Strategies for Supporting People with Disabilities in the Workplace

Engaging in meaningful employment allows individuals to support themselves and live independently. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) report that working is a significant part of their lives (Ellenkamp et al., 2015). Growing support around employment and people with IDD has put a bigger emphasis on ways to solve the employment gap. Strategies can be used to support people with IDD in the workplace, but it starts with understanding whom you are working with because every student may need different support need to ensure success in their employment setting. Employing appropriate strategies in the workplace will allow students to build self-efficacy skills. People with IDD need structured support in the workplace, but there is a difference between support and being overbearing. Overprotective staff may hinder the development of self-efficacy leading to lower work performance for individuals with IDD (Flores et al., 2011).

Striking such a balance of supporting the individual while allowing them the flexibility to build skills that will sustain over time without constant support is a difficult task, Luckily, there are multiple methods to ensuring that people with IDD develop important vocational skills with many of these methods occurring before they even step foot into the workplace. Common vocational skills include the ability to (1) manage one’s own schedule, (2) communicate professionally and appropriately with coworkers and supervisors, and (3) navigate to/from the workplace.

Managing an employment schedule is crucial to obtaining and maintaining paid employment. Many young adults with IDD are often told where to be and when in their educational journey and therefore do not develop schedule management skills. A method to begin training this skill may include having the individual set a time for a specific preferred task.

Spend time with them talking through the time it takes them to get to/from this task, and have them learn how to budget their time. Additionally, allow them the space to decide what method works best for them for keeping track of their tasks. There are a number of apps that allow for schedule management such as Reminders on iOS, Google Keep, Google Tasks, Microsoft To-Do, and Microsoft Outlook.

Communicating professionally and appropriately with coworkers and supervisors may be a difficult skill to develop. While it’s hard to immediately teach this skill in the workplace without being invasive into the workplace dynamic, there are methods to practice this skill ahead of time. Utilize role-playing to practice soft social skills and encourage the individual to engage with coworkers with previously outlined topics of discussion.

Transportation remains a prominent barrier to employment for adults with IDD. If your community has public transit, practice using it early and often. Community-based instruction allows individuals the chance to engage with public transportation in their communities. It’s not enough to simply memorize the bus times and walking path. Spend time practicing using your community’s software for public transit and learning the dynamics of commonly used routes. Practice this first with places the individual may wish to frequent in their free time, then work to generalize the skill to navigating to their place of employment. Google Maps provides a trip planner feature, and most public transit system data will be accessible using this app.

Adults with IDD deserve the opportunity for paid, integrated employment. While this is true, we know many in the workplace lack the patience to spend extra time instructing. There are ways to develop and practice transferrable skills without even having to be directly in the workplace. Practicing these skills often and across multiple life domains will enhance the probability of generalization and sustainability.