Supported employment services for individuals with significant disabilities have historically been delivered in-person and on-site. Both the evidence base and daily practice are grounded in face-to-face relationships and hands-on supports. However, COVID-related community public health policies abruptly changed workplace and social standards in Spring 2020. Without precedent or clear guidance, public and private agencies and industry adapted and improvised as best they could to meet the existing and emerging pandemic-related needs of individuals with disabilities in the workplace and the greater community. Early anecdotal evidence, as well as our personal experiences, indicate that virtual services with heavy reliance on mainstream technology became common practice, literally overnight. All stakeholders, from funding agencies to employment specialists to employers to individuals with disabilities and their families, were challenged to define the new norm for supported employment services. As the pandemic wanes and the field continues to accumulate lessons learned and explore new options for maximizing participant experiences and outcomes, there will be rich real-world data and extraordinary opportunities to generate new knowledge through this natural history experiment. We are proposing the following objectives to synthesize the collective lessons learned to date and to evaluate what and how technology is best promoting success on the other side of the COVID pandemic:
Objective 1. Characterize how various supported employment stakeholders adapted to pandemic-related virtual work policies across the three distinct phases of supported employment: exploration and discovery, job development, job placement and supports.
Objective 2. Examine the impact of the pandemic and virtual supported employment services on traditional service elements and employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities across the State of Colorado.
Objective 3. Directly observe technology use in post-pandemic supported employment services to examine how it is impacting program logistics and workplace experiences for individuals with disabilities across the State of Colorado.
Initial conversations among our interdisciplinary team and with key stakeholders suggests that forced virtual operations have accelerated innovation and established new technology-based approaches that may remain once the pandemic and public health restrictions ease. We will use a robust mixed-methods approach to characterize and evaluate those approaches through this project. This work will be conducted through a partnership between Colorado State University, University of Colorado Medical School, Colorado Office of Employment First, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and community rehabilitation provider agencies across the State.