HR leaders may be overlooking talent with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Experts say unconscious bias and misunderstanding how to accommodate intellectually or developmentally disabled employees is partly to blame.
article cover

Muqamba/Getty Images

· 4 min read

Anthony Martinez says planting flowers is his favorite part of his job. Martinez works at New Hope farms outside Albany, New York. He started at the farm nearly seven years ago with only a background in landscaping. “It was an awesome experience to me because I never actually walked around a farm before,” Martinez told HR Brew. “It just got me hooked.” Now, he has a career, leading farm tours, educating visitors and other staff, attending continuing education events, and still planting flowers.

Martinez is one of an estimated 2.1 million adults with intellectual disabilities in the US, according to the University of Minnesota. However, the majority of those adults are not part of the workforce and face persistent barriers to employment.

Advocates say that employers are overlooking a valuable talent pool. HR Brew spoke with disability advocates and a worker about how HR leaders can recruit intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD) talent.

Large talent market. There are almost 10 million open jobs in the US, but people with IDD are still often unemployed or underemployed. According to a 2013 study from the Special Olympics, just 44% of working-age people with IDD are in the labor force, and 28% have never had a job. When they are employed, they’re often relegated to sheltered work settings or paid a subminimum wage.

But there are efforts to change this. The Department of Labor has multiple measures encouraging employers to hire IDD people, including competitive integrated employment (CIE), which ensures workers are compensated the same as non-disabled peers. Furthermore, while many states still allow disabled people to be paid a subminimum wage, Senator Bob Casey has reintroduced a bill that would ban the subminimum wage in 14 states.

Barriers to employment. “Sometimes, employers think that people with IDD are going to be out more often, that they’re not going to be able to grasp the training. This is actually not true,” Debra Ruh, CEO of Ruh Global IMPACT and a disability advocate, said in an interview with Understood.

Ross Barchacky, head of partnerships at Inclusively, which connects employers to disabled workers and provides employer education, told HR Brew that employer bias frequently gets in the way of giving IDD workers an equal chance.

Barchacky pointed out that some employers also don’t want to hire someone with IDD because of perceived risks. “Nobody wants to say that. But at the end of the day, the employer feels like they’re taking all the risks with very little reward,” he explained. “I think that’s a lack of an understanding of the process and the system, [as well as] the potential benefits to hiring people with disabilities.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Employers also may think that the accommodations will be cumbersome, but Nicholas Wyman, executive director at IWSI America, said that state governments have programs, like the California Department of Rehabilitation, that can assist with accommodations. “I’d encourage the HR folks to talk to the case managers, and see what potential assistance is available,” he told HR Brew.

Recruitment and development. But Barchacky said that more systems in place have made it easier for employers to recruit IDD workers because there are more training programs preparing them to work, and more community organizations to partner with to source talent. He recommends that employers provide accommodations, such as modified work hours or visual reminders, and job coaching at the beginning. “Probably one of the biggest ones for the IDD community would be job coaching,” he said. “Where an actual job coach and mentor will come in and help them acclimate to the role, understand what’s expected of them, and understand a way to get the job done.”

Barchacky and Wyman said that employers will benefit from these hires because they have lower turnover and a more dedicated work ethic compared to non-disabled peers, as experts have found.

Wyman said that HR leaders should seek out these workers and have a concerted effort to hire them. “From an HR perspective, [hiring] definitely needs to be purposeful and structural,” he said. He believes there needs to be, “a top-down initiative to do it in companies that the HR managers really need to get rock solid support from not only the business units, but also from the executive and the board and management.”

Wyman believes employers should tap into the IDD community talent pool. “You’ve got this massive, massive pool of people just sitting on the sidelines. And it really can solve a lot of challenges that companies face.”—KP

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.