Natural Supports

Natural supports are "personal associations and relationships typically developed in the community that enhance the quality and security of life for people, including, but not limited to, family relationships; friendships reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood and the community; association with fellow students or employees in regular classrooms and workplaces; and associations developed through participation in clubs, organizations, and other civic activities" (Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act, California Welfare and Institution Code, Section 4512(e)).

There are a number of definitions of natural supports (Wehman & Bricout, n.d.), some of which focus on the workplace. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor’s One-Stop Toolkit site describes natural supports as "supports provided to an employee with a disability from supervisors and co-workers, such as mentoring, friendship, socializing at breaks or after work, providing feedback on job performance or learning a new skill together. These natural supports are particularly effective as they enhance the social integration of the employee with a disability with his or her co-workers and supervisor. In addition, natural supports are more permanent, part of the workplace, and more readily available than paid job coaches, thereby facilitating long-term job retention."

Nisbet and Hagner introduced the term "natural support" in 1988, and the meaning has expanded greatly since then. Allen (n.d.) describes the following potential sources of natural supports:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Co-workers
  • Clubs and social organizations
  • Civic and professional organizations
  • Recreation centers
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Education opportunities
  • Transportation resources
  • Child care providers
  • On-line communities
  • Religious and faith communities
  • Schools and students
  • Sports and hobbies
  • Corporate leaders
  • Political parties and organizations

"Professionals and paraprofessionals who interact with the family primarily offer paid support; however, they can also be connected to family members through caring relationships that exceed the boundaries and expectations of their formal roles. When they act in this way, professionals and paraprofessionals too can become sources of natural support" (Bruns et al, 2004, pp. 6-7).

A number of transition models incorporate natural supports. The SPANS (Systematic Plan for Achieving Natural Supports) (Trach & Mayhall, 1997) has six components:

  • Consumer-driven planning
  • Ecological assessment of individual needs
  • Environmental assessment of natural supports
  • Identification of natural supports in multiple environments
  • Matching natural supports to individual needs, and
  • Development of individual natural supports plans.

The Vocational Phase Model (Nishioka, 2002) was developed for work sites and guides a student through five phases beginning with close supervision and training by a Transition Specialist or job coach and ending with paid independent employment. The five phases are:

  1. Learning
  2. Responsibility
  3. Transition
  4. Independence
  5. Employability

Natural supports are included in the Adult Services and Community Involvement Indicator, one of seven indicators of quality transition identified by the Kansas Transition Systems Change Project (n.d.): "Services and supports are available to facilitate formal and informal natural support networks and community connects [sic] for students with disabilities."


Natural Supports...They’re All Around You! (pdf)
This resource from California’s Department of Developmental Services describes how to develop natural supports.
This website of the Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Work Supports and Job Retention contains research, resources, and an "Ask Us" option for inquiries about the employment of people with disabilities.


Allen, J.B. Jr. (n.d.) Enhancing recovery through linkage with Indigenous natural supports. Available at

Bruns, E.J., Walker, J.S., Adams, J., Miles, P., Osher, T.W., Rast, J., Vandenberg, J.D. & National Wraparound Initiative Advisory Group (2004). Ten principles of the wraparound process. Portland, OR: National Wraparound Initiative, Research and Training Center on Family Support and Children’s Mental Health, Portland State University.

Kansas Transition Systems Change Project. (n.d.) Transition – Seven quality indicators. Lawrence, KS: The Beach Center on Families and Disabilities.

Nisbet, J. & Hagner, D. (1998). Natural supports in the workplace: A reexamination of supported employment. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 13, 260-267.

Nishioka, V. (2002). Chapter 5: Job training and support. In M. Bullis & H.D. Fredericks (Eds.). Vocational and transition services for adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders: Strategies and best practices. Champaign, IL: Research Press and Arden Hills, MN: Behavioral Institute for Children and Adolescents. 

Trach, J.S. & Mayhall, C.D. (1997, April-June). Analysis of the types of natural supports utilized during job placement and development. Journal of Rehabilitation. Available at 1G1-56175562 / analysis-of-the-types-of-natural-supports-utilized

Wehman, P. & Bricout, J. (n.d.). Supported employment and natural supports: A critique and analysis. (Article 15). Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Workplace Supports and Job Retention. Available at documents/article15.pdf