Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 55–62

Promoting Self-Determination and Integrated Employment Through the Self-Determined Career Development Model

  • Evan E. Dean
  • Kathryn M. Burke
  • Karrie A. Shogren
  • Michael L. Wehmeyer

DOI: 10.1007/s41252-017-0011-y

Cite this article as:
Dean, E.E., Burke, K.M., Shogren, K.A. et al. Adv Neurodev Disord (2017) 1: 55. doi:10.1007/s41252-017-0011-y


Self-determination has been identified as a key predictor of employment for people with intellectual disability. The Self-Determined Career Development Model enables support providers to support job seekers with intellectual disability to use a self-regulated problem-solving process to set and attain job and career goals. This single-case design study examined the impact of the Self-Determined Career Development Model on a component element of self-determination (knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs). Employment outcomes of participants were also tracked. Positive changes were demonstrated for two job seekers on knowledge of strengths and interests. Additionally, all three job seekers changed their employment status in line with their goals. The implications of these findings for future research and practice are discussed.


Employment Self-determination Career development Intellectual disability Strengths-based practice 


Currently, only 18% of adults (aged 18–64) with intellectual disability are employed in community-based, integrated employment (Siperstein et al. 2013). Relatedly, and not surprisingly given this fact, the majority of people with intellectual disability live below the poverty line (Stapleton, O’Day, et al. 2006). Paid, integrated employment has multiple benefits, including not only greater financial self-sufficiency, but also enhanced self-determination and increased social inclusion (Lysaght et al. 2012). Researchers, however, have found that employment support providers too often do not implement evidence-based practices to promote self-determination to improve integrated employment outcomes (Winsor and Butterworth 2008; Winsor et al. 2011), despite findings that integrated employment outcomes are significantly more positive for adults with disabilities who are supported to self-determine their career preparation (Agran and Krupp 2011) and the established relationship between enhanced self-determination and more positive employment outcomes (Shogren and Shaw 2016; Shogren et al. 2015; Wehmeyer and Palmer 2003; Wehmeyer and Schwartz 1997),

Understanding individual strengths, interests, and needs is a central component of self-determination and an important aspect of identifying meaningful employment options and opportunities (Shogren et al. 2015). People who better understand their strengths, interests, and needs are better able to set and work toward employment-related goals. Researchers have found that when employment opportunities match self-identified strengths, interests, and needs, people with intellectual disability are more successful with higher job retention and working more hours and days (Pierce et al. 2003).

In promoting employment opportunities, researchers have found that there is insufficient research on strategies to use within supported employment programs and that the financial investment in self-determination and supported employment remains low despite evidence suggesting its efficacy (Gidugu and Rogers 2012; Nord et al. 2015). Models of supported and customized employment focus on supporting people with disabilities to find integrated employment based on their strengths and interests (Bond 2004; Callahan et al. 2012). The models also provide, as needed, ongoing on-the-job supports through job coaches. While building on strengths, interests, and needs is a core value of supported and customized employment models, there is no formal process in most models to involve the person with a disability in setting and taking action toward goals, using a structured problem-solving framework. Including goal setting and problem solving in the employment process can enhance self-determination and promote better understanding and ownership of strengths, interests, and needs.

The Self-Determined Career Development Model (SDCDM) shows promise as a method for providing such supports by itself or within the context of supported or customized employment (Shogren et al. 2017). The SDCDM was designed to enable people with disabilities to use a self-regulated problem-solving process in the context of employment and career development (Wehmeyer et al. 2003; Wehmeyer et al. 2000). It is an adaptation of the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction (SDLMI), which is a model of instruction designed for teachers to use to enable students to self-regulate goal setting, action planning, and goal attainment and promote self-determination (Mithuaget al. 1998; Wehmeyer et al. 2000).

In a pilot study of the SDCDM (Wehmeyer et al. 2003), five participants were supported to work through the SDCDM, setting an employment or job-related goal; four of the participants showed progress toward their goal. Benitez, et al. (2005) implemented the SDCDM with adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders, finding they were able to set and achieve goals related to employment. In a randomized control trial with 197 adults with intellectual disability, Shogren et al. (2016) found that after 1 year of intervention, improvements in self-determination were found, most significantly in autonomous functioning. Direct support providers at community agencies that served adults with intellectual disability were trained to implement the SDCDM, and then facilitated the implementation of the model to enable employment-seekers to set and work toward employment-related goals over the course of one year. These researchers suggested, based on research with the SDLMI, that achieving longer-term goals, like employment, may take more time than 1 year (Wehmeyer et al. 2012). It is possible that changes in shorter-term outcomes—such as knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs—may occur sooner, essentially serving as a mediator for longer-term outcomes such as improved employment or enhanced self-determination. However, to our knowledge, no studies have explored shorter-term self-determination outcomes as adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities use the SDCDM.

