Hiring Developmentally Disabled Employees

Developmentally disabled employee working with his manager to check products for quality.

For most employers, finding loyal, reliable, motivated workers who are eager to learn new skills is a constant challenge. Yet, very few hiring managers consider tapping into one of the most underutilized segments of the workforce: developmentally disabled job seekers.

Adults who have been diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) have untapped capabilities and often make excellent workers. In fact, an overwhelming majority of employed adults with an intellectual disability (ID) have been at their current job for three years or more. But, with only 35 percent of disabled persons ages 16-64 employed, many disability advocates and activists believe the disabled community is underutilized in the labor market.

Despite evidence that suggests developmentally disabled workers often thrive in jobs suited to their strengths and talents, many employers fail to recruit, much less hire, disabled candidates, even in tight labor markets. The information below can help you develop a hiring strategy that will help you properly appeal to, onboard, accommodate, and utilize this largely overlooked community of candidates.

First, Some Notes on Terminology

There can be a great deal of sensitivity around terminology when referring to IDD in job descriptions and employment documentation. Self-advocates within the disability community, as well as the federal government, tend to use “intellectual disability” ID and “developmental disability” (DD) rather than “special needs,” a frequently used term that disabled adults may find demeaning.

IDDs are collectively defined by the National Institutes of Health as conditions that begin affecting an individual before they turn 18 that present challenges to their ability to reason, learn, or problem-solve, or that require adaptive behavior to meet the challenges of everyday social interaction or functioning. Because there is a wealth of material addressing aspects of neurodiversity in the workplace and hiring autistic individuals, this article will focus on recruiting and managing IDD employees.

As members of the disability community have become vocal self-advocates, they have insisted on claiming their disability as an integral part of their identity. Hence, for many candidates, “developmentally disabled candidates” may be preferable to “candidates with developmental disability.”

One note of caution: Be aware that disability is still an emerging area of identity and activism, which means you may need to adjust your thinking and terminology as you go.

Benefits of Hiring Developmentally Disabled Workers

In addition to staying in their positions longer than other workers, IDD employees excel at jobs where they can feel confident about process, such as distribution; in roles where they can care for plants or animals; or where they get to interact with people, such as sales or customer support.

IDD workers are used to working hard to overcome challenges and tend to know how they learn new information best, which is why leading employers like Walgreens, PepsiCo, AT&T, and Capital One have all made hiring from within the disability community a key aspect of their recruitment strategies.

Under federal law you may be able to pay ID employees less than minimum wage. This provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act was initially intended to encourage employers to hire disabled workers, but it’s many decades old and has been condemned by many disabled self-advocates. You will need to use form WH-226 to apply for certification from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division if you want to pursue this, but it is not likely to endear you to the disability community or incentivize disabled workers to stay in your employ for long.

Ensuring an Accessible Hiring Process

You may be using gatekeeping barriers that are discouraging IDD workers from applying to work for you without even knowing it, but it’s important to be aware of these potential blind spots. Traditional application and interview processes often rest on assumptions that can be daunting for disabled applicants.

Luckily, the current best practices for all applicants are also best for accommodating developmentally disabled job candidates. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Eliminating personality screening instruments
  • Including a robust equal opportunity statement prominently in all job descriptions
  • Using images to illustrate duties whenever possible

The Job Accommodation Network provides sample language for equal opportunity and reasonable accommodation statements, including how to incorporate wording in your job description that invites applicants to access help completing their applications. The Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work (TTW) program can connect employers with Employment Networks that help businesses find qualified job applicants with disabilities.

Onboarding and Finding the Best Fit

There are some environments where such workers may struggle. For example, a very loud and visually chaotic atmosphere may be distressing to some ID workers who struggle with sensory processing—but not all.

The best strategy is not to assume anything about your IDD employees. Instead, talk to them and ask them what types of work they like to do, as well as what is difficult for them, always reassuring them that you want to find the right fit for them and that they will not be penalized for being honest about their needs.

Challenges and Accommodations

The biggest challenges you are likely to face when you hire an IDD employee will have nothing to do with your new hire. Sadly, it may be overcoming the assumptions and biases of your other employees and even your customers. Keep in mind that your new employee likely has been forced to overcome stigmas and false perceptions all their life. They should not have to shoulder this emotional labor alone, so be ready to be a strong ally on their behalf.

Another frequent challenge that developmentally disabled workers mention in surveys is feeling as if their supervisors don’t trust them to complete their work on their own. Research indicates that many employees with an intellectual disability feel dependent on coworkers to complete their work and this can negatively affect their self-esteem and job satisfaction.

Be sure that you aren’t underestimating your IDD employees’ capabilities. You won’t be doing them any favors by restricting them to only the “easy” parts of the job and reserving more complex tasks for someone else on your team.

Let your new hire guide you. If a task is too difficult or they need more training, trust them to tell you so. Your number-one job is creating a work environment and fostering a management style where they feel safe and supported if they need to ask you to repeat instructions or reassign work that they are having trouble mastering, which just happens to be a good management approach for all new hires.

Leverage Your Newly Acquired Disability Hiring Knowledge With a Free Job Post

You just completed a crash course in best practices for tapping into one underutilized segment of the job market—the disability community, including developmentally disabled workers. Now, get the word out that you’re an equal opportunity employer with a free job listing that emphasizes your commitment to the community.