Five Questions to Ask About Support Services

Contemplating employment can bring on a cocktail of many feelings: excitement, anxiety, the thrill of freedom, the dread of workplace tedium, fear for personal safety, gratification from being an important part of an adult team, and a rewarding sense of being valued for what one uniquely has to offer.

Part of this journey involves the consideration of whether or not to access services to facilitate entry into the workforce. These services are often referred to as supported employment services or vocational rehabilitation. Like any field involving a government agency, learning about services, the jargon, and a new set of acronyms can add a layer of difficulty to an already charged experience.

Here is a list of “terms to know” and resources to help you get started.

1. What is DARS?

The Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) is the state agency tasked with providing vocational rehabilitation to assist people with disabilities to prepare for, secure, retain or regain employment. Sometimes our students begin working with DARS while they are in high school receiving Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS). These student work with a DARS representative to identify their strengths and interests and to explore their possible paths in the workforce. Students who qualify for services may also work with a case manager to develop an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE). The case manager discusses different planning tools and resources to pave the way for eligible clients to enter the workforce. Sometimes the services include vocational assessments, driving assessments, or independent living assessments. Sometimes DARS will provide services through a vendor “Employment Services Organization” (ESO). For more information on DARS and services they provide, see their website:

2. What is a WISA?

A Work Incentives Special Advocate (WISA) works with DARS clients and their families to guide them through the process of juggling their income and their benefits reporting requirements. We know that that a person will always have a larger income when working than when not working. A WISA can help clients understand how to navigate the process of handling their benefits given their newfound income. Ask your DARS counselor about whether or not working with a WISA would be an appropriate part of your Individual Plan for Employment.

3. What is a job coach?

A job coach, or Employment Specialist, is a person who works directly with a client with disabilities while he is seeking and becoming established in employment. Some job coaches work directly for DARS. Oftentimes Employment Specialists work for Employment Service Organizations (ESOs), a private organization providing services for DARS through a vendor relationship. The Employment Specialist works directly with a client to identify prospective employers, to support clients during the hiring and on-boarding processes. Employment Specialists continue to work with clients until they are stable on the job.

4. What is customized employment?

Customized employment is a flexible, collaborative process through which an employment candidate is matched with a prospective employer based on a tailored pairing of the candidate’s strengths and the employer’s needs. An Employment Specialist facilitates the conversation between the two parties rather than supporting a client through a standing “cookie cutter” recruitment process. Many of our students may not find their best employment fit by reviewing job descriptions that were written without a particular person in mind. By customizing employment, employers can find the talent they need without screening out qualified candidates with spurious requirements. To read success stories about how customized employment can work, see the Department of Labor’s website:

5. What are long-term follow along services?

After an employee is stable at a job, DARS will close that person’s case. However, if there are any changes in the job or opportunities for advancement, the employee should not hesitate to reach out to his case manager to see if he qualifies for services that could support him during these changes. In the meantime, if a client has worked with an Employment Specialist (job coach) through an ESO (DARS vendor), in many cases that Employment Specialist will touch base at least once per month as a part of long-term follow along services to see how the client is doing. This provides the client with an on-going touchstone in case there are small issues to resolve along the way.

In conclusion, it is an exciting and dynamic time to be entering the workforce. Many companies in our area and across the country are thinking more creatively than ever about how they can truly include team members with all backgrounds and support needs. Slowly but surely, the business community is recognizing the value that inclusive employment practices can lend their company’s growth, bottom line, and role in the community. These are just a few of the tools and initiatives that are paving the way for today’s graduates. Entering the workforce equipped with knowledge about these resources will lead a candidate to be better equipped than ever to step into employment.

Planning for your child’s transition from high school to the next steps of early adulthood can be complex and overwhelming. Many questions are difficult to answer during this time of rapid and dynamic development in your child’s life. How can you anticipate the needs your child will have in a year, or three years, or even five years?

Transition planning does not start by being able to answer these questions. Every transition to adulthood is a winding road filled with unexpected twists and turns. The challenges of disability can add to the complexity of this journey. We know to expect that these questions will change and evolve as the journey continues.

Transition planning can make a strong start by first “filling your toolbox” with as much information and access to services as is appropriate for your child’s unique journey. Many transition processes are complex and time-consuming. Starting eligibility processes early can allow for services to more accessible when your child needs them.

Here are five questions to help get you started as you search for tools that will work for your child.

1. Getting a job: I want my child to work, but I’m not sure where to start. What services are available for my child?

Employment looks different for each Northstar student. Each student brings different strengths to the workforce, and each family works through a unique series of challenges to guide them along the way. The agency charged with providing employment services and supports to adults with disabilities is the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). Northstar IEP and IAP liaisons are here to help you through the eligibility application. We recommend that you apply as early as tenth grade as the eligibility process can take time. However, some of our students are now receiving Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) while they are still completing high school. This is a good way to learn about the services DARS has to offer and to learn about steps students can be taking toward employment. Learn more about DARS here:

2. College: My child and our whole family have been working hard to prepare for college. How does transition planning factor into college planning?

Transitioning to college is still transitioning from high school to the next step. More and more colleges are offering support services and unique programming to open access to learners of all needs. Be aware that in college, protections offered students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) no longer apply. The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees equal access to college students with disabilities. Visiting prospective colleges’ offices of student accommodations can be a helpful step in assessing the fit of that college experience. We are glad to be located near two community colleges with very active and supportive Offices for Student Accommodations. Learn more about their work here: and

Also, learn more about Courage to Succeed, a program supporting college students at Reynolds Community College, here:

3. Transportation: I’m not sure if my child is going to get a driver’s license any time soon and maybe won’t get one at all. How do I figure out transportation?

Our Northstar parents tell us that the best strategy for transportation is just like strategies they have used for lots of other areas in their children’s lives: have multiple options. Even if your child is going to be a driver, he/she may not be comfortable driving in all types of weather, traffic conditions, or states of mind. A Care Card allows a person to use the Carevan, a door-to-door van service that costs $6 each way. Completing the eligibility paperwork takes about 40 minutes. The approval process takes about three months. Even if you don’t plan on your child using this or a similar service as a primary means of transportation, it is a useful back-up tool. Learn more about eligibility here:

Also, if a person has a Care Card, he can ride the GRTC bus for free! GRTC also offers free travel training to persons needing support learning to ride the bus safely. Kelsey Chalder will meet with your family, get to know your child, and make a travel training plan with you. Learn more about travel training here:

Finally, if your child is going to take the tests for a Learner’s Permit or a Driver’s License, be sure to ask that they receive the testing accommodations that will allow them to produce the most authentic results. See more information about this here:

4. Disability Benefits: What is the difference between SSI and SSDI?

Did you know that many people who have been diagnosed with a disability protected by the ADA are eligible to collect SSDI benefits based on their parents’ work experience when their parents retire? Understanding how SSI and SSDI can impact your child’s long-term financial picture are critical pieces of a complicated puzzle. Attorneys who specialize in special needs law can help families identify the financial planning tools and benefits that make sense for your family. The Disability Law Center of Virginia also has useful guidance materials to help you along the way:

5. Income and Eligibility for Benefits: I want my child to get a job but not to lose her benefits. What should I do?

The short answer is proven by the math: a person will always have more income when employed than when unemployed.

Navigating the procedures necessary to stay in compliance with all of the agencies supporting your child is not always so straightforward. Thanks to a special grant, Work Incentives Special Advocates are now available to DARS clients to discuss ways that they can both be engaged in the workforce and continue to collect the benefits they need to maintain their health and stability. Talk to your DARS counselor about this service and learn more here: