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Discussion Paper on an Ideal Framework to Promote the Employment of People Who Have an Intellectual Disability

The National Action Committee on Disability Supports, Income and Employment has identified the need to develop and promote nationally the concept of an ‘ideal framework’ for enhancing employment outcomes for people who have an intellectual disability.

This discussion paper outlines the rationale for this framework and describes the key components of the framework. It also identifies some questions that will help guide discussion and review at the national and provincial/territorial levels.

Employment and Persons with an Intellectual Disability: The Current Context

People who have an intellectual disability remain largely excluded from the labour market. This is in spite of the progress that has been made in the area of supported employment over the past 25 years. Nationally, the rate of labour force participation for people with a ‘developmental’ disability is 32.7% - according to the 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS). The participation rate for people with disabilities in general is 56%. People identified as having a developmental disability have the lowest labour force participation rate of all disability types in Canada (by contrast, people who have a hearing related disability have a labour force participation rate of 64.1% and people who have a mobility related disability have a participation rate of 53.6%). The labour force participation rate for people without disabilities is 80%.

In addition, research has indicated that:

  • People with an intellectual disability are more likely than persons with other types of disability to experience multiple types of disability – 77.2% versus 52.1%, and
  • Nearly 50% of people with an intellectual disability have incomes below the Statistics Canada Low Income Cut Off and over 60% rely on public income support as their main source of income (Roeher Institute, Literature Review: Employment and Intellectual Disability – Best Practises, Alternatives and Economic Impacts, 2004). The cost of income support annually is estimated to be about $675 million (Roeher Institute).

Many people with an intellectual disability leave school unprepared for work, lack access to post secondary education and training, and are denied appropriate disability supports for employment. Many individuals currently attend sheltered workshops and are provided no other options for support beyond this congregative program or service. Lastly, many employers do not see the value in hiring people with an intellectual disability or of the benefits of developing inclusive workplaces.

The large scale under-employment of people with an intellectual disability stands in stark contrast to current labour market trends that highlight a number of key issues and challenges such as:

  • Labour Shortages. The number of people available to work is shrinking. Labour market trends indicate that:
  • Many people will be retiring in the next 5 to 10 years and beyond.
  • A number of sectors of the economy are or will have significant difficulties finding and keeping employees.
  • Economic growth will put increasing pressures on the labour market.
  • High Rates of Employee Turn-Over. In some sectors, employee turn-over rates are increasing as workers have more choice and opportunity to seek employment in other occupations. This increases costs for businesses that are required to constantly recruit and train new employees.
  • Growing Emphasis on Workforce Diversity. Trends over the past few years have shown that today’s workforce is more diverse. This means that non-traditional sources of labour (such as people who have a disability) are increasingly making contributions to our economy.

These trends and challenges provide for unprecedented opportunities for people with an intellectual disability and other segments of the labour force that have been traditionally excluded. Already, governments and businesses are placing significant emphasis on importing labour and, to a lesser degree, encouraging older workers to remain in the labour force. There is, however, relatively little public or public policy discussion about the need to ensure that working age people with disabilities are fully included in the labour market.

Tied to the above trends is the relentless focus on post secondary education and industrial trades, areas where persons with an intellectual disability have had difficulty getting credentials and marketable recognition. While some inroads have been made in post secondary education, the dominant category of employment open to individuals with an intellectual disability remains in what is labeled as “unskilled”. Increasingly, the demands of this labor market niche call for a more knowledge based worker. Yet, the demand for workers in this space is unlimited.

Lastly, traditional economic models in Canada do not account for the cost of exclusion, either in social terms or on the overall gross domestic product. It has been estimated that the cost of lost productivity as a result of people being out of the labour force due to a long or short term disability is approximately $43 billion or 5% of national GDP (Roeher Institute).

We are at a point in our history where we can reasonably and strongly argue that there is an ‘economic imperative’ to including people with intellectual and other disabilities in the labour force. The potential is to achieve employment parity – something that was not even thinkable even 5 to 10 years ago.

An Ideal Framework for Promoting the Labour Market Participation of People with an Intellectual Disability

An ideal framework involves a series of policies, programs and strategies that collectively will have a significant impact on the employment outcomes of people with an intellectual disability. The framework acknowledges that no one intervention will be sufficient to bring about large scale change. As such, the development of a framework provides opportunities to define, develop and implement a strategic approach to labour force development for people who are excluded.

Below is a brief description of the key elements of an ideal framework and the specific policies or strategies that need to be implemented in a coherent fashion. This framework has a number of important similarities to the Roeher Institute’s ranking of labour market systems elements (sometimes referred to as the “Top Ten” systems elements that are needed to ensure effective employment outcomes for people with a disability). This list is provided in Appendix ‘A’.

(i) Investing in effective school to work transition planning and school based work experience.

Investments in effective school to work initiatives are crucial to ensure that youth with an intellectual disability have a real opportunity for successful employment in their adult life. The alternative is for young people to transition onto social assistance programs and have lives characterized by exclusion from the labour market. The financial costs of this exclusion are potentially staggering for young people who become long-term recipients of social assistance. Investing in effective school to work transitions requires a number of important strategies including:

• The development and implementation of strategies to ensure full involvement in school to career transition programs for youth with an intellectual disability.

