Removing barriers to employment for people with disabilities

Friday - Oct. 23, 2020

Warehouse worker.

“So what do you do for a living?” Many of us have been asked that question when we meet someone new: it is often one of the first things we try to find out about someone. Here in the United States, like in many parts of the world, working is an important part of our lives. The way we relate to others and talk about ourselves is often tied to our jobs. Working gives us a sense of identity and purpose and helps us be more independent. For people with disabilities, this is no different. However, for many people with disabilities finding and being successful in a job can be difficult. This month is the 75th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month: this is a time we like to celebrate the successes we have had in employing people with disabilities, and the challenges we still face. Considering this, I would like to share some thoughts on employment for people with disabilities.

I won’t go on and on, but I do want to share a few things from the U.S. department of Labor Statistics. In 2019, for people ages 16-64, only 30.9% percent of people with disabilities actively seeking employment were employed, compared to 74.6% of people without disabilities. People with disabilities were twice as likely to be working part time, and less likely to have obtained college degrees.

Furthermore, about eight in 10 people with disabilities were counted as "not in the labor force” (which means they are not working and have not actively looked for employment) compared with three in 10 people without disabilities. It is important to make note of this last point, as this makes the gap between people with disabilities working compared to those without disabilities even wider. This shows us that there is a large difference in engagement with people with disabilities when it comes to jobs. To me, this discrepancy in employment outcomes cannot be explained by the ability and motivation of people with disabilities to work: we also need to look at what we are doing to accommodate and engage them in the workplace (or more accurately perhaps, what we are not doing.)

This isn’t as simple as saying “the disabilities are preventing people from doing jobs.” I work for Johnson County Developmental Supports, an organization that provides many types of services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. My team provides employment services. We have what we call "employment specialists" who help people with IDDs look for, apply for, and start jobs.

We have seen many examples of people with disabilities looking for work, and in our experience it is often the way we ask people to do the jobs, what the expectations of the job are, and how we go about hiring for jobs that create artificial barriers to employment.

Job Interviews

A traditional job interview is still one of the main tools for hiring managers to decide which candidate is a good for a position. While an interview can be a great tool in the hiring process, there are many people who are very capable workers who simply do not perform well in interviews due to their disability. Some people perform better and give better answers in an interview if you let them know your questions in advance. Also, consider working interviews: where the candidate is given a chance to demonstrate the skills needed. Having nontraditional interview options can help businesses better select good and diverse candidates.

Cross training

Many places cross train employees to do a variety of tasks in a workplace to have increased flexibility. This may come at the cost of effectively hiring people with disabilities though, as then someone who may be capable of performing some roles at a business but not others may not be able to take the job. Maintaining flexibility in the job requirements can be a good tool in maintaining a diverse workforce.


Sometimes the way we do our work is a factor, too. I recall once I was assisting someone who was responsible for quality checking partition tents. He was good at checking them, but he also had to keep count of how many he had completed and box them in groups of nine, which was challenging for him to do. We were able to create a setup for him where he could visually tell when he had completed nine, which allowed him to work totally independently. It is good to always be looking for new and better ways to do things, as this may enable people of different abilities to assist.

Employment Specialists

I also reflect on the role of my team at JCDS in general. As I mentioned before, we use employment specialists to assist the people we support in learning their jobs so they can be successful. The basic philosophy here is that some people with disabilities may need more assistance and training than a typical employee would, so an employment specialist (or “job coach” as they are sometimes called) is a reasonable accommodation to make up this difference. The reason this is necessary though is because the training and orientation of most businesses does not account for those who may simply need more direct attention to train and learn. This is another major barrier in giving people with disabilities a fair chance to be successful in the workplace, as not everyone has access to employment specialists. Even for those who do, the employment specialist is often not familiar with the business either: they will be learning along with the new employee they are assisting.

Another thing that employment specialist provide, that businesses struggle to, is expertise. We have had many experiences with the employment needs of people with IDD that most hiring managers or H.R. departments simply do not. Many businesses have experimented with hiring diversity specialists to then assist in hiring people from underrepresented groups: perhaps a similar practice could be put into place for people with disabilities.

For something that is so important to our sense of self and purpose, we tend to underestimate the impact not working has on people with disabilities. When we are not doing everything we can provide opportunities in the workplace, we are preventing a large group of people from living as fulfilling a life as possible. We need to look closely to identify what is preventing people with disabilities from being in our workplaces as often: sometimes there are small things like tasks that are unnecessarily complicated, and other times there are larger systematic issues. Whatever the case may be, a philosophy of inclusiveness will help us find a path to better engagement in the workplace for people with disabilities.

Learn more about employment services offered by JCDS.


About the Author

Forrest Austin, lead instructor at the Johnson County Government Project SEARCH Program

Forrest Austin, lead instructor at the Johnson County Government Project SEARCH Program.

Forrest Austin is the lead instructor at the Johnson County Government Project SEARCH Program. He has worked with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for 12 years, and has been with Johnson County Developmental Supports for seven of those years. In 2017, he was awarded the National Direct Support Professional of the year award by ANCOR.