As such, there is a need for research that focuses on supporting integrated employment for adults with disabilities and examines shorter-term impacts of the SDCDM. The purpose of this study was to use single-case design methods to examine the impact of the SDCDM on knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs and to documenting the achievement of employment-related goals as a function of changes in knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs. We addressed the following research questions: (1) Does implementation of the SDCDM lead to change in participant’s self-reported knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs? (2) After implementation of the SDCDM, are there changes in employment outcomes aligned with the goal set using the SDCDM (e.g., job attainment, number of hours worked, number of days worked)?



Three participants with intellectual disability with mild to moderate intellectual impairments who attended a day program located in an urban area in the Midwest participated in the study. The program supported approximately 50 people, all of whom were actively seeking integrated employment and receiving supports from an occupational therapist and occupational therapy interns to work toward integrated, competitive employment. The first job seeker, Marquis, was a 26-year-old African-American male interested in obtaining a job in a retail store. He was specifically looking for a job stocking shelves. He also had experience cleaning in a hotel. Marquis could communicate verbally; however, people who do not know him sometimes had difficulty understanding his speech. Additionally, Marquis had difficulty walking for long distances. However, Marquis identified his main barrier to employment as a lack of experience with stocking, and set a goal to obtain experience in this area.

Brianna was a 27-year-old African-American female. She had a job in the kitchen of a restaurant 1 day a week and also a job with the events department of a casino. Brianna typically worked at the casino 1 day every other week, depending on the frequency of events. Brianna relied on her employment supports from the day program to negotiate work times and amount of work with her employers. However, she expressed an interest in increasing her hours at the restaurant and trying out different jobs. To accomplish this, Brianna set a goal to improve her communication skills so she could talk with her manager about her job goals.

Carl was a 27-year-old African-American male. He was currently looking for a job with the support of the occupational therapist and a local workforce agency funded through a state Employment First initiative. Through the workforce agency, Carl gained work experience in a temporary job at a dry cleaner. Carl also had work experience in construction. He expressed his interests, however, as cooking, photography, and working with plants. Carl maintained the garden and the rose bushes at the day program. He was engaging and talkative; however, when the workforce agency called with questions or job opportunities, Carl frequently would not answer the phone and not ask for assistance from the day program staff. This led to missed job opportunities. Carl initially set a goal to improve his communication with the workforce agency, which would also prepare him for direct communication with employers. However, after setting this goal and developing a plan, Carl decided phone communication was something for which he wanted to use the day program staff as supports to enable this process. He then revised his goal to learning how to search for jobs related to gardening. More information on each of the job seekers is provided in Table 1.
Table 1

Participant information






Job interests

Current job status






Intellectual disability

Restaurant (cooking, host), retail, childcare, nursing

Employed 1 day a week in restaurant

Employed 1 day every other week at casino

Increase hours and change position at restaurant





Intellectual disability

Cooking, gardening, photography


Gain experience with job-hunting process.





Intellectual disability

Stocking shelves at retail store


Gain experience stocking shelves


We used a multiple probe across individuals design to assess the effects of the SDCDM on participants’ knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs across three experimental conditions: baseline, intervention, and maintenance.


Baseline measurements were taken in sessions with participants where only the questions listed previously were asked. This posed a challenge as participants questioned why they were asked to answer the same questions repeatedly. Carl, for example, started avoiding the facilitator because he did not want to continue to answer the questions. Modifications, such as changing the location of baseline sessions to the garden, helped engage Carl in the sessions.


The SDCDM served as the intervention for the investigation. The SDCDM is designed to be implemented by a facilitator to support adults with disabilities through a self-regulated problem-solving process to set and attain employment-related goals. The facilitator supports the job seeker in working through three phases designed to support the job seeker to identify a barrier to employment, set a goal and create an action plan to address the barrier, and evaluate the action taken, adjusting the action plan or goal as needed. Individualized supports are designed by the facilitator to enable the person with a disability to work through each phase of the model.

