Unemployment has long been considered a benchmark of an economy’s success—the lower the unemployment rate, the stronger the economy. For the year 2020, the national unemployment rate for persons without a disability (ages 16-64) was 7.9%, a high number likely influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment among persons with a disability in 2020 was 13.3% 1 It should also be noted, however, that the 2020 Labor Force Participation Rate for the non-disabled was 76.5%, compared to only 36.4% among the disabled. How do we solve this discrepancy in opportunity?
I served five years as Job Developer for a 501c organization whose mission is to provide vocational opportunities for persons with intellectual disabilities. We served about 220 individuals who typically began by working in one of our in-house lines, which did contract work for a wide variety of vendors such as bulk foods, craft kits, hardware and several others. As persons advanced in their skills, they could become eligible for competitive employment, or employment with compensation. We were fortunate to place individuals in lawn care, dishwashing, retail stores, bakeries, printing shops, housecleaning, and more.
The key is to match the interest and abilities of the individual with an appropriate source of employment. Job coaching, where a coach trains and supervises the individual as needed, is essential in the beginning. Coaches gradually decrease support until the person gains independence. It is important for the job coach to work at the individual’s speed, and not only with the individual but also the employer. Knowing the expectations of the job is vital, and helping the employer understand the best forms of communication for the specific individual is equally important. No two persons are alike. Creating an environment where one can learn and develop skills, while respecting the needs of the employer, is most rewarding.
The employers I worked with were especially pleased to be involved. Not only were they cooperative, but they genuinely wanted to create a wholesome, inclusive environment. They appreciated the work ethic and interest demonstrated by the persons we matched with them. One supervisor told me the employees we placed under him had a positive effect on all of his employees because of their commitment and pleasant attitudes.
To be sure, there are complications, but creative planning can easily help to overcome these. Perhaps the biggest challenge, for example, is transportation, as many persons with disabilities do not drive. Some accommodations may need to be provided at the work site or by an outside party, depending on the nature of the disability.
Competitive employment for those with intellectual disabilities is a win-win proposition. For the individuals, it creates a sense of self-worth, satisfaction, and independence. For employers, it fills a need in their work force while creating a stronger sense of cooperation and inclusion. By focusing on one’s abilities, rather than disabilities, a successful environment is achievable for employer and employee alike.
Douglas Gehr worked as a Job Development Specialist for the Lighthouse Vocational Services in New Holland, Pennsylvania, assisting persons with disabilities in their search for jobs. He is also an ordained minister and has served as a pastor in the Church of the Brethren for over thirty years. He and his wife, Lillian have two adult sons, one of whom is intellectually disabled.