Abstract

Longstanding advocacy for employment opportunity, recent legislative and policy developments, and advancements in employment service practice have contributed to an emerging notion of presumptive employability for individuals with disabilities. Unfortunately, low levels of employment remain the norm for people with disabilities, especially those with intellectual disability. Further, an examination of employer views of people with intellectual disability suggests that effective connections remain elusive between employers and employment service programs that support job seekers with intellectual disability. In this article employer perspectives are considered and case descriptions of effective connections of people with intellectual disability to employers are provided in order to meet demand-side operational needs. These perspectives have implications for elevating the effectiveness of employment service practice.

Over recent decades there have been several key developments that support the notion that all people with disabilities, regardless of the nature of the disability, can achieve employment given the opportunity and the necessary support in the job search and on the job. These developments include authorizing legislation, policy initiatives, and the advancement of school-to-work transition and employment methodology. Each of these has contributed to heightened expectations for all people with disabilities, including those with intellectual disability as they consider and pursue employment.

Beginning with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Pub. L. 94-142) through recent reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Pub. L. 108-446), there has been increasing emphasis on education services that lead to optimal postschool outcomes, especially employment (National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, 2005). In addition, the re-authorizations of the Rehabilitation Act (Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Pub. L.105-220) have a similar progressively strong emphasis on presumptive employability, now making it unacceptable for the rehabilitation system to refuse or discontinue services on the basis of disability severity. The prospect of employability for people with disabilities is also reflected in the Ticket to Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 (Pub. L.106-170), which recognizes employment as a reasonable goal for individuals who, ironically, have had to prove that their disability has made it impossible to work in order to receive income support from the Social Security Administration's Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs. The intent of each of these legislative developments, and several others, has been to elevate expectations of the employment potential for all people with disabilities, as advocates of disability employment have long sought.

Simultaneous to legislative activity, there have been policy initiatives that have also served to increase employment opportunity and employment expectations. For example, supported employment systems change grants of the early 1990s provided a major impetus for state vocational rehabilitation and developmental disabilities agencies to adopt policies and regulations to promote employment of people requiring additional support to find and retain integrated employment (Revell, Inge, Mank, & Wehman, 1999). As a result, supported employment has become a widely implemented strategy for facilitating employment for people with intellectual disability. Further, the presumption of employability is a prominent underpinning of current “Employment First” initiatives in states pursuing a policy of individual, integrated jobs as the preferred outcome from day and vocational services delivery to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2009).

Field practice and advancing methodology have further illustrated that integrated employment can be a realistic goal for all individuals, including those considered to have the most significant support needs. Since the mid-1980s, there have been consistent advances in employment service methodology for individuals with intellectual disability. Prominent among these advances, of course, has been the wide implementation of supported employment practice ever since early researchers illustrated the potential of community-based, integrated employment (Wehman, Inge, Revell, & Brooke, 2007). Recent data indicate that there are now over 120,000 individuals supported in integrated employment services annually through state developmental disabilities agencies across the United States (Butterworth, Smith, Hall, Migliore, & Winsor, 2010).

Moreover, special education transition practices have evolved so that youth with intellectual disability now have service models available to them that lead to higher expectations of postschool integrated community employment. For example, Certo et al. (2003) have implemented a seamless transition service model that features students with moderate to profound intellectual disability holding paid, integrated employment prior to school exit. Through early linkages to adult employment services, students retain the employment upon exiting school. Reported employment outcomes for youth participating in this model far exceed those typically reported for this population (Certo & Luecking, 2006).

The methodology behind these trends has continued to evolve, resulting in multiple avenues to integrated employment for individuals with intellectual disability, including those considered to have high support and accommodation needs. One strategy shown to be effective in helping job seekers with significant support needs builds on supported employment strategies and is called customized employment (Martin Luecking & Luecking, 2006). This approach is designed to result in employment where job tasks are carved from an existing job, restructured from one or more existing jobs, or created to match the skills and accommodation needs of the job seeker so that the employer's operation is helped in a specific way. Thus, the individual has a “customized” job description that did not exist prior to the negotiation process, along with other negotiated conditions of work, such as productivity expectations or work schedules. The promise of this methodology has been further promoted by federal level endorsement and support (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2005). Demonstrations of customized employment strategies have further expanded the notion of presumptive employability of people who, just a few decades ago, were routinely excluded from vocational rehabilitation services (Nicholas, Luecking, & Martin Luecking, 2006).

All of these legislative, policy, and practice developments have been important to the advancement of the notion of presumptive employability. However, the promise of these developments is not yet matched by significant improvements in employment rates. A recent national survey revealed a 30% gap in employment rates between people with disabilities of working age and people without disabilities (Kessler Foundation/ National Organization on Disability, 2010a). Low levels of employment are especially prominent among people with intellectual disability. For example, data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 indicate that only about 25% of people with intellectual disability were employed 5 years after leaving special education (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, & Levine, 2005), the lowest rate of any category of youth with disabilities. As a result, congregate vocational settings where participants earn very low wages remain a common option for working age adults with intellectual disability, circumstances that have not changed appreciably in the last 20 years (Butterworth et al., 2010; U.S. General Accounting Office, 2000).

