Living with a disability in the United States is difficult. Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities experience discrimination, segregation and exclusion from education, work and housing.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an estimated 2.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability. An intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills.
Mary Niland, president and CEO of Witco, an organization for workers with intellectual disabilities, feels a majority of these adults are either unemployed or underemployed despite their ability and desire to work.
“The biggest challenge we have with these folks entering the work market is the perceptions employers have with their skill levels and abilities,” Niland said.
Witco’s headquarters are located in Caldwell, Idaho, but the organization provides services to those with disabilities in both Oregon and Idaho, including Boise State.
Ivan Lybarger, campus environment operations manager for Boise State, feels these workers have been an asset to his work teams.
“I consider them just like any other worker, they do a good job,” Lybarger said.
Since an increasing amount of folks with disabilities joined his staff, Lybarger’s noticed a decrease in the amount of calls his service desk receives because they are finally caught up to the workload. This he believes is due to their involvement.
Despite having the same basic legal, civil and human rights as other citizens, many laws and regulations are poorly enforced, government funding for programs is limited and societal prejudices keep many capable workers from participating in the community.
According to Niland, 75 percent of workers with intellectual disabilities who want to find work are unable to do so.
There are many factors influencing this.
The Arc, a national organization promoting rights for disabled workers, provides support including a database of information for family members to educate themselves. One of the statistics it provides is that every year more than 150,000 people age out of special education, usually around age 22. Before that, it is required by state law to set transition plans for individuals at the age of 16 who will eventually be leaving educational programs. However, many transition services—such as school-based preparatory experiences, career preparation and work-based learning experiences—are never provided.
These individuals often need added support throughout this transition period.
To help fill the transitional void, organizations such as Witco and The Arc provide a variety of services and support programs. They work with individuals one-on-one in order to provide a job that fits the skills of that person.
Niland believes these workers shouldn’t be limited to the jobs the rest of society doesn’t want or what is left over; they should be able to have a job they want.
“What we want are the jobs that are targeted to our ability, want and desire,” Niland said. “That’s what people with intellectual disabilities want, too.”
Although large steps have been taken over the years to increase the rights these individuals have, Niland believes Idaho isn’t taking a very progressive approach.
According to her, 70 percent of the programs supporting workers with disabilities in Idaho haven’t seen a rate increase in more than 20 years.
Before any of this can happen, Niland feels that people must get over their issue with avoidance, which happens not just in business, but throughout society as a whole.
For more information about workers with disabilities visit witcoinc.net or thearc.org.