A Look at Career Development for Persons with Mental Retardation

by John Wadsworth PhD and Karen Cocco PhD

Despite the popular view that career development is lifelong, vocational development theories have seldom been applied to persons with mental retardation (Hagner & Salamone, 1989). Szymanski and Hanley-Maxwell propose an ecological model of career development for persons with developmental disabilities. This ecological model incorporates the following factors, which are important in career interventions regardless of intellectual ability: 1) family, 2) education, 3) planning. 4) functional curriculum, and 5) choice. Interventions, then, focus upon:

    individual factors — aptitudes, interests, abilities
    contextual factors — labor market
    meaning factors — values
    work environment factors — adaptations
    output factors — productivity expectations

Career development is a lifelong process of getting ready to choose, choosing, and continuing to make choices. An assumption of career development is that future job and career choices will be more sophisticated and successful than previous choices (Pumpian, Fisher, Certo, & Smalley, 1997). Consistent with the career development patterns of most persons with mental retardation, regular job movement needs to be considered positively in terms of promotion and career mobility rather than a sign of failure (Pumpian et. al.).

A longitudinal approach to occupational development is important. Career development activities should include the development of career interests and transferable work behaviors as well as the reframing of existing occupational opportunities to meet individual occupational preferences.

Areas of Challenge
Due to legislation mandating inclusion, persons with developmental disabilities are increasingly referred to guidance counselors and community career development specialists who have not traditionally served this population. The challenge for career guidance professionals is to develop opportunities for career development within existing program frameworks that address the following key areas.

Career Interests. Since persons with developmental disabilities may lack realistic information on which to base their interests, job experiences play an important role in developing consistent occupational preference. Career interests may be stimulated through short-term “trial” jobs. Often, these brief career development opportunities can be incorporated into volunteer, leisure and daily living activities.

Transferable skills. Career planning can play a key role in creating a strategy to identify, develop and maintain vocational skills over a succession of employment opportunities. Individuals with mental retardation often have difficulties transitioning learned work behavior to new vocational contexts. Therefore, the development of skills congruent with abilities, aptitudes and aspirations within multiple vocational contexts can promote employability and career advancement.

Reframing. Career choice presupposes the existence of alternatives from which to choose. However, there may be few vocational choices and limited occupational alternatives, especially in rural areas. The strategies for occupational change that are common among peers, such as relocation, may not be realistic options for persons who are dependent upon family and local case management resources, and who often lack the financial means to relocate. Career development activities can identify vocational factors critical to client satisfaction. This information can be used to emphasize, or perhaps even create, those features within existing or potential employment opportunities.

Career Counselors Can Create New Look
Career development services for both adolescents and adults are critical elements in ultimately alleviating unemployment for adults with mental retardation (Pumpian et. al., 1997). Career counselors can contribute to occupational tenure through career interventions that help create choices and that train participants in transferable skills. For persons with mental retardation — as for the general population — successful transition to new occupations is the result of planning, informed choices and knowledge of risks and rewards.

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John Wadsworth PhD
Dr. Wadsworth is an Assistant Professor in the Rehabilitation Counseling Program, College of Education, The University of Iowa. He has provided counseling services to adults with mental retardation and has previously published and presented on topics relating to the vocational development and the emotional well being of persons with cognitive disabilities.

Karen Cocco PhD
Dr. Cocco is an Assistant Professor in the Rehabilitation Counseling Program, College of Education, The University of Iowa. She has provided community service and has presented and published on topics related to substance abuse among persons with disabilities.

Authors may be contacted at:
Rehabilitation Counselor Education
The University of Iowa
N376 Lindquist Center, Iowa City, IA 52242-1529
Telephone: 319.335.5256, Fax: 319.335.529
e-mail: john-s-wadsworth@uiowa.edu

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