the community college as part of an Individual Training Account, VR purchased a computer and adaptive equipment for home use, and Medicaid covered the cost of transportation from Mary's home to school. Mary was accountable to each funding source to use the funds for the specific, agreed-upon purposes. Each agency alone could not have met all of Mary's needs, but when they braided funds they could respond to Mary's interest in upgrading her self-taught web design skills and pursuing her future career in graphic design.

Eight Steps for Blending or Braiding Funds for Self-Directed Accounts

When working with a job seeker to blend or braid funds for a self-directed account, the following considerations are crucial.

1. Review and understand the menu of available benefits and resources
Start by identifying the resources available from each funder. For each source, understand the definition of service units and the rate of reimbursement for each type of service provided. (Rates of reimbursement may include annual funding limits per individual or service, or lifetime caps or funding limits.) Determine the flexibility in rate setting, service units, and licensing/certification requirements for service providers.

2. For each resource identified, review and understand eligibility requirements
This includes the definition of disability used by the funder and the means tested (e.g., income levels and resource limits). There may be additional requirements, such as order of selection (a VR process that establishes priorities when funds are limited) or identification as a funder of last resort. Eligibility redetermination procedures and frequency are also important to understand.

3. Review and understand documentation requirements
This may include required documentation of medical disability, income and resource limits, or proof of residence.

4. Review and understand the application process
Examine the forms to be filled out and the possibility of filing online. Identify locations for filing (such as a One-Stop Career Center) as well as the availability of assistance with the application.

5. Review and understand the appeal process
This includes appealing at any stage in the blended or braided funding process: eligibility, application, redetermination of eligibility, documentation of need, parameters of funding to meet identified needs, etc.

6. Establish a self-directed account work group
Create a team of representatives from each funding source to explore opportunities to improve coordination, advance the job seeker's independence and self-sufficiency, and identify a shared vision and values. When you bring a group together, decisions can be negotiated to streamline procedures, and a blended or braided individual budget can be pilot-tested before officially starting.

7. Create the individual self-directed account to meet Customized Employment goals
Understand, simplify, and coordinate the application process across funders. Ensure that background information is centralized and shared for each job seeker. If needed, identify a lead agency to be responsible for tracking and reporting expenditures to multiple funders. Each public funder needs to review and understand the detailed requirements of each other's public authorities.

8. Offer training and support to job seekers and family members, as necessary, to deal with the issues involved in directing public funds
While significant individual latitude should be given, experience has shown that these strategies require skills and understanding by the job seeker and/or family members in order to fully realize the potential benefits. It may be necessary to have topical trainings and opportunities for discussions with all parties.


Job Seeker Exploration

Callahan, M. & Garner, J. (1997). Keys to the workplace. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Callahan, M., Shumpert, N., Condon, E., & Mast, M. (2005). Discovery: Charting the course to employment. Gautier, MS: Marc Gold & Associates.

Employer Negotiation

Luecking, R., Fabian, E., & Tilson, G. (2004). Working relationships: Creating career opportunities for job seekers with disabilities through employer partnerships. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.


Access to Credit (Producer). (1998). Small enterprise, big dreams [videotape]. Frederick, MD: Access to Credit Media Project.

Doyel, A.W. (2000). No more job interviews: Self-employment strategies for people with disabilities. St. Augustine, FL: TRN, Inc.

Griffin, C.C. & Hammis, D. (2003). Making self-employment work for people with disabilities. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing. For more information, visit

Hammis, D. & Griffin, C.C. (2002). Social Security considerations for entrepreneurs with significant disabilities. Florence, MT: Griffin-Hammis Associates, LLC.

Blended/Braided Funding and Individual Accounts

Bradley, V., Smith, G., Taub, S., & Heaviland, M. (2002). Person-centered supports: How do states make them work? Retrieved June 13, 2005, from

Callahan, M. (2000). Personal budgets: The future of funding? The Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 16.

Cook, J., Terrell, S., & Jonikas, J. (2004). Promoting self-determination for individuals with psychiatric disabilities through self-directed services: A look at federal, state and public systems as sources of cash-outs and other fiscal expansion opportunities. Retrieved June 6, 2005, from

Flynn, M. & Hayes. C.D. (2003, January). Blending and braiding funds to support early care and education initiatives. In Financing Strategy Series. Retrieved August 16, 2005 from

Kowalchuk, P. & Scott, P. (2005). Living your own life… Lessons of self-directed supports. TASH Connections, 31(3/4), 18-19.

This document was developed by the National Center on Workforce and Disability/Adult. The center is based at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston and funded through the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) grant number E-9-4-1-0071. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Labor, nor does mention of tradenames, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Labor.

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