Initial meetings took place at the day program and were designed to understand the participants’ perspective on their strengths, interests, and needs related to employment. The SDCDM facilitator, who was a special educator (second author) working with the occupational therapist that worked with the day program (lead author), met with each participant individually. To engage each participant in the process, different strategies were used. For example, Brianna needed tactile engagement, such as writing or drawing, to help direct her attention to the facilitator’s questions. The facilitator asked Brianna to write down her answers, which helped engage Brianna in the process. Carl was an active person and did not like to sit while answering questions. The facilitator found Carl was more willing to engage in the process when meetings happened while he was tending to the garden outside. Marquis was willing to engage in the process in the office. However, his communication was difficult for the facilitator to understand. The facilitator scheduled longer meetings to give more time to understanding Marquis’s perspective. Additionally, Marquis agreed for his mother to join a meeting to verify the facilitator understood Marquis’s perspective. Matching the facilitator’s process with the preferences for each person maximized the level of engagement of each participant. The information about strengths, interests, and needs gained in these initial meetings were foundational to the SDCDM process.

Once goals were set (phase 1 of the model) and an action plan created (phase 2 of the model), a suitable location was located to enact the plan. For Brianna and Carl, who both initially set communication goals, simulated communication activities were created in the facilitator’s office. Activities included developing scripts for job-related phone calls and in-person meetings with employers and workforce staff. Additionally, for practice, simulated phone calls and meetings where the facilitator acted as an employer were used. After the simulated phone calls, the facilitator debriefed with the participant and encouraged them to identify what went well and what areas still needed practice. This process worked well for Brianna, but did not meet Carl’s learning style. This may have been part of the reason Carl changed goals.

After Carl developed a new goal related to learning how to find jobs related to gardening, the facilitator created a list of possible employers in the area for Carl to visit. The object was for Carl to watch workers and evaluate his strengths and needs related to the jobs he saw performed. The active nature of this plan fit Carl’s preferences for action, and he engaged fully in the process.

For Marquis, who set a goal to gain experience with stocking, the facilitator began by having Marquis watch videos of people stocking and created a worksheet designed to promote reflection on Marquis’s strengths and challenges related the job. Marquis also obtained a month-long internship at a local drug store where he could practice stocking, which was a chance to gain practical experience. The facilitator worked with Marquis to create a checklist of tasks that Marquis needed to complete each day at his internship. Additionally, the facilitator created supports to help Marquis be successful with his job. For example, to help Marquis evaluate whether or not a row of stocked items was displayed properly, the facilitator took pictures of properly arranged items that Marquis could compare with his work. This support helped Marquis make corrections to his rows and recognize when the task was complete. Marquis used the visual supports for three visits and then was able to arrange the items on his own.


The facilitator continued to ask the questions related to strengths, interests, and needs for each participant to determine the long-term effect of the training after instruction with the SDCDM was complete. The question sessions occurred at the facilitator’s office at the agency. Carl only participated in one maintenance session due to his new work schedule causing conflicts with first author’s time at the agency. The maintenance data was collected over 1 week.


Knowledge of Strengths, Interests, and Needs

In this study, each participant used the SDCDM process to develop goals, create and implement action plans to achieve the goals, and modify their action plan or goal as necessary to achieve the goal. Through the process, researchers wanted to know whether participants increased their knowledge of their own strengths, interests, and needs related to employment. As such, at the end of each session, the facilitator met with each participant and asked a structured set of questions designed to understand the participant’s perspective of their strengths and interests. The questions were as follows: (1) Where do you want to work? (2) Why do you want to work there? (3) What would you need to do at the job? (4) Why would that be a good job for you? (5) What would be hard for you at that job?

Employment Status

Researchers also tracked employment status of each participant. Three variables commonly used in employment research were tracked for job status: has integrated employment, days per week of work, and hours per day of work. This information was summarized descriptively for each participant.

Data Analyses

The SDCDM facilitator transcribed answers to the participant’s’ responses to each question related to knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs (described previously) after each session. The responses were then coded as strengths, interests, needs, or not applicable. For example, if an answer began with “I like,” the answer was coded as an interest. However, if the response began with “I’m good at” or “I can,” it was coded as a strength. For needs, we looked for phrases like “I can’t” or “is hard.” The number of responses in each category were then tallied and recorded in a spreadsheet for each instructional session. This served as the primary dependent measure. The lead author also coded responses, independent of the facilitator. Then, the authors met, compared codes, and came to a consensus on the final coding. Initially, data was not tracked on agreement as the goal was to come to consensus. During maintenance, however, the initial agreement on coding prior to discussion was 97%.


