Adapting Evidence-Based Resources to Create Employment Pathways for Job-Seeking Refugees With Disabilities in Illinois

University of Illinois at Chicago
Partners of Refugees in Illinois Disability Employment
Submitted by Rooshey Hasnain and Mansha Mirza


We describe how we used the Understanding User Context framework Jacobson, Butterill, & Goering, 2003) to implement a three-year initiative to improve vocational rehabilitation (VR) access and employment options for refugees with disabilities in Illinois.


The state of Illinois and, in particular, the city of Chicago, are home to large numbers of refugees who have immigrated to the United States after fleeing violence and persecution in their countries of origin. Chicago’s refugee population includes many working-age individuals with disabilities who often fall through gaps between disability and refugee service systems and who face several barriers to using disability-related employment supports. PRIDE (Partners of Refugees in Illinois Disability Employment) is a three-year grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), that links refugees who have disabilities with job and entrepreneurship opportunities. 

PRIDE is founded on a community-based participatory approach and has four broad goals: (1) build organizational capacity among refugee service providers; (2) provide comprehensive training interventions and supports to promote competitive- and self-employment among refugees with disabilities; (3) improve connectivity among disabled refugees, VR service providers, and potential employers by developing and field testing an information technology (IT) application; and (4) disseminate PRIDE’s outputs and products in culturally relevant ways.

Knowledge Translation Activities

We used the Understanding User Context framework by Jacobsen et al. (2003) to guide PRIDE activities. This framework offers practical strategies to engage community partners and end users in the knowledge translation (KT) process. Within this framework, the KT process is organized within five domains: the user, the issue, the research, the researcher-user relationship, and dissemination activities (Sudsawad, 2007).

The Understanding User Context framework is based on both author experience and a comprehensive review of the literature on KT gaps. The framework is widely regarded as being useful in understanding and addressing the perspectives of various stakeholder groups that are critical for facilitating KT in clinical and community settings (Nowell, 2015).

Appropriateness of the Understanding User Context Framework for PRIDE Goals and Objectives

Working collaboratively with community partners and stakeholder groups is a critical aspect of PRIDE’s development activities. PRIDE partners with refugee social service agencies, VR and workforce assistance providers, disability agencies, civil rights and legal entities, advocacy groups, community and individual advocates, and families. Our primary goal in forging these partnerships is to reduce the knowledge and awareness gap for disabled refugees and providers alike so that the VR and employment gap for refugees with disabilities can be addressed more effectively. The framework provides practical strategies and guiding questions to engage community partners and stakeholders throughout the KT process. Therefore, this framework is well-suited to PRIDE’s goals and overall approach.

Use of the Understanding User Context Framework to Engage Stakeholders and Inform PRIDE Activities

From the very inception of the PRIDE project, we used elements of Barwick’s (2008, 2013) Knowledge Translation Planning Template to gather key information such as identification of research collaborators and co-investigators with scientific expertise and/or linkages to desired community partners; identification of potential partners and their desired roles; and identification of end users and their knowledge gaps. Throughout this process, multiple steps were taken to ensure that all of the project’s materials and resources are culturally appropriate, linguistically accessible, and meaningful for refugee participants.

Following is a description of PRIDE’s activities pertaining to the five domains of the Understanding User Context framework.

Users, Stakeholders, and Partners—The PRIDE team has developed and coordinated 50 active, sustainable partnerships across a broad range of sectors: refugee agencies (Refugee One, Asian Human Services, Heartland Human Care Services, Syrian Community Network, Catholic Charities, Upwardly Global), disability agencies (Division of Rehabilitation Services–VR, Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities, Access Living–Center for Independent Living, Equip for Equality), employers, business owners, local ethnic and mainstream chambers of commerce, workforce centers, and transportation experts. These partners were identified through the principal investigators’ professional networks and through connections made via the Illinois Refugee Health Task Force.

