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From Paper to Action: State-Level Interagency Agreements for Supported Employment of People with Disabilities

Monograph 32


Originally published: 12/2002

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This is the second in a series of three studies conducted by the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) that investigates the extent and role of interagency agreements between state agencies that fund and provide supported employment supports and services for people with significant disabilities. The intent of this study was to better understand the development and implementation of such interagency agreements for supported employment for people with significant disabilities. Supported employment is considered

...paid work in a variety of settings, particularly regular work sites, especially designed for handicapped individuals (i) for whom competitive employment at or above the minimum wage is unlikely; and (ii) who, because of their disability, need intensive, on-going support to perform in a work setting. (Federal Register, 1984, p. 17509) [1]

Interagency agreements have been defined as written documents that outline formal interagency activity between two or more state agencies (Foley, Butterworth, & Heller, 2000). Data were collected through 20 interviews with key personnel in six states and through review of the interagency agreements. Through constant comparison of the data, we confirmed the importance of previously identified elements--a target population and education about partner agencies' missions and scope (Elder, 1980) and resource commitment, specific roles and responsibilities of partner agencies, dedicated personnel, and satisfactory communication (Mattessich & Monsey, 1992)--that contribute to effective collaboration. We identified the importance of specifying a target population within the broad range of people with "significant disabilities" in these interagency agreements, regardless of the number of partner agencies.

Dedicated personnel, whom we refer to as "champions," and their relationships with others in the vocational rehabilitation and disability-specific fields, such as mental retardation/developmental disabilities and mental health, were, not surprisingly, crucial to effective implementation. Two other characteristics that were associated with these champions were an intense focus on supported employment for people with significant disabilities, and a strong personal investment in the interagency agreement, usually through ownership of the agreement as a result of the champions' involvement in its creation.

A single champion could not implement the agreement. There had to be at least two people, each from a different partner agency, in a good working relationship that was founded on a dedication to supported employment. These people also self-identified as active members of that working relationship and they relied on each other for support and information about their respective agencies. Champions also valued people outside of the state agency partners for the work the outsiders could do as external advocates, such as lobbying state legislators for funds for supported employment.

Ensuring a "common language" among the partner agencies was important so that terms had the same meanings for everyone. The value of physical proximity (Gray, 1985) was confirmed. Communication with people in partner agencies occurred through face-to-face contact enabled by physical proximity, as well as by phone calls and email.

Over the period of their agencies' agreements, most informants reported an increase in the numbers of people in supported employment due to the agreements, which we expected as an outcome. In addition, two longer-term outcomes were associated with effective interagency agreements: increased awareness/visibility of supported employment, and a belief in a future for the interagency agreement.

Finally, the data suggest that some differences in the implementation and outcomes of the agreements may be associated with the length of time that partner agencies had been working together under the agreement. This finding follows the direction initiated by Gray (1985) regarding the temporality of facilitating conditions surrounding collaboration.

In developing an effective interagency agreement for supported employment, the minimal essential elements are population specificity, resource commitment, and clear roles and responsibilities of the partner agencies. For effective implementation, dedicated personnel need to be identified and supported so that they may concentrate on the implementation of the agreement. Upper-level administrators need to allow time for good working relationships to develop among partner agency staff, especially when partner agencies have not worked together previously. In view of recent legislation that mandates or encourages interagency agreements, it makes sense to prepare the foundations for interagency agreements for employment supports as early as possible.

[1] Supported employment is one strategy to increase integrated employment. The Vocational Rehabilitation program regulations [34 CFR 361.5(b)(30)(ii)] describe integrated employment as "generally refer[ing] to those settings that are typically found in the community in which individuals with disabilities have the same opportunity to interact with others as is given to any person."

ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities