Inclusion of People with Intellectual Disabilities in the Workforce

DRTC affiliated employee working in a supermarket, looking beyond camera smiling, standing at checkout area surrounded with products, bags, and shopping carts. Other employees and shoppers in background.

By Deborah Copeland, M.Ed.

Accounting for one billion people worldwide (about 15% of the population), people with disabilities comprise the largest minority group across the globe.[i] Despite diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts gaining significant momentum across the nation, people with disabilities are largely absent from the discussion.  According to the Harvard Business Review, while 90% of companies have prioritized diversity efforts, only 4% consider disability in their initiatives.[ii]  Employers willing to invest in building a more disability-inclusive workforce will reap benefits beyond the employment of one specific demographic. According to a 2018 study by Accenture:

There are 15.1 million people of working age living with disabilities in the U.S., so the research suggests that if companies embrace disability inclusion, they will gain access to a new talent pool of more than 10.7 million people.[iii]

People with disabilities represent a largely untapped workforce in Oklahoma and across the nation. Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) experience some of the highest levels of unemployment. In Oklahoma (2018), of the 36,100 “working age” people with cognitive disabilities, only 28% were employed in the competitive workforce.[iv] However, the landscape for one of the most marginalized populations continues to advance due to increased attention on equitable employment outcomes for people with significant disabilities.

Federal legislation (HR2373, HR603) to phase out “center-based” or “sheltered workshops” and the payment of subminimum wages (SMW) to people with disabilities looms on the horizon. Vocational providers utilize the SMW certificate for paid training to more than 1,900 individuals with developmental disabilities in Oklahoma.[v]  

Understanding the impact of eliminating the SMW paid training option begins with the individuals and their network of support. Historically, individuals with I/DD and their families depended on the stable support of the “center-based” program, which was initially intended to transition people into competitive integrated employment (CIE). However, nationally fewer than 5% of people transition from center-based to CIE.[vi] With federal initiatives advancing to CIE, options for individuals and families in Oklahoma will be limited unless a proactive statewide initiative is developed to address their specific needs for support and accessibility to the workplace.

In 2021, DRTC spearheaded a coalition of stakeholders to engage in roundtable discussions with the goal of providing resources and support for sustainable systemic change throughout Oklahoma. The coalition includes executive directors of vocational agencies across Oklahoma, representatives from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (OKDRS), Oklahoma Community-Based Providers, the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service at the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Disability Law Center, the Developmental Disabilities Council of Oklahoma, and several family advocates. The coalition intends to lead a comprehensive state plan ensuring appropriate services, supports, and accessibilities are available for people with I/DD in the workforce at large.

A major barrier to employment for people living with I/DD is a form of discrimination defined by low expectations, solely based on an over-generalization of their disability. Focus on the defined disability obscures the individual’s strengths, abilities, and contributions. Infantilization of people with I/DD is also a common form of ableism impacting perceptions of their place in the competitive workforce. However, employers willing to develop policies and programs designed to include people with disabilities in the workplace, end up benefiting their business and society at large.[vii]

Referred to as the “curb-cut” effect, accessibility creates pathways to inclusion for a broad spectrum of workers in the workforce. Inclusion of people with I/DD requires a coordination of efforts and an “open door” to specific supports for employment. A common curb cut for people with I/DD involves evaluating essential functions in job descriptions. By eliminating common but often unnecessary requirements such as having a driver’s license, standing up to 8 hours, or lifting 50 lbs, jobs are more accessible for people with various disabilities.

Another accommodation for people with disabilities involves services and supports provided through state and area agencies including nonprofit vocational providers. Employment Training Specialists (ETS) provide support to the person with a disability in obtaining and maintaining employment. Employers gain a valuable employee who is supported, at no cost the employer, through the interview, onboarding, and training process. DRTC helps approximately 100 people annually through this avenue, including Tammy.

Tammy, a woman with I/DD, sets a goal to work in a hospital or as a caregiver for the elderly. Personable, methodical, attentive to detail, and highly motivated to work, Tammy subsequently applies for positions with local nursing facilities and medical clinics. Tammy also has the support of an ETS, funded by OKDRS, to assist her in training and integration into the workplace. Filling a critical need in the workforce, many of the facilities are willing to train Tammy on the job.

Resources are readily available for employers interested in a more disability-inclusive workforce. State and local agencies, as well as nonprofits across Oklahoma specialize in providing expertise in accommodations and accessibility to all sectors of business and industry.

Conclusion

Workplace and community DEI discussions are incomplete unless also considering people with disabilities. While people with disabilities overall represent a largely untapped workforce, employment options for individuals with I/DD in Oklahoma are significantly limited in the wake of new federal initiatives. Modernization of services and employment outcomes for people with I/DD, to transition away from ‘sheltered’ programs into competitive integrated employment, requires a state-wide, multidisciplinary effort. Through resources providing accessibility and accommodations to business and industry, initiatives to employ persons with I/DD will be mutually beneficial. The success of these efforts is contingent on a strong commitment from business and community stakeholders.          

DRTC (Dale Rogers Training Center) is an Oklahoma-based non-profit providing vocational training and employment for people with disabilities. Across all DRTC programs, approximately 1,000 people with disabilities earn more than $5 million in annual wages. DRTC’s employment programs and services are widely available in the community (> 80%). The remaining (<20%) services include a ‘center-based’ program with community-integration for 110 individuals diagnosed with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD).

This article will be used in the Background Resource Document for the Oklahoma Academy’s 2022 Town Hall which will focus on Oklahoma’s Human Potential-Enhancing our Workforce for an Increasingly Innovative Economy.


[i] Disability Stats and Facts. (n.d.) Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://www.disabilityfunders.org/disability-stats-and-facts

[ii] Do your D&I efforts include people with disabilities? (2021, September 13). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2020/03/do-your-di-efforts-include-people-with-disabilities

[iii] Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/pdf-89/accenture-disability-inclusion-research-report.pdf

[iv] 2018 Disability Status Report Oklahoma (2020). Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.disabilitystatistics.org/StatusReports/2018-PDF/2018-StatusReport_OK.pdf?CFID=0ecbe827-f4e3-4f54-9097-750627ee14d5&CFTOKEN=0

[v] Oklahoma Employment Outcomes for People with Disabilities. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://sharesync.serverdata.net/us3/s/folder?public_share=PcZk6FVAxeIKcLO00qu2oT003de098&id=Lw%3D%3D

[vi] Section 14(c) Subminimum Wage Certificate Program. (n.d.) Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/odep/pdf/chaptertwo14cprogram.pdf

[vii] The Curb-Cut Effect. (2017) Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_curb_cut_effect

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