Special concerns?

Safely integrating workers with intellectual disabilities into the workforce

  • There is no "typical" position for workers with intellectual disabilities because abilities and interests vary widely.
  • Certain accommodations may be required to help a worker with an intellectual disability perform his or her job, but experts say these accommodations typically are relatively simple and low cost.
  • When training workers with intellectual disabilities, employers need to consider the most effective means of communication with each individual based on the individual's preferred learning style.  

By Lauretta Claussen, associate editor

Nearly 13.5 million non-institutionalized individuals reported a cognitive disability in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey. These disabilities ranged widely, from Down syndrome to Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

According to experts, most individuals with intellectual disabilities are capable of performing a variety of jobs responsibly and safely. Yet few of these individuals are active in the workforce.

Only 28.2 percent of working-age individuals with intellectual disabilities were employed at the time of the survey. Only 14 percent had full-time jobs. 

Diverse options

The jobs that people with intellectual disabilities can perform are nearly as diverse as any other segment of the population, experts contend.

Peter F. Gerhardt is the director of education for the Upper School at New York’s McCarton School, which provides education and services to people with autism. Lately, Gerhardt has seen a change in the types of positions he has helped autistic individuals obtain. Previously those jobs were predominantly entry-level and service-oriented, but now they “really can be anything from working as a janitor to doing computer programming,” he said.

Goodwill Industries of Upstate/Midlands South Carolina, based in Greenville, provides job training for workers with intellectual disabilities and has hired many trainees for positions within the organization. At least one worker with an intellectual disability has achieved a management-level position at GIUMSC.

“People’s interest in jobs depends on so many things, their disability being about the last thing that factors in,” said Suzanne Gosden Kitchen, teaching assistant professor at West Virginia University. Kitchen previously served as senior consultant on the cognitive and neurological team at the Job Accommodation Network, a service of the Department of Labor. “People with cognitive impairment can do whatever job they’re qualified for, depending on the severity of their impairment.”

Making accommodations

Determining the severity of a worker’s impairment can be a challenge for employers, as individuals are under no legal obligation to report a disability to their supervisor or human resources. Yet reporting a disability is the only way to legally obligate an employer to provide workplace accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Job opportunities available to people with intellectual disabilities “vary across the spectrum,” Gerhardt said, “but the possibilities are as diverse as they are for any of us with usually some modifications.” He generally recommends that workers with intellectual disabilities report their condition “within a relatively short period of time – 30 days, 90 days” to “at least one person in a supervisory capacity” to secure any necessary accommodations. 

Typically, the accommodations that are necessary for workers with intellectual disabilities to perform their job safely and efficiently are “relatively simple,” Gerhardt said. Effective multitasking frequently is an issue, so some modification of job roles may be in order. Other times, accommodations are as minor as removing a fluorescent lightbulb or allowing a worker to listen to music on his or her portable music device to limit distractions from outside noise.

“There isn’t anything typically as significant as you would find with someone who has a physical disability,” Gerhardt said. “Modifications tend to be very minimal, but very important.”

Minnetonka, MN-based Opportunity Partners, which works to help individuals with intellectual disabilities find employment, points out that the accommodations these workers typically request are at low or no cost to the employer. “For example, things like using a list of tasks or color-coding files are examples of accommodations that cost very little, if anything,” said Julie Peters, communications director for Opportunity Partners. “There are resources to help employers if they want more information.”

Training methods

Maintaining a good safety record when employing workers with intellectual disabilities, as with all workers, is dependent on quality safety training. “People – with or without disabilities – learn at different paces and have preferred learning styles,” Peters said. “The skills and abilities of each individual should be taken into consideration” when providing safety training to the workforce.

No hard-and-fast rules exist about how to most effectively train workers with intellectual disabilities because disabilities vary nearly as widely as the individuals themselves. A common saying in the autism field is “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Bill Childs, director of safety and maintenance at GIUMSC, acknowledged that the time required to train a worker with an intellectual disability is typically longer, but said all workers should be considered individuals. “Learn to communicate in a way the individual understands, even if it is not a method of communication to which you are accustomed,” he said. “Take the time up front to understand their needs.”   

Limiting written instructions and relying more heavily on pictorial or hands-on training is a good option for many workers with intellectual disabilities, Kitchen said, and Gerhardt noted the importance of explicit instruction and frequent repetition to ensure messages are clearly understood.
Gerhardt said that in his experience, once the rules are learned they typically become deeply ingrained in workers with intellectual disabilities. “They will learn all of the safety rules and all of the safety skills extraordinarily well because they want to do the job,” he said. “While co-workers may safely take little shortcuts, our guys don’t.”

