Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Most Americans with intellectual or developmental disabilities remain shut out of the workforce, despite changing attitudes and billions spent on government programs to help them. Even when they find work, it's often part time, in a dead-end job or for pay well below the minimum wage.
Employment is seen as crucial for improving the quality of life for people with these disabilities and considered a benchmark for measuring the success of special education programs. Yet the jobs picture is as bleak now it was more than a decade ago.
Only 44 percent of intellectually disabled adults are currently in the labor force, either employed or looking for work, while just 34 percent are actually working, according to a survey by Special Olympics and conducted by Gallup and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. That compares with 83 percent of nondisabled, working-age adults who are in the workforce.
"The needle has not changed in more than four decades," said Gary Siperstein, professor at the University of Massachusetts and one of the authors of the study. "We just can't move the barometer. And we've invested a lot of resources with lots of good programs around the country."
Intellectual disability can include conditions such as autism or Down syndrome. But the vast majority of cases are those with limited intellectual capacity — generally an IQ of about 75 or less — and limitations in handling basic life skills, such as counting money or taking public transportation.
About 28 percent of working-age adults with intellectual disabilities have never held a job. Even those who do manage to find jobs often end up working only part time and get lower pay than workers without disabilities, the study found. On the positive side, 62 percent of disabled people who work in a competitive setting have been there three years or more, showing they can work and stay with it.
"A lot of the problem has to do with low expectations," said Lynnae Ruttledge, a member of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the government on disability policy. "Schoolteachers don't have high expectations, and parents tend to be very protective of their children."
But attitudes are changing, she said. There are now more programs to help disabled children to gain work experience while still in school, making it easier to find a job. Many intellectually disabled people work in fast food, and retail chains such as Walgreens, Best Buy and Safeway that have stepped up to hire them.
Another hurdle is that about 30 percent of intellectually disabled people who work do so in sheltered workshops, where they perform basic tasks but are segregated from nondisabled workers. They can legally be paid less than the minimum wage under a 1938 federal law that allows wages to be based on comparing their productivity level with that of a nondisabled worker.
Disability rights advocates call these workshops an outdated relic and say it's discriminatory to pay them less than other workers. Critics say they don't do enough to build skills or help transition intellectually disabled workers into a mainstream work setting.
Defenders argue that thousands of severely disabled people would be left sitting at home without the carefully structured environments. Of the 420,000 disabled people who work at sheltered workshops, only 5 percent ever leave for other jobs alongside nondisabled workers.
Matthew McMeekin, 35, of Bethesda, Md., has spent 14 years working at Rehabilitation Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit sheltered workshop where he and other disabled workers are bused each workday to stuff envelopes, collate files or shrink-wrap products — all for far less than the state minimum wage of $8.25 an hour.
"He's not working there for the money," says his mother, Bebe McMeekin. "He has a job to go to every day for eight hours a day, five days a week. On Fridays he brings home a paycheck. He has a work environment with his friends that he's gotten to know there."