• Mandated requirements that transition planning begin early and no later than grade 9.

• The provision of external consultation and facilitation assistance with transition planning and implementation for students with an intellectual disability.

• The development of strategies to integrate services and supports that will lead to successful transitions from school to work.

• The promotion of collaboration between students, families, schools, employers and other community stakeholders in the transition process.

Effective early transition planning for community employment can have a dramatic and positive influence in the success of real employment outcomes over sheltered and segregated program options. There is strong evidence that such planning will contribute to better dreams for the future and a clearer vision about individual potential. In addition, research indicates that a “workforce development” approach to school-based work experience and work preparation programs does lead to better post school employment outcomes. This approach will require the involvement of people and organizations that have expertise in workforce development in these school-based initiatives.

(ii) Providing access to postsecondary education and job training

Access to further education and training after high school is becoming increasingly important for all young people looking to enter the labour force. It is predicted that within a short time frame, more than 80% of new jobs created will require some type of post secondary education or training. In addition, studies have indicated that employment outcomes for people with a disability do increase substantially when individuals have opportunities to participate in post secondary education and training.

Access to post secondary education and training can take many forms. Education and training provided by Community Colleges and universities is obviously important. There are, however, other avenues for gaining employment skills that need to be made available. These include apprenticeship opportunities, targeted skills training in identified occupations or sectors, accessing training provided by private training operators and on-the-job training. Under an ideal employment framework, people with an intellectual disability will benefit from:

• The development of an inclusive postsecondary education system, particularly at the community college level.

• Expanded access to apprenticeship opportunities in a variety of occupations.

• Expanded access to other opportunities for postsecondary employment training.

(iii) Influencing the employment and other practices of employers.

While many employers have enjoyed the success of including people with an intellectual disability in their work force many others are still highly reluctant to do so. There are a variety of reasons for this including misconceptions about the ability of people to work, a lack of awareness of the value of people with an intellectual disability to the labour force, concerns about additional costs and time for training a worker with an intellectual disability, and so on.

Employer willingness to hire people with an intellectual disability can have a significant impact on overall labour market participation rates for these individuals. In a tightening labour market clear opportunities exist for educating employers about the need to be flexible and open in their hiring practices.

Employer willingness to participate in workforce development programs for people with an intellectual disability (by hiring people and by providing work experience opportunities, etc.) is often influenced by one or more of three factors:

1. How well programs address a particular workforce need of the company;

2. How well programs address an industry-wide workforce need; and

3. How well programs meet a perceived community-wide need that ultimately makes it a good place to do business. (National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, 2004).

Addressing these employer needs shifts some of the focus to the “demand side” of the employment equation. In this sense, workforce development organizations will need to seek to collaborate with businesses and business organizations to address on-going labour market needs and issues.

At the same time, efforts must be made to ensure that employers become “disability confident”. In this regard, a disability confident employer:

• Understands how disability affects every aspect of its business - people, markets, communities, suppliers and key stakeholders.

• Creates a culture of inclusion and removes barriers for people with disabilities.

• Makes adjustments that enable specific individuals to contribute - as employees, customers, partners and valued stakeholders.

• Does not make assumptions about what people can do on the basis of a label. (Employers’ Forum on Disability, U.K.)

Under an ideal framework, efforts need to be made to influence the hiring decisions of employers and to change the way employers perceive people who have a disability. This can be accomplished through a number of strategies including:

• Increasing employer awareness of the benefits of and ‘business case’ for hiring people with an intellectual disability.

• Supporting employers to develop inclusive hiring practices and workplaces as well as to address the overall ‘disability confidence’ of employers.

• Educating employers about the value of offering customized employment opportunities and supporting the development of such opportunities to match employee skills and employer needs.

• Providing appropriate support to employers for hiring, training and maintaining workers with an intellectual disability in the workplace.

• Collaborating with business organizations (such as Chambers of Commerce) to promote people with intellectual and other disabilities as a valuable source of labour.

• Where appropriate, providing short or long-term wage subsidies to assist with the cost of hiring people with an intellectual disability.

(iv) Providing access to disability supports.

For many people with an intellectual disability access to disability supports is crucial. This is particularly true for the provision of long-term support to those who need it. Without such support, we will continue to systematically exclude large numbers of people who experience high levels of challenges around employment. These are the individuals for whom the support employment response was originally designed.

In addition, the introduction of numerous support models could be more fully explored (including long-term subsidies to employers where merited). The provision of these supports can be reviewed, faded or left in place in accordance with the support needs of the individual. For some people, the provision of a support worker will be appropriate while for others natural existing workplace supports may be sufficient. The most urgent consideration is policy and programs that are inclusive and responsive to the needs of all persons regardless of the severity of disability. In addition, in the design of programs and supports, the quality of the supports is vital. Person centered planning, where funding and supports are as individualized as possible, is also desirable.

Given the high number of people still served through shelter-based services, consideration must also be given to policies and strategies that will assist people to transition from such services to community employment.