Gerhardt further advocates some level of training for co-workers to help promote safety for workers with intellectual disabilities and those around them. “We want people who they work with to take a vested interest and to work with them on some of the safety stuff,” he said.

A “safety buddy” can be helpful as well. For example, in non-routine situations – such as an evacuation – some workers with intellectual disabilities may not be well-prepared because the drill cannot be practiced enough times for them to become comfortable with it. Some may be reluctant to leave their workstations at a time when they are not typically scheduled to leave for lunch or a break. In these cases, co-workers can be asked to simply look out for these workers to ensure they leave the building when an evacuation is required. 

Because the challenges these workers face are so diverse, a blanket statement about what a worker with an intellectual disability can or cannot do is unfair. “People with developmental disabilities are individuals and shouldn’t be lumped into a broad category regarding types of activities and tasks they can perform,” Peters said. “Having said that, certainly common sense plays a role in determining what duties or tasks any employee should be doing.”

She noted that organizations in most communities can help prepare workers with intellectual disabilities for employment and provide information and feedback to employers on what they can handle.

“The first step would be to connect with your state or county vocational rehabilitation office or a community organization that serves people with disabilities,” Peters said. “There are also many websites that have information.”

Gerhardt recommended workplace restrictions be handled on a case-by-case basis. “Most people that I’ve worked with probably wouldn’t be really good heavy machinery operators, but I know one guy who’s a long-distance trucker. So it really just depends on the individual,” he said.

Integrated workforce

Building a healthy relationship with co-workers can present a challenge for some workers with intellectual disabilities. Some may not have advanced social interaction skills and others may have co-workers who are uncomfortable communicating with them.

“For people with classic autism, we will actually do training,” Gerhardt said. “We will train co-workers on what autism is, what it means to the life of this person, and how to interact with them.”

GIUMSC employment training programs pair workers with case managers who set objectives for the individual. “The objectives established include both personal and professional goals and are intended to help the individual integrate into the workforce,” Childs said. 

Although not all individuals with intellectual disabilities want to be a member of the overall social culture of the office, establishing effective communication skills is essential to the safety process.
For higher-functioning individuals, such as those with Asperger’s syndrome, Gerhardt teaches them to train their co-workers on what methods work best for them. “They have to be their own advocate. They have to set the guidelines for the best way to interact with them,” he said. “It may be asking people to slow down when they talk, or asking people to look at them directly when they talk, or being given a manual to study and being allowed to take it home. Little things like that.”

Creating an environment where workers feel at ease and comfortable enough to ask questions also is key to the safety process. A workplace that ridicules or unnecessarily separates one working population from another is detrimental to building a healthy safety culture. Although she has seen cases where intellectually disabled workers are well-accepted in the workplace, Kitchen noted that she also has seen the opposite.

“Every day I still hear those jokes about riding the ‘short bus’ to school and stuff like that,” she said. “We still as a society tease people horribly about that kind of stuff.”

On a more positive note, Gerhardt believes a greater understanding – and therefore acceptance – of intellectual disabilities exists today. “Society today understands more and is much more understanding of people with differences than we ever were,” he said. “It’s much easier now to get somebody included than it ever was.”

‘An unfounded fear’

Currently, no statistics indicate that people with intellectual disabilities are more or less likely to be involved in a workplace incident. “I do know that that is a fear of employers,” Gerhardt said. “I think it’s a basically unfounded fear, but the data are sort of not there one way or the other.”

Kitchen agreed that any such fears would be unfounded, and reported that she rarely hears from employers about any safety concerns related to workers with intellectual disabilities. “I hardly ever get any telephone calls where someone is concerned about the safety of a person [with intellectual disabilities],” she said. “I would probably have to go through 20 years of cases to be able to find one.”

In the past five years, GIUMSC has experienced only one recordable incident involving a worker with an intellectual disability, and Childs found no unique safety hazards specific to the population. “Our recommendation to potential employers is to simply give the person a chance,” he said. “With understanding and patience, the individual will blossom.” 

Peters pointed out that the relationship between employer and workers with intellectual disabilities can be a mutually beneficial one. “There are many advantages to having workers with disabilities,” she said, noting that disabled workers often have a strong work ethic.  “Companies who hire workers with disabilities enhance their diversity goals and are giving back to the community, which helps us all.”


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