Figure 1 displays the frequency of responses for each participant. All participants consistently defined between one and three aspects of employment that would be difficult for them. Therefore, this analysis focused on knowledge of strengths and interests. Additionally, participants tended to characterize things as strengths or interests differently in different sessions. For example, a participant may say, “I like to cook” in one session, which would be coded as an interest. In the next session, the participant may state, “I’m good at making burritos,” which still involves cooking, but is characterized as a strength. Because of the variability in responses, the researchers decided to consider knowledge of strengths and interests as one variable and combined the number of responses for each into one variable.
Fig. 1

Frequency of responses for each participant

All three participants demonstrated a stable pattern of responses during baseline. Responses for number of strengths and needs ranged from 0 to 4. During the intervention phase, Marquis and Carl both demonstrated an increase in knowledge of their strengths and interests. Marquis increased his average identified strengths and interests by 250%, while Carl increased his by 150%. Brianna’s knowledge of strengths and interests stayed constant throughout the experimental conditions. During the maintenance condition, all participants maintained similar response patterns when compared to the intervention condition.

Two of the three participants (Marquis and Carl) obtained employment during the intervention condition. After completing his internship, Marquis applied for a stocking position at the drug store and was hired. He was working 2 h per day, 2 days per week. While investigating potential employment opportunities, an employer at a tree nursery was impressed with Carl’s enthusiasm and knowledge of plants and hired him to help tend to the plants in the warehouse. Carl was working 5 h per day, 4 days per week. At the end of the intervention phase, Brianna decided she was ready to have a conversation with her current manager at the restaurant regarding working more hours and finding new responsibilities. Her manager agreed to increase her number of working days from one to two, and working 3 h per day. The manager also agreed to consider Brianna for other positions in the kitchen as they became available.

During phase 3 of the SDCDM, researchers asked each participant’s perspectives of the process. Brianna shared, “My boss finally pays attention to me. [I can ask], ‘Can I have an extra job to do?’” Marquis commented that he does good work at his job stocking shelves and that he has the skills to get another job some day when he is ready. And Carl stated, “It [working on the SDCDM] became fun… I feel a lot better now. I’m not in the same place every day.”


The purpose of this research was to examine the impact of the SDCDM when implemented in with adult job seekers with intellectual and developmental disabilities on changes in knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs as the intervention was implemented, and after completion, in employment outcomes. Previous research on the SDCDM has primarily looked at employment and self-determination status before and after intervention with the SDCDM (Shogren et al. 2017; Shogren et al. 2016). This study examined the impact on a specific element of self-determined action (i.e., knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs) during implementation of the SDCDM. Interestingly, across all participants, there was little change in the identification of needs. In fact, participants from baseline were able to identify needs or things that they identified as hard for them and this did not change over the course of intervention. Identifying knowledge and strengths did change, however, which suggests, as other researchers have, that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities may not be effectively supported to learn about their strengths (Niemiec et al. 2017; Shogren 2013). For two participants, implementation of the SDCDM led to changes in self-reported strengths and interest as measured in this study. The third participant, Brianna, did not show change. However, the researchers did note greater self-awareness and focus in her answers. At the beginning of the study, Brianna gave different answers describing her strengths, needs, and interests at each session. For instance, she described interests in working at a daycare, a hospital, a restaurant, a grocery store, and a department store. With time, she became more consistent regarding her interests (working more hours at her current job) and her communication needs (staying calm with co-workers and listening carefully to her boss’s instructions).

In fact, the quality of responses from all participants became more focused toward their expressed employment interests as they worked through the steps of the SDCDM. For example, Carl began by describing using a cash register as a need. After beginning the SDCDM process, he independently switched to describing it as an interest—something he would like to learn to do. When Marquis began his internship, he lacked confidence in his ability to perform work tasks independently and often looked to the facilitator for guidance. After several days of training, he became more self-directed in his activities. He memorized the code for the stockroom and expressed an interest in learning the lock combination for another task.

Another possible explanation for the lack of in change of Brianna’s dependent variable could have been the goal set. Brianna set a goal to improve her communication while Marquis and Carl set goals related to specific job skills. Our dependent variable asked about strengths, interests, and needs related to jobs people were interested in exploring. It is possible that the reason for lack of change in Brianna’s reports of her strengths and interests was due to the nature of her goal. That is, her goal was focused on a broader employment skill (communication) that may not have lent itself well to reflecting on strengths and needs related to specific job skills. Future research should examine alternate ways to measure understanding of strengths, interests, and needs that could accommodate different types of goals.