Lastly, service quality is an important consideration for enhancing successful employment outcomes. Government funding and accountability practices can effect the quality of employment supports and whether people with more significant challenges are able to access the support they need. Some current funding practices favour larger scale operations that actually decrease the availability of employment supports and promote “cream skimming” of people who are perceived to be easier to serve in order to boost performance outcomes (Removing the Barriers to Work, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, B.C. Office, 2008).

Service quality also involves addressing the current lack of capacity to address labour market issues. This means addressing the gap in leadership that may exist in many areas in providing effective employment supports. Service quality will also require better collaboration with the business community, a focus on staff training, and the provision of technical assistance in order to build expertise in supported employment services.

Under an ideal framework, the provision of disability supports for employment would include:

• Access to individualized funding for individuals requiring short, medium or long-term employment supports.

• The promotion and facilitation of a variety of support models such as person centered employment accommodations, natural workplace supports, and support workers.

• The identification and acceptance of employment related outcome measures that recognize a “continuum of success” to ensure that people are not disadvantaged by success measures that only focus on full-time employment.

• Funding models for employment services that favour global rather than “pay for performance” methods of payment and that include specific employment supports for people with an intellectual disability.

• The provision of incentives and supports for community programs operating sheltered based services to facilitate the transition to community employment.

• Strategies to build capacity for service quality and leadership in supported employment, including collaboration with the business community, staff training and the provision of technical assistance to support providers.

The provision of appropriate disability supports will require adequate levels of public funding. In this respect, cost and benefit analysis exists that supports labour market participation through the provision of disability supports (see Gallant: Summative Evaluation of the Supported Employment Program in Newfoundland and Labrador).

(v) Reforming the income support system and removing disincentives to employment.

The reality for many adults with an intellectual disability is long-term reliance on provincial or territorial income support programs. For many people, social assistance is their only source of income. This assistance also provides for basic health coverage that covers the cost of prescription drugs, dental services, and other benefits.

Being supported through the social welfare system can have a negative effect on a person’s ability (or desire) to find employment. People with an intellectual disability who receive social assistance are often considered “unemployable”. There are also significant disincentives associated with employment for individuals receiving income support. People often fear being financially worse off if they rely on earning enough money from employment instead of the income support system. They also fear losing their health coverage and other benefits (such as transportation). It is clear that until these disincentives are greatly reduced or removed, people will stay out of the workforce.

Under an ideal framework, provincial and territorial income support programs would take a strong incentive-based and proactive approach to support people to find and retain employment. Such an approach would be consistent with the goal of reducing poverty to which many governments are now committed. This will need to include a number of important policies and strategies including:

• The long-term provision of health benefits (that are currently only provided for people on social assistance) for people who find employment.

• The provision of enhanced financial incentives such as the retention of earned income (for example, through enhanced earned income exemptions or a working income supplement).

• Undertaking a proactive approach to supporting employment outcomes for people who apply for or receive income support benefits.

In the national context, efforts need to be made to seek policy coherence and cohesion across jurisdictions. Today, there is wide disparity in policies and strategies that support (or fail to support) employment for people who receive social assistance.

(vi) Strengthening and adhering to labour standards.

Labour standards create the legal context for supporting real work for real pay for people who have an intellectual disability. Under an ideal framework, labour standards must support the right of people to earn at least minimum wage. In this respect, standards must not support alternative wage schemes for people with an intellectual disability that justify payment of a wage under the minimum wage rate. Such schemes are inconsistent with the goals of equality and efforts to reduce poverty on the part of people who have an intellectual disability.

In addition, labour standards must begin to address the legality of maintaining sheltered systems of “employment” for people who have an intellectual disability that pay “training allowances” or other flat rate payments. This does not mean the creation of better sheltered opportunities (that may pay minimum wage). Rather, it means creating a different set of expectations that people will work in their communities in typical or common environments shared by others. Under an ideal framework, clear policy directions for supporting the conversion of sheltered based systems to supported employment systems will be established. These policies have led to successful outcomes in a few jurisdictions (such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Vermont and New Hampshire).

Labour standards need to take into consideration self employment and other professions that are based on different salary structures. In these latter situations, a wage expectation that is commensurate with the current community standard would need to be respected.

(vii) Developing partnerships with community labour market systems.

Supported employment must be seen in the context of local labour market planning and working closely with the private sector through grass roots community and economic development initiatives. In this respect, job development for people with an intellectual disability is a set of strategies with this larger picture. Under an ideal framework, community labour market systems would include representation from the Association for Community Living as well as like minded community agencies involved in job development on behalf of people with an intellectual disability.

Appendix A

Ranking of Labour Market Systems Elements: The “Top Ten”

(Roeher Institute)

1. Assessment of prior learning, skills and experience.

2. Knowledgeable job counseling and assessment.

3. Life skills training (for people who need this).

4. Programs to strengthen self-image and confidence.

5. Work experience.

6. Coordination/linkage to education and training.

7. Adult basic education and literacy programs.

8. Available, affordable, accessible transportation.

9. Assistive aids/devices for post-secondary programs.

10. Technical assistance for employers (e.g., general info and consulting on job accommodations).