Exploring Supported Employment at Imagine Art


Millions of adults live with intellectual disabilities, including conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, and sensory system disorders. This group faces countless inequities and has limited access to opportunities for community engagement and employment. Current support systems, such as Social Security and day habilitation, are inadequate, especially in the state of Texas. Limited waiver spots, confusing Social Security rules, and subminimum wage are just some of the barriers that prevent adults with disabilities from accessing competitive, integrated employment.

I spent the last year serving at Imagine Art, a nonprofit art studio for adults with disabilities in Austin, Texas. The organization currently utilizes a day habilitation model, billing the artists’ providers for the hours they spend in the studio. With a shift to virtual (and now hybrid) programming and a new facility on the horizon, Imagine Art is considering new program models. Specifically, a supported employment approach, funded by Medicaid waivers, would empower artists with the skills to start their own microbusinesses.

My community-based research project explored the readiness of Imagine Art to transition to supported employment programming for some artists. Interviews with artists and surveys with staff members provided a deeper understanding of the interest level and barriers to supported employment. My interview and survey questions also asked about the successes and challenges of virtual programming.

Data analysis revealed that artists have a high level of interest in supported employment. While not all artists may have a funding source or resources to maintain a business, it is certainly a viable option for several Imagine Art artists. Considering the Austin business market and oversaturated art scene, artists will need to find their own niche in providing services and products. While many were concerned about earning income while receiving benefits, a cottage industry model may overcome this challenge by redistributing earnings to individual artists. To succeed in supported employment, Imagine Art must train artists and staff about this approach. The organization must also consider how to incorporate this program model while continuing to serve artists who do not wish to start businesses.

Future directions include presentations to artists and staff about supported employment and a conversation with Texas Senator Zaffirini regarding a new supported employment bill. I also hope to raise awareness of these issues beyond the organization through peer-reviewed publications, op-eds, and artwork.