Employment Issues for People with Disabilities
The majority of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are either unemployed or underemployed, despite their ability, desire, and willingness to engage in meaningful work in the community. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in January 2010, the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force was 21.8% compared with 70.1% for persons with no disability. A number of systemic factors contribute to this disparity in employment.
Youth with disabilities often need extra supports throughout their transition period from school to employment and community living. Every year between 150,000-200,000 students with disabilities age out of special education (in most states at age 22). These are some of the most vulnerable youth who have stayed in school as long as possible and are likely to have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPS) are required by law to have transition plans beginning at age 16. However many needed transition services such as school-based preparatory experiences, career preparation and work-based learning experiences are never provided.
Training and Supports
State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs can provide a wide variety of services and supports that an individual with a disability may require to find and maintain employment including job search and placement assistance, vocational training, assistive technology, and supported employment services (e.g., onsite job coach). Unfortunately, the state VR program is underfunded to meet the employment needs of hundreds of thousands of individuals with severe disabilities who need these services to obtain employment. State VR agencies provide services to over 1 million people annually with approximately 600,000 completing services and having their cases closed in each fiscal year. In 2009 VR agencies closed 67,837 cases for people with I/DD of which only 23,307 were closures in employment.
Many individuals with disabilities could also greatly benefit from the employment and training services delivered through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) One-Stop system, though the WIA track record for serving people with disabilities is very poor. Physical and programmatic access to WIA services is woefully lacking for individuals with disabilities, despite federal requirements that such services be accessible.
Many people with I/DD want to work in integrated “real world” employment situations. In 2007, only 26% of those employed were working in integrated employment settings. The rest were supported in sheltered employment, day habilitation services or non work community integration programs.
The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay less than the minimum wage to people with disabilities if they follow detailed procedures. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, nearly 424,000 individuals are earning the subminimum wage and 74% of these workers are people with I/DD. GAO also notes that 50% of workers earn $2.50 an hour or less and many work part time. Payment of the subminimum wage is controversial in the disability community and ending the practice would entail multiple and comprehensive policy reforms and service delivery expansions.
Some people with I/DD rely on Social Security programs, primarily SSI and OASDI, as their primary source of income. Both of these programs have very complex rules for employment income. Currently, OASDI has a very low limit on substantial gainful activity (SGA) - approximately $1,000 /month. If a person with I/DD were to earn more than this amount per month over a 10 month period, his/her benefit would be lost. Furthermore, since the OASDI program only reconciles beneficiary accounts annually, persons who worked and exceeded the SGA limit the year prior must repay the OASDI benefits they received during the same period. These overpayment charges can be in excess of $50,000 which the beneficiary is required to pay back in a 30-60 period.