Dignity & Purpose: Hiring People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Amid a widely-reported worker shortage, companies across industries and in the service sector are having difficulty adding employees to match the increased business of the post-pandemic economic resurgence. Among those communities from which workers could be drawn are people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. These disabilities are defined by the National Institutes of Health as “disorders that are usually present at birth, and that uniquely affect the trajectory of the individual’s physical, intellectual, and/or emotional development.
Many of these conditions affect multiple body parts or systems.” They can include, but are not limited to, autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and other conditions that can affect the nervous, sensory, or metabolic systems. Regardless of the type of disability a person has, the opportunity to participate in meaningful work is a key step, for many, toward a more meaningful life.
But what is “meaningful work?” According to Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc of the United States — the United States’ largest, national community-based organization advocating for and with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — how it is defined should be based on the perspective of the individual either working or seeking employment, and what they are looking for in their lives. This is exactly the same approach undertaken by the non-disabled community.
While precise information is difficult to obtain, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that about 18% of disabled people in the United States are employed. Among those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, the number could be as low as 15%. Adding to this, says Berns, people with disabilities were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic-related downturn, and those jobs have been slower to return when compared to jobs within the general population.
The reasons for high unemployment among disabled people are many, says Berns, who notes that most who are not employed would like to work. Many of those who are employed, however, are not involved in full time work. Berns reports an average of 13 hours per week — and that part-time work means less or no benefits, such as healthcare. Only one in five disabled workers is receiving any benefits, he says.
Other factors contributing to high unemployment can be found in the hiring process. For instance, Berns says that online application forms — which can include forms that “time out” if not completed quickly enough — or personality tests may serve to screen out those with disabilities. Tom Cory, program consultant for The Arc at Work, reports that by working with a job coach, some disabled people seeking employment may be better able to navigate the application process. That said, public funding for vocational services, either through state and local agencies or through the federal Medicaid program, says Berns, are “woefully underfunded,” and do not generally meet the needs of employees and employers seeking their services. Finally, Berns says, implicit bias and discrimination can also come into play.
Challenging Old Assumptions and Changing the Game
Beyond unemployment is underemployment, as evidenced by the preponderance of part-time work among the disabled labor force, and its subsequent lack of benefits. Berns says that the definition of “disability” has been an inability to participate in gainful activity, and that the mindset must change. Better work, for some, means full-time work, meaningful benefits, and the ability to advance professionally.
Berns says that some employers may view hiring disabled people through a lens that is based on false assumptions. For instance, employers may not be familiar with their responsibility regarding accommodations for disabled workers. They may also assume that providing accommodations will be costly, or complicate efforts to provide a safe workplace. One goal of his organization, he says, is to debunk some of these false assumptions, rebutting them by saying hiring disabled people can improve morale and decrease turnover — many disabled people will stay in their jobs for a long time.
One key factor that can complicate work for disabled people is earnings thresholds established under Medicaid and disability status. In some cases, even a part-time job can result in the disabled person having too many assets, thus losing the benefits that are key lifelines for medical care, housing, and other supports. Currently, the asset threshold for Social Security Disability, for instance, is $2,000, a figure that has not changed since 1984. Having spent much time and effort to gain these benefits, says Berns, many disabled people (as well as their families and caregivers) are hesitant — even terrified — to jeopardize them. This reality thus suppresses the ability to work for pay. For a full-time disabled worker who receives benefits, losing one’s job means re-applying for services if other full-time employment is not available.
Connect with Local Resources
For companies looking to engage disabled people into meaningful employment, Berns and Cory urge doing some local research to locate organizations (either via local government or non-governmental groups) that provide vocational services. They add that all U.S. states have a vocational rehabilitation office, making it a great place to start. School systems may also have offices that seek to place students into employment. To get started, make an introduction and provide a job description. The vocational office can often assist in the screening of applicants. Berns says that many companies start in this area by hiring one employee, and find it a positive experience, thus opening the door for additional hires. He advises companies to start small, to make sure the effort starts with high-level leadership commitment, and to make disability awareness training a part of the broader plan.
It is well known that the hiring of disabled employees may require accommodation by the employer. While this is true, Cory advises businesses to approach accommodations with an open mind, and to have clear expectations for the job and its requirements. He also advises against making assumptions such as whether having an employee in a wheelchair means installing ramps, or whether having an employee with autism means providing extensive sensory controls (such as different lighting). Accommodations, Cory says, must be individually-focused: the person must fit the job, and the accommodations must fit the person. Clear work instructions (i.e. standard operating procedures) are a common accommodation, the creation of which can benefit the whole company. Workers with social or sensory concerns may benefit from remote work. Crafting appropriate accommodations, says Berns, is another service a vocational rehabilitation agency can provide. He also recommends the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (askjan.org).
Asked about the goals of disabled people who seek meaningful employment, Berns offers a clarification and a challenge. He says that the goal of work — whether a person has a disability or not — is the same: making a living, defining personal identity, and increasing dignity. Berns adds, “if each of the 10.7 million employers in the United States would add just one disabled worker, it could move the needle in a big way — folks just need to be open to doing it.”
While the hiring and accommodation of employees with intellectual or developmental disabilities may be a bit more challenging than hiring their non-disabled peers, companies can view this reality through the lens of opportunity. For a bit more work and a bit more attention, along with accommodation to help fit the tasks of the job to the worker, businesses can gain access to a loyal, capable workforce. It takes the goals of the company outside of its internal, bottom-line concerns, expanding them into the community and toward bettering the lives of its people. Further, it adjusts the workforce to more accurately reflect the diversity of the general population.