Another unique aspect and implication of this study was the focus on implementing the SDCDM in a day program to enable people with disabilities to take steps to transition to integrated employment, with a focus on setting goals and taking actions in integrated settings. This focus may have impacted the growing focus in self-awareness reported by Carl and Marquis. As Carl said, “If all the jobs could let you put your foot in the door and you could get the job through hands-on experience that would be a lot easier.” Ensuring that future research takes place to the maximum degree possible in integrated settings will be important, as well as documenting the impact of such a focus.

Additionally, all three participants experienced changes in their job status and outcomes after using the SDCDM to set and work toward an employment and career development goal. Two participants found employment, and the third participant increased her days of employment from one to two. All participants in this study had past employment experience and were able to build on these past experiences, with support from the SDCDM facilitator to set a goal and enhance their integrated employment options. Future research is needed on how to effectively support job seekers who do not have experience with employment to set meaningful goals related to developing the skills and supports needed for exploring employment options or building critical skills. Research has shown that the SDCDM can be effective when combined with integrated employment supports (Shogren et al. 2017) both in the process of finding a job, as well as in enhancing job skills and outcomes when already employed. The current study builds on previous research to show that when the SDCDM can also be used to support transition from segregated to integrated employment options, with supports provided to enhance outcomes and opportunities in the integrated setting. This result supports work using the SDLMI upon which the SDCDM was based, which showed participation of students with disabilities increased when implementing the model in integrated settings (Agran et al. 2006; Shogren et al. 2011).

Finally, as a model of support, the SDCDM was designed to be individualized to the learning needs of each person working through the process of setting and going after a goal. In the process of delivering this intervention, the SDCDM facilitator found individually altering the methods and the delivery used to facilitate implementation were critical to engaging participants. For example, Carl was not comfortable sitting and talking with researchers, so it was more effective to engage him while he was engaged in a preferred activity, tending the garden. Brianna needed an increased level of activity to effectively engage with the researchers, so asking her to write down responses to questions allowed her to more fully engage in the process. Based on initial interactions with the participants, the researchers may have possibly concluded the participants were not interested in engaging. However, simple modifications to the task and environment supported them to fully engage. Further research is needed on developing effective, individualized supports for SDCDM implementation, particularly as the SDCDM is implemented by direct support professionals providing employment supports.

Overall, this study suggests the need for future research with the SDCDM that examines effective ways to measure short term, and ongoing changes in self-determination related skills including knowledge of strengths, interests, and needs. Additionally, exploring ways to document changes in other critical skills associated with effective use of the SDCDM, such as goal setting, problem solving, and self-evaluating strategies are needed. Additionally, longer-term evaluations are needed to document changes in overall self-determination status, as previous research has suggested that it may take up to a year or more to demonstrate changes in self-determination (Shogren et al. 2016). While this study shows that skills associated with self-determination may change over the course of intervention, studies supporting participants through multiple rounds of setting goals with the SDCDM over longer periods of time are needed to document change in overall self-determination, as well as ongoing employment outcomes including job maintenance, advancement, and access to benefits.

There were also limitations in this study that must be considered in interpreting the findings and future research. First, it should be noted that since only two participants demonstrated change in the dependent variable, this study was not conclusive in determining the SDCDM can promote knowledge of strengths and interests. Replications are needed, as well as further examination of measurement of behavioral changes. Second, data on reliability of coding of the dependent measure was not collected through all phases, only the maintenance phase. Additionally, the short time frame of the study must be considered. This research was implemented in 2-month period, as mentioned previously, the SDCDM is meant to be used repeatedly to set and go after multiple goals to progress toward a longer-term vision and outcome. It is possible that had participants had more opportunities to engage with the process greater change would have been seen. However, overall, the findings as well as participants’ descriptions of their learning through the model, suggest the potential benefits of the SDCDM and the need to consider ways to support more practitioners to focus on enhancing self-determination as a means to promote career development and advancement in integrated employment.


The authors would like to thank Jordan Harbour and Kayla Clark, masters of occupational therapy students who helped with data collection.

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Evan E. Dean
    • 1
  • Kathryn M. Burke
    • 1
  • Karrie A. Shogren
    • 1
  • Michael L. Wehmeyer
    • 1
  1. 1.Beach Center on Disability/Kansas University Center on Developmental DisabilitiesLawrenceUSA

Personalised recommendations