The Issues—Through multiple meetings with PRIDE partners and ongoing dialogue with stakeholder groups, we gained insight into employment supports and barriers that currently exist for refugees with disabilities. PRIDE and our multisector partners identified the following needs: (1) need to build capacity among refugee service providers; (2) need to build capacity among VR providers; (3) need to facilitate connections between refugee and disability service systems; (4) need to dispel myths about disability and employment among refugees with disabilities; and (5) need to identify and publicize employment and entrepreneurship success stories.

The Research—In addition to our community engagement and advisory board activities, we collected information from a wide range of sources to understand the current status of job-seeking refugees with disabilities in Illinois. The PRIDE team continues to do the following:

  • Gather and review the literature to determine the status of refugees with disabilities in the context of VR and employment.
  • Search for and review existing employment-focused curricula to determine what factors hinder or facilitate successful employment outcomes for job seekers with disabilities.
  • Identify sources to assess the current employment situation, trends, and status of refugees with disabilities.
  • Develop a vocational assessment inventory that includes adapted versions of standardized interviews and assessments in the following areas: work preferences and interests, functional limitations, work experiences, goals, and barriers.

Researcher-User Interaction—Several efforts have been made to ensure communication channels between the research team and users/stakeholders. A project advisory board was established comprising 50 key stakeholders and informants. The advisory board’s role has been to supply advice, direction, and guidance pertaining to the broad goals, objectives, and outcomes of the project. For practical purposes, the advisory board was further divided into two task forces: one for community aspects of the project, and the other for its business aspects. Currently, the community task force has 12 members and the business task force has seven members.  

We organized two meetings of the community advisory board. From these meetings, a consensus emerged that existing systems lack the capacity to provide employment and career services and awareness of local resources for job-seeking refugees with disabilities. As a result, the following KT products and activities were recommended:

  1. Create training modules for job-seeking refugees with disabilities.
  2. Create training modules for refugee-serving providers.
  3. Develop supports for self-employment and entrepreneurship.
  4. Create innovative IT tools to help with referrals, access to resources, refugee-employer matching, and hiring.
  5. Connect to employers who are willing to train and hire job-seeking refugees with disabilities.

In addition to our community engagement and advisory board activities, the research team has conducted more than 20 one-on-one meetings with various partners and stakeholder groups. Based on these consultations, the research team determined that employment training for refugees with disabilities should include both individual and group sessions, with individual sessions allowing for personalization and group sessions fostering social learning and networking. It was also decided that capacity-building among service providers would be most feasible via online training modules and through IT tools to support provider networking and tracking of client progress.

Dissemination Activities—The PRIDE team is in the process of developing narrative testimonials and video case studies to disseminate successful strategies for employment of refugees with disabilities. These will be translated into languages such as Arabic, French, and Nepali to ensure optimal cultural outreach.

Lessons Learned

In the absence of existing tools, we have developed customized questionnaires to collect baseline data on the number of refugees with disabilities served by the PRIDE program and to track their progress and outcomes regarding employment goals.

We have also developed pre- and post-training assessments to evaluate changes in service-provider knowledge related to working with refugees with disabilities. In addition to these assessments, we will also use the Social Worker Attitudes Scale to assess provider perspectives toward clients with disabilities. Finally, we will use heuristic testing to assess the feasibility and acceptability of PRIDE’s IT tools.

Contact Information

Phone: 312-355-5427
Email: Rooshey Hasnain (
Co-Principal Investigator: Mansha Mirza (
Project Coordinator: Kathryn Duke (


Barwick, M. (2008, 2013). Knowledge translation planning template. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Hospital for Sick Children. Retrieved from

Jacobson, N., Butterill, D., & Goering, P. (2003, May). Development of a framework for knowledge translation: Understanding user context. Journal of Health Services Research & Policy 8(2): 94–99.

Nowell, L. (2015, November). Pragmatism and integrated knowledge translation: exploring the compatibilities and tensions. NursingOpen, 2(3), 141–148. Doi: 10.1002/nop2.30

Sudsawad, P. (2007). Knowledge translation: Introduction to models, strategies, and measures. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research. Retrieved from