Helping Individuals with Disabilities Find Meaningful Work Through Discovery

By Lisa Kelley

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2010), approximately 56.7 million people (18.7%) of the 303.9 million people in the civilian non-institutionalized population had a disability, and 38.3 million people (12.6%) had a severe disability. Focusing on the individuals aged 21-64, considered working age, four in ten individuals with a disability were employed (41.1%) compared to eight in ten individuals without disabilities (79.1%). In the same census report, data indicated 10.8% people aged 15 to 64 with severe disabilities were more likely to experience persistent poverty than people with non-severe disabilities (4.9%) and those with no disability (3.8%).

While these statistics show how lower employment rates affect the overall quality of life for people with disabilities, especially those with significant disabilities, they do not show the many obstacles these individuals face when looking for careers. In a 2013 report, the U.S. Department of Labor stated people with disabilities bring unique sets of skills to the workplace, enhancing the strength and the diversity of the U.S. Labor Market. However, there is the tendency in the world of employment to overlook people with significant disabilities as viable job candidates, which leads to exclusion, segregation from the mainstream, and lower expectations for achieving the best life has to offer. People with disabilities need a way to show employers they can contribute, and one tool that can help them to accomplish this goal is Discovery.

Discovery is qualitative and person-centered. It may involve assessments, but it does not rely on standardized assessments to determine what a person can do. It relies on really getting to know the individual through conversations and observations. Discovery uncovers the possibilities and assumes with the right support people with disabilities can do whatever they dream about doing.

Discovery takes the person’s life as a whole, and typically includes family, friends, teachers, and anyone else the job seeker identifies to be a part of the team. It can be difficult to be objective, so utilizing a team can make it easier to uncover skills, experiences, interests, and conditions for successful employment.

There are three approaches to Discovery:
1. self-guided
2. facilitated
3. group.
The approach selected depends upon what will work best for the job seeker, but a career professional is always involved to the degree appropriate for the individual.

Self-guided, as the name implies, relies on the job seeker to complete Discovery with minimal guidance from a career professional. The professional provides the framework and necessary materials to get started, but lets the individual do the brunt of the work. This approach is most effective for individuals with disabilities who have worked before acquiring a disability, who have college or technical degrees, or who are veterans trained in specific skills before acquiring a disability.

In facilitated Discovery, the career professional actively guides the process by gathering information through focused conversations with the individual and the team identified by the job seeker, and through observing the individual going about daily life. The observation aspect can be extremely helpful if the job seeker has limited communication abilities. Additionally, the career professional may arrange situational assessments so the job seeker can try out jobs in areas he/she has expressed an interest. If a person has no or limited work experience, it can be hard to make informed choices about what jobs will bring the most satisfaction. Situational assessments can eliminate some of the guess work.

In group Discovery, individuals voluntarily come together with a goal of gaining knowledge about themselves rather than finding actual employment. They meet on a regular schedule for a specified period of time, and rely on each other for support. The role of the career professional is to keep the group focused so meetings do not become therapy sessions. Generally, group Discovery is not the most effective approach for individuals with severe disabilities.

Whatever the approach used, the goal of Discovery is to uncover the job seeker's strengths, experiences, interests, dislikes, preferences, and conditions for success. At the end of the self-guided and facilitated methods, the individual and career professional compile a comprehensive written career profile, which outlines who the person really is, and this profile serves as the road map for finding successful job destinations.

People with disabilities have the same desires for work as people without disabilities. They want to have jobs they like, are interested in, and have the abilities, perhaps with support, to accomplish their goals. Discovery, done correctly, greatly ensures the job seeker will not find just a job, but will find the right job, which will foster well-being and enable the person to engage in a life time of meaningful work.


U.S. Census Bureau. (May-August 2010). Survey of Income and Program Participation. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/sipp/data.html

U.S. Department of Labor. (August 2013). Building an Inclusive Workforce: A Four-Step Reference Guide to Recruiting, Hiring, & Retaining Employees with Disabilities. Washington, DC: Author.

Callahan, M., Norciva, S., & Condon, E. (2009). Discovery: Charting the course of employment. Gautier, MS: Marc Gold & Associates. Retrieved from http://flfcic.fmhi.usf.edu/docs/Discovery%20Charting%20the%20Course%20to%20Employment.pdf

Niemiec, R., Griffin, C. C., & Sickles, R.. (2014). Self-Guided Discovery: Customized employment planning tools for individuals & families. Florence, MT: Griffin-Hammis Associates.

Lisa Kelley is employed by Arkansas Career Education/Arkansas Rehabilitation Services (ARS) Division and is a GCDFI.  One of her chief responsibilities has been to design and facilitate training in Customized and Supported Employment for service providers who contract with ARS to conduct the Discovery process.  Lisa is a certified facilitator for Development Dimensions International (DDI) and AchieveGlobal, is certified in the Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Process and the General Motors GoFast Process, and is certified to administer and interpret the Firo-Element B Instrument and the DISC and Values instruments.  Lisa has provided private consulting in management and leadership development since 2005, and earned her M.Ed. at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. Email: lisakelley8919@sbcglobal.net

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Rebecca Kemp   on Tuesday 05/22/2018 at 07:58 PM

I'm writing a book part memoir and part idea of how to help handicapped and this is so close to what I ave dramed about many years ago.

Lisa Kelley   on Tuesday 05/22/2018 at 08:43 PM

I tried to follow the link so I could comment on the article, but for some reason it doesn't work. Discovery is really the greatest thing that can happen for any individual and especially so for people with disabilities. We're working very hard in our agency to get our vendors to use Discovery with our clients. Thanks for commenting.

Lisa Kelley   on Tuesday 05/22/2018 at 08:44 PM

Well, since I left a comment, the first sentence in my previous comment makes no sense. But thanks for commenting.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.