SHRM Foundation Research
Not a Member?  Become One Today!

SHRM Foundation Research


Employment Opportunities for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities: Strategies for Human Resource Managers Human Resource Managers Interested in Expanding Integrated Employment Practices

Funded: December 2011     Completed: December 2013

Dana Hanson-Baldauf, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Meredith Weiss, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Executive Summary
Despite compelling research favoring the inclusion of workers with I/DD in the labor market, this population experiences over a 90% unemployment rate.  This study addresses a gap in the research literature by capturing the perspectives of employers who hire and retain workers with I/DD with three goals: to identify (1) how individuals are employed, (2) factors that contribute to their employment and retention, and (3) the impact of their inclusion on the employing organization.


How individuals with I/DD are employed:

• Six categories of employment were reported and include: clerical/fulfillment services (copy and mail room clerks); technical services (microfilm and imaging technicians); research (lab technicians); healthcare/hospitality (room service attendant, dishwasher, linen support); food service (cooks, dishwashers, bussers, server supports); and grocery/retail (stockers, cashier assistants, baggers, cart attendants, bakery assistants, produce clerks). While positions varied, a common characteristic was the assignment of process-driven and repetitive work.
• Several participants stated that their employees with I/DD would prefer increased work schedules and advanced wages.  The following challenges were identified: low work stamina, resistance to change, lack of support, governmental work disincentives, organizational structure, reduced budgets, and lack of work.

Factors contributing to the successful employment and retention of individuals with I/DD: 
• Good fit:  Participants repeatedly identified “good fit” as a critical factor for positive employment outcomes, referring to a complimentary match between the employee (skills and qualities) and the employer (workforce needs and work environment).
• Management Style: The following management attributes were identified by participants as contributing to the successful retention of their employees with I/DD: calm, creativity, flexibility, information-seeking, patience, reflectiveness, empathy, risk-taking, valuing diversity, strengths-focused, and direct communication.
• Third-party support. Supported employment professionals and families of employees with I/DD were recognized as valuable sources of support. 
• Supportive work climate.  Coworkers were identified as important natural supports for employees with I/DD within the work environment.  Participants also emphasized the importance of fostering community and collaboration in the workplace.
• Workplace accommodations. The following accommodations were reported as helpful workplace interventions: visual/process-oriented supports; communication/work logs; assistive tools; procedural modifications; and allocation of personal space.

How employees impact the organization:

Participants of the study reported that employees with I/DD bring unique and exceptional strengths and skills to the workplace; are highly dependable demonstrating positive work habits relating to punctuality, low absenteeism, and consistent work performance; are hardworking and productive; are conscientious and responsible; enhance the work climate and positively influence coworkers; contribute to a stable workforce; and positively enhance an organization’s public image. 


In light of the findings, an integrated employment model of “good fit” is proposed outlining four critical and interdependent variables: the commitment of an employer, individual readiness for employment, a strong support network, and an enabling work environment.

Committed Leadership. Attributes of committed leadership are: values diversity and acts with intention to establish policies, practices, and accommodations to positively enable the inclusion and contributions of their employees with I/DD; seeks information and training opportunities for themselves and employees to ensure an informed, accommodating, and accepting work climate; looks beyond labels of disability and invest time getting to know their employees as individuals, understanding that all employees, with or without I/DD, have strengths, challenges, and support needs; exhibits a strengths-base management style and prioritizes both individual and organizational capacity-building; displays flexibility, creativity, calm, and patience in support of their employees with I/DD; invests necessary time, energies, and accommodations for their employees with I/DD to be successful and to grow professionally; partners with supported employment professionals and family members of employees with I/DD; encourages natural supports within the work environment; upholds high standards and establishes clear expectations for workplace behavior; and understands the implicit dignity of real work, encompassing feelings of self-sufficiency, worth, purpose, respect, and acceptance.

Job-ready Employees. Job-readiness refers to an individual’s employment potential.  Qualities, skills, and accessible supports for employers to consider when assessing potential and new employees are: Qualities: a positive attitude, a willingness to learn, adaptability, courteousness, dependability, flexibility, good hygiene, honesty, positive interpersonal skills, punctuality, reliability, responsibility, safety awareness, self-determination, self-motivation, social awareness and work stamina. Skills: ability to manage stress and frustration; functional reading and writing skills (for the position); ability to follow a schedule, directions, rules; ability to self-advocate, self-direct, and monitor workload and quality of work. Supports: supported employee assistance; family support; reliable transportation; and supportive work climate. 

Strong Support System. The integrated employment of workers with I/DD is most successful when employers and employees have access to high quality and reliable support and when this support is centered on increasing both the employee’s work autonomy and social inclusion within the work setting.  This system may include supportive supervisors and coworkers, supported employment professionals, family members, and professional support organizations. Examples of support are outlined in the research.

Enabling work environments. Enabling work environments offer the conditions to facilitate the inclusion and positive contributions of workers with I/DD.  These conditions broadly include organizational policies, practices, accommodations, and relationships. Specific examples are provided in the research.

Study Methods
This study employed qualitative methods to capture employer perspectives on workers with I/DD. Sixteen participants from thirteen organizations took part in this study. Data collection methods included semi-structured interviews and an online survey.  Interview transcripts and survey results were hand-coded by three individuals using pre-established and emerging codes. Actions taken to ensure the integrity of this study included the disclosure of positionality, member checking, and peer debriefing.

Download the Full Report

View the full list of SHRM Foundation funded research.