Changing Lives for Youth with Disabilities by Supporting Employment and Strengthening Partnerships

October 31, 2017
Annette Shea, Administration for Community Living Program Specialist

Every October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) offers an opportunity to celebrate the many contributions of America's workers with disabilities and promote policies and practices that support disability employment. As part of our Profiles in Integrated Employment Blog Series, we are highlighting work being done by the state of Utah and Utah’s CTA Community Supports to expand employment opportunities for youth with disabilities.

In 2011, Utah joined a growing number of states that have passed legislation based on the “Employment First” approach which seeks to make integrated employment the first and preferred outcome for people with disabilities. Since then, the state has been building momentum toward that goal.

In 2015, Utah was selected by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) for its Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP), a cross-disability, cross-systems change initiative. A year later, Utah was one of six states to receive a five-year Partnerships in Employment (PIE) grant to improve competitive employment outcomes for youth and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). As part of their PIE work, the state has been actively working to integrate Centers for Independent Living (CILs) into their I/DD employment efforts and to bring together groups that have often worked in silos.  

“CILs have representation on our steering committee and will be involved at the state and local level.” said Tricia Jones-Parkin, Employment First Program Administrator at Utah’s Division of Services for People with Disabilities, “there’s a great opportunity for coalition building, with the CILs able to get more involved with schools,”

In addition, the state is reviewing and working to build on policies that promote employment within their Medicaid program, including the State’s Medicaid Buy-In program for workers with disabilities.

The story of CTA Community Supports shows how these changes have had an effect at the local level.

CTA is one of the largest disability service providers in the state, supporting several hundred people living with a variety of disabilities. Their services have included after-school programs and a site-based day program.

In recent years CTA recognized that their services lacked a focus on transitioning youth with disabilities into employment. The site-based nature of their day program meant that youth were missing out on opportunities in the community that could help prepare them for employment and many students in their after-school program who successfully graduated from high school were nonetheless having difficulty transitioning to work after graduation.

“We had lost our way,” explained Dustin Erekson, CTA’s Executive Director. “We felt an urgency to change – and change fast.”

Erekson went on to say that CTA realized that the work of preparing students to transition to employment couldn’t be limited to the confines of the service provider’s “building.”

A turning point came in 2015, when CTA received technical assistance as part of Utah’s participation in ODEP’s EFSLMP program. The guidance from EFSLM’s subject matter experts helped them translate their goal of promoting employment for youth into concrete changes in practices, services, and programs.

“It was really perfect timing,” Erekson said.

One of CTA’s first changes was to begin the process of moving people from their day program to community-based employment services. They started this process by adding a new focus on “discovery” to the program. The discovery process involves getting to know each individual and their unique goals, strengths, and needs. They used the person-centered “My Plan for Inclusion” approach and CTA’s Program Director Sally Swenson created a tool to support each individual and the CTA team.

Pre-employment skills building, including through internships and work experiences, became another important focus for CTA, especially in their work with high school students. They plan to add this as a service for all youth beginning in 2018.

“It’s getting them work experience and getting them involved with vocational rehabilitation services,” Erekson noted. “If we do a good job with kids and focus on employment, including making sure they have the experience of paid work before they leave school, they can leave school with a job.”

CTA’s ongoing shift toward a more integrated employment-oriented approach has led to a number of internal changes as well. CTA has hired an employment specialist and trained 30 staff in their residential and after-school programs in customized employment, a flexible process designed to personalize the employment relationship between a job candidate and an employer in a way that meets the needs of both. CTA has also incorporated integrated employment training for parents into their Professional Parent program, in which an adult provides a loving home to a child who needs one. CTA is also currently working with the state to coordinate and update service definitions and funding structures.

So far, CTA has transitioned 60 people from their day program into community-based employment services.

“It becomes contagious,” Erekson added, “It has been an evolving process. People are getting real jobs. With more success stories, more staff are getting on board. People are getting excited.”

ACL is interested in hearing from states, providers, and advocates working on integrated employment. Share your successes, challenges, and questions by sending an email to

Last modified on 02/12/2021

Back to Top