Careers in Special Education

Careers in Community Service

If you’re thinking about a career in special education but you aren’t sure if you want to work in the classroom or with young people, there are plenty of other opportunities for you. In this section we will talk about careers in community services. If you decide that community services are not for you after reading this unit, don’t distress! There are even more career options in the field of special education that we will discuss next. But for now, let’s take a closer look at what community services are and what a job in this field would be like.

What are Community Services? There are numerous opportunities to work with people with disabilities of all ages in a variety of community agencies. People in community services may work for public agencies, often called comprehensive care or community mental health centers, or for a variety of private organizations. Some agencies attempt to be comprehensive, providing a full spectrum of services to people with a variety of disabilities. Others are highly specialized, providing a narrowly defined group of services for a specific population, such as elementary aged children with autism. In this discussion, we are not going to try to explore all the possible options; instead we will try to give you an overview of the basic job categories that may be available to someone who wants to work in this field, and let you explore those that are of interest to you.

Note: It is important to note that many of the career fields are relatively new. After all, community services for people with disabilities were almost non-existent 30 years ago. Through the 1970s, institutions were often the sole source of services for people with disabilities. Public disapproval over the poor conditions that existed in most institutions, along with parental activism, has led to massive growth in the community services field. Today, the number of people in institutions has decreased dramatically and in many states, there are no longer large publicly funded institutions.

What are the career possibilities in the community services? Some of the careers available in community service would fall under the following 8 general categories:

Case manager or service coordinator. People in this role usually work for community mental health organizations or sometimes for private agencies. They work with the person who has a disability and their family to assure that they have access to all needed services. They also provide the essential role of monitoring the quality of services that the individual receives, and advocates for the individual when services are not meeting the person’s needs.

Residential Support Roles:
  • Community living residences (in KY, this is called Supports for Community Living). While the majority of people with a significant disability continue to live at home with their families with support, community living residences are increasingly becoming available as a place to live. Community living residences are private residences in which one to three individuals with a significant disability may live. The staff may actually live in the home or work on shift basis. They are actively engaged in enabling the residents to improve on the skills they need to live more independently, while also working to ensure that the individuals they support are able to access the community, and to “connect” to the community activities that they would most enjoy being a part of!

  • Supported living staff. Supported living is different from other models of residential services in that it emphasizes ownership or control of the home by the person with a disability. The work of supported living staff is highly individualized and negotiated based on the needs and preferences of the person with a disability.

  • Other residential staff. In addition to community living residences and supported living, there are a wide variety of residential arrangements for people with disabilities. In such programs, the staff usually live in their own apartment and are available on-call and to drop in to see how things are going for the individuals with disabilities who may be living in supervised or independent apartments of their own.

  • Personal assistant. People in this role perform those tasks of care that the individual who has a disability would normally do for him or herself but may need assistance. Again, this is a highly personalized arrangement that is individually worked out with the person with a disability.

Employment Specialist Roles 
  • Job developer. This role is part of a newer system of vocational services that offers an alternative to sheltered programs. People in this role work with businesses in their communities to identify employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The emphasis is often on tailoring a particular job to the unique characteristics of an individual.

  • Job coach/employment specialist. This job is also part of the community-based model of vocational services. Job coaches work together with people who have a disability and employers to develop work skills and support success in typical work settings. An important part of the role of job coaches is to assist individuals with more severe disabilities who require supported employment. Supported employment is defined as regular, integrated jobs for which the person needs ongoing support. This support can come for the job coach, and whenever possible, from willing co-workers! Link here to see two examples of

Increasingly, there is an emphasis on service coordinators, supported living staff, personal assistants, job developers, and job coaches as the career directions for the future. These roles are more consistent with individually planned services and supports and emphasize putting a person’s wants and needs first in their life. This is based on the fact that these roles place a greater emphasis on supporting people with disabilities so they achieve independence, community involvement, and self-determination.

After reviewing the listed career choices above, reflect on the different available positions. Why is it important to have new career opportunities in fields that promote putting a person’s wants and needs first? How do the jobs listed above fit or not fit this model? Write a brief reflection.

You’ve read the summaries of the available jobs in the human services and now you want to know the important stuff: What kind of education is required? Traditionally, “direct line workers” who interact directly with people with disabilities were often seen as "paraprofessionals" requiring only a high school diploma. Typically, managers in such organizations are required to have at least a bachelor's degree and often a master’s degree in some relevant field such as education, social work, or psychology. As expectations for people in the direct care role have increased, organizations are frequently looking at higher entry-level credentials such as an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree. However you should be aware that you will still find a great deal of variation around the country. We encourage you to explore the requirements for various positions in areas of the country that interest you.

What we can tell you is that as the field of community services has become established, community colleges around the country and some four-year institutions have begun to develop specialized programs for community service workers. Some examples of Kentucky programs are listed below.

* The Kentucky Community and Technical College System offers an Associate Degree in Human services. This program prepares individuals for entry-level positions in agencies and institutions that provide social, community, educational and mental health services.

* At the University of Kentucky, the Human Development Institute offers a Graduate Certificate in Developmental Disabilities. The purpose of this Graduate Certificate is to prepare professionals from a broad range of disciplines to play a leadership role in providing services and supports for people with developmental disabilities and their families. You must have at least a bachelor’s degree to get this certification.

Direct Support Professionals

Many of the people in the careers we’ve described are known as direct support professionals. What do these workers actually do? Direct support professionals (DSP) provide guidance and support to people who need help to be self-sufficient. DSPs view their job as a profession that demands complex skills and knowledge, ethical judgment and the ability to create relationships of trust and mutual respect.

Direct support professionals are known by a variety of job titles: residential counselor, personal care attendant, job coach, paraeducator, program manager, direct care provider, and many others. They have established their own national organization, the National Alliance of Direct Support Professionals. The organization’s website contains information for individuals who provide residential, educational, and vocational services to persons with disabilities. Within this web site is state-of-the-art information for direct support professionals, trainers and supervisors of direct support professionals, policymakers, and researchers seeking to ensure that quality direct care services are available to all persons with disabilities. 

Browse through the Code of Ethics and write a brief reaction to the major points. Why are ethics in working with this population important? What else can you think of that would be important to keep in mind as a DSP?

Not all direct support professional work in the area of residential support or with people with developmental disabilities. Kristen is a job coach at an agency for people with serious mental illness.

Read a brief summary of her job. While on this page, follow the links to see the specific skills this organizations expects the “job coach” and a “job developer” to have.

Based on everything you have learned in this section on community services, write a brief reaction on how your idea of what a community service career involves has changed and what you would like to learn further. Write at least one paragraph.