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Job Coaches and Support People for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

Learn more about job coaches and support people

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team


As the lead consultant and a member of the cognitive / neurological team here at JAN, I feel it is time to address a few issues that seem to keep resurfacing about the role of a support person and/or a job coach in general, but particularly when it comes to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Consultants at JAN take calls with questions about accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from individuals with disabilities, their family members, vocational rehabilitation professionals, job coaches themselves, and employers. Many of those questions involve job coaches and support persons.

The topic that keeps coming up is one that employers describe as confidential interactions, meetings, and evaluations where a support person or job coach is actually prohibited from assisting an employee with a disability. My first question is always going to be “Why?.”

If the employees themselves wish to have the support of another person in any type of employment meeting, it should be up to them whether they want any confidential information relayed to the external support person accompanying them. When an employee with a disability invites a support person to a personal meeting, it seems to go without saying that the support person will likely encounter some type of confidential or personal information about the employee. If an employer isn’t sure the employee understands the nature of the meeting and the type of information that will be revealed, then the employer can make it clear to the employee what topics will be discussed and determine if the employee still wants an external support person present for those meetings. Shouldn’t the revelation or disclosure of personal and/or confidential information about the employee be at the employee’s discretion?

I often wonder if the confidential information the employer refers to concerns the employer and not the employee. Could the employer truly have confidential or secret information that would prohibit an external support person from attending an employee meeting? Are there state secrets or special recipes at stake? Probably not. When employers refuse to allow a support person into a meeting as an accommodation that could assist the employee, it usually sends out a red flag. If everything is on the up and up, what harm does the support person actually present?

So let’s look at what a support person would actually do to assist the employee.  There are a myriad of valid reasons a person with an intellectual disability may need help in the form of a job coach or a support person. Assistance in note-taking may be needed if concentration and/or memory are affected by the employee’s disability. If fatigue and/or cognitive impairments are an issue, a support person can help the employee focus on the purpose of the meeting and may offer actual assistance in following a dialog and remembering the concerns to be addressed.

Individuals who have difficulty managing emotions, stress, or anxiety may find a support person comforting, encouraging, and a necessary assistance in situations that may exacerbate stress and discomfort. In workplace situations where there might already be issues of strife and disagreement, an employee may feel extremely stressed about meeting with an employer. Bringing a support person to a meeting may help ease apprehension and allow for a more productive interactive meeting. Often times a person the employee is familiar and/or comfortable with can provide moral support when facing an employer in an interactive accommodation meeting, a performance evaluation, or disciplinary counseling. Sometimes during the above mentioned types of meetings, there can be several people present on the employer's side. Just having a support person present can alleviate feelings of being alone, outnumbered, overwhelmed, and/or nervous.

Employees with intellectual disabilities may need to bring someone with them to a performance evaluation or disciplinary meeting to help ask questions about the purpose of the meeting, to help the employee understand the evaluation, and to explain the job evaluation results. Employers who are about to take disciplinary action against an employee with intellectual disabilities will want to make sure that the employee fully understands the purpose of the meeting and any consequences that may come from the performance or conduct issues. Having a support person who knows the employee and his/her abilities may be an asset in communicating the information to the employee and assisting in the comprehension of that information (EEOC, 2004).

Most professionals coming into a workplace as a job coach will be trained in confidentiality. If not, or if the support person designated by the employee is a friend or family member, the employer can have a brief “training” session in order to make sure the support person understands the nature of the information that will be disclosed during the meeting and the limitations placed upon them in regards to repeating or revealing any of the information discussed behind closed doors.

If an employer truly does have confidential information that cannot be trusted to anyone outside of the workplace, an onsite mentor may be a great substitute for a job coach / support person. There would be the same concerns for the employee’s information being kept confidential, but the exclusive details the employer wouldn’t want an outsider privy to should remain safe and private.  

Consider the examples below of how a support person / job coach can be of beneficial assistance in the workplace:

  • Jack has broken several conduct rules in his workplace. His supervisor determines that Jack may need assistance when they sit down to talk about these issues. The supervisor knows that Jack is unable to live independently and resides with his brother. He asks Jack if he would like for his brother to come in with him for the meeting. 
  • Cecily was supported by a job coach when she first started working in a large grocery store. After about a year of successful employment, Cecily’s position has changed up a bit. She is now having difficulty grasping some of the new job tasks. She asks her employer to allow her job coach to return temporarily to meet with them and help her learn these new tasks.
  • John works in a fast food restaurant, He is having trouble initiating tasks on his own and is often found loitering between specifically assigned tasks. When the employer tells him that they are calling him into a meeting to discuss their displeasure with him, John feels panicked. He tells the manager that if his father could come to the meeting, he could offer John both moral support and help with solutions.
  • Xavier asked his manager if his previous job coach could come in to help him explain his medical condition, how it has recently worsened, and how it affects his job. His manager welcomed the opportunity to better understand Xavier’s needs in the workplace.

    With forethought and preparation, an employer who allows the presence of a job coach or a support person to assist an employee with an intellectual disability should find more purpose and productivity not only from meetings, but also from the employee’s job tasks. It seems like a win-win for all, does it not?

one employee mentoring another