Somewhere between 85% and 88% of Americans with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (ID/DD) are unemployed.
That is depressing. The most recent employment numbers I could find were from 2014 (U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Community Survey 2014). Based on The Case for Inclusion, published each year by United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), only 12% of adults in 2016 with ID/DD, who received Medicaid services, had found employment. So apparently the number my husband cites – an 85% unemployment rate for these members of our society– when we make presentations about our non-profit organization, A Farm Less Ordinary, has not fundamentally shifted in the three years since we decided to focus on this problem. Not surprising.
We alone cannot push this number down, in our second year of operating as a non-profit, on a small farm in Bluemont, Virginia. But that hasn’t stopped us from proselytizing to anyone willing to listen that any employer in America could probably create a new or fill an existing job with an eager and able adult with an intellectual disability. You just have to be willing to think outside of the traditional “employee box.” You might need to split one job into two, or remove a job responsibility from an existing employee and shift it to a new guy, who happens to have an ID/DD. Or maybe you can offer a short-term, seasonal task that gets pushed to the bottom of your to-do list, but could be finished if you could only find one person who would be devoted to completing nothing else but this single task. And bingo! You’ve found a job that could easily be filled by a human with an intellectual disability.
If every employer could pause, and really think about it, we could knock that ~85% unemployment number down by at least a few percentage points. It’s not that hard, people!
People with disabilities will be your most attentive and loyal employees. Period.
As an employer to a person with an ID/DD, you may need to model the assigned tasks at first, answer a few additional questions about how you want it done, or even write up a list of tasks to complete during the course of that person’s shift. You may even need to occasionally check on the employee to ensure that he is completing the task correctly (as you would with any employee new to a task).
However, employees with ID/DD have a stick-to-it-iveness that you will not often find among your average hires. A typical employee might engage in idle chitchat or cell phone noodling just to break up the work day or pass the time. In contrast, employees with intellectual disabilities have likely been coached by parents and teachers that, in order to complete the daily tasks that many of us do automatically and thoughtlessly, they must instead be relentless in eliminating interruptions and remaining faithful to the script for each activity.
In reality, that means that employees with intellectual disabilities will likely work on their assigned task until you tell them to stop—with little to no breaks or cell phone tapping—as long as they have a clear understanding of what it is that they are supposed to be accomplishing. If you follow the rules and explain the work to them clearly, they will reward you with a no-nonsense completion of said work.
Bonus: they will show up to work all the time, even when you don’t expect them to!
Since starting our non-profit farm, we have seen our employees arrive to work on staggeringly hot days, when even we did not ask or expect anyone to come in. But our employees are sticklers for rules. If they are scheduled to work, they are going to show up to work, despite the brutal temperatures. (And yes, we strongly encouraged them to take extra breaks indoors, drink lots of water, and go home early.)
No one who draws breath should feel unnecessary, bored, or not included. We’re better than that as a society, aren’t we?
People with ID/DD are about as physically healthy as anyone else who eventually completes high school, and is told to go out there and do something with their lives (i.e., get a job, make a meaningful contribution to the world). People with ID/DD will experience the same typical life span as their typical peers, which—last I checked—ends somewhere between the age of 75 and 85 years old for the average American. This means that after the age of 22, when a student with ID/DD is “released” from the public school system’s responsibility, these people have 53 to 63 years to fill before they are released from this world’s responsibility.
The question then, is: what will people with ID/DD do to pass the time?
And the answer is simple.
Without being offered a role to play in our busy world, they will simply stay at home and probably be bored out of their minds. What a waste of a useful pair of hands and a human spirit over the course of 53 to 63 years. Instead, a potential “win-win” situation exists, just waiting for employers with an open mind (and a willingness to solve problems creatively) to reach out to members of our society, members who have time on their hands and a willingness to work.
We just need to make it happen. This is my call to action.
– Maya Wechsler, Springible Contributor