There are many and varied reasons for the seemingly intractable low rates of employment for people with disabilities generally, and those with intellectual disability in particular. Public attitudes, low expectations, disparate service systems, availability of skill training, and a host of other reasons have been cited (Szymanski & Parker, 2003). However, an often overlooked explanation is unsuccessful employer engagement. As opposed to mere employer awareness, employer engagement implies a much deeper level of interaction between disability employment initiatives and employers. The fact is, without increasing the number of available and willing employer partners, the prospects of improving employment opportunities for people with intellectual disability will continue to be a challenge. Although presumptive employability is regarded as a desirable philosophical underpinning to disability employment initiatives by many advocates and disability employment professionals, the concept does not necessarily correspond to employer perspectives nor is it expressed in employer-centric terms. Employers' hiring activity is mostly related to operational or revenue objectives. However, appeals to employers have historically been cast in disability-centric terminology, such as the past “Hire the Handicapped” campaigns and the modern appeals for employers to hire people with disabilities as an untapped resource (Luecking, 2008). It is not surprising, then, that there has been a longstanding struggle with crafting the right message to employers about hiring people with disabilities. Because employers have various operational and economic stakes in hiring the most productive employees, it is essential to understand employers' needs, circumstances, and perspectives before the field can fully apply the promise of presumptive employability to all job seekers with intellectual disability. Improved and effective connections with employers are essential to any effort to facilitate employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In this article I examine contemporary employer perspectives on employment of people with disabilities generally and people with intellectual disability specifically; discuss the potential for amplifying a demand-side focus in employment service delivery for people with intellectual disability; provide case descriptions of how addressing demand-side needs result in direct-hire, integrated employment for individuals with intellectual disability; and discuss the implications these perspectives and case descriptions have for future directions in the field of employment service for individuals with intellectual disability.

Employer Views of Disability

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 (Pub. L.101-336), which prohibits discrimination against qualified applicants with disabilities, employers' perspectives on disability have become increasingly more enlightened. Whereas in the past their views have been characterized by misinformed or even prejudiced views (Diska & Rogers, 1996; Fuqua, Rathburn, & Gade, 1984), contemporary employers are exhibiting an increasing awareness of the availability of job candidates with disabilities. For example, there is a growing fraternity of employers who have fully embraced recruitment of people with disabilities as a highly visible workforce recruitment strategy, such as retailers Walgreens, Lowes, and Walmart (Nicholas, Krepcio, & Kauder, 2011). That some employers have proactively pursued such a strategy is also reflected in recent years by prominent business-to-business initiatives that have promoted hiring people with disabilities, such as the U.S. Business Leadership Network (2010).

In numerous post-ADA employer studies, researchers also illustrate evolving employer perceptions about hiring people with disabilities. For example, Hernandez, Keys, and Balcazar (2000) found that employers generally express positive and affirmative attitudes concerning the hiring and accommodations of workers with disabilities. However, Hernandez et al. also noted that these positive views do not necessarily translate into hiring behavior. Moreover, a recent survey revealed that the majority of companies that have active corporate diversity hiring and management programs do not include disability as an element of diversity, suggesting that in spite of growing employer awareness, there are still major gaps in employer attentiveness to the issue of disability in the workplace (Kessler Foundation/National Organization on Disability, 2010b).

Other research has shown that employers' views about disability tend to positively change with exposure (Unger, 2002). That is, employers with prior contact with people who have disabilities tend to hold more favorable views toward workers with disabilities than do employers with no previous contact. Many employers who have experience hiring people with disabilities indicate that the presence or absence of disability was not a primary concern when making hiring decisions. Luecking and Fabian (2000) found, for example, that regardless of the nature or severity of disability, more than 75% of youth with disabilities who completed a standardized work-based internship program in high school were offered ongoing employment by their host companies. These companies were under no obligation to retain the interns beyond the internship period. This strongly reinforces the notion that exposure to people with disabilities creates favorable perceptions of employees with disabilities. Once individuals are performing to employer expectations, disability is an unimportant consideration. These employers are also more likely to make positive hiring decisions about applicants with disabilities in the future.

Employers who have positive experience with workers who have disabilities often point to the importance of competent support of organizations that have disability expertise. This is a significant point because so many people with intellectual disability require representation by a disability employment professional in order to access employment opportunities. In fact, employers consistently identified two factors in their success with workers who have disabilities: the help of partner organizations experienced in disability issues and the ability of these organizations to positively contribute to the companies' overall operation (Luecking, 2004). Further, employers have consistently been more positive about workers with intellectual disability when appropriate supports are provided (Morgan & Alexander, 2005). It appears clear, then, that it is at least as critical for representatives of job seekers to understand employer perspectives and how to meet employer needs as it is to help employers become more aware of job seekers with intellectual disability. Prevailing employer views of people with intellectual disability helps illustrate this point.

Employer Views of People With Intellectual Disability

Studies of employer views on people with intellectual disability reveal three distinct tendencies: negative or inadvertent stereotyping, disengagement from any process that might put them in contact with job seekers who have intellectual disability, or favorable hiring disposition based on a specific experience. For example, Hernandez et al. (2000) and Diska and Rogers (1996) found a tendency for employers to view workers with physical disabilities more positively than workers with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities. Assumptions about inferior performance and skill sets, or concerns about lost productivity, have often been cited as reasons employers would hesitate to employ people with intellectual disability (Morgan & Alexander, 2005; Peck & Kirkbride, 2001). These attitudes represent a potentially significant hurdle to connecting with employers to hire people with intellectual disability. On the surface, employers' tendencies to stereotype or misunderstand the potential of people with intellectual disability to be included in their workforce suggest a need for intensive efforts at disability awareness. However, employers are likely to have limited inclination to pursue awareness activities due to time constraints and more pressing operational issues, leading to inadvertent stereotyping. More problematic is discrimination that potentially occurs as employers fail to consider applicants who have intellectual disability due to preconceived and potentially prejudicial views. As a result, people with intellectual disability are prone to be stereotyped as incapable or nonproductive.

Another common view held by employers is that they often do not consider themselves as having jobs that people with disabilities can perform and have not attempted to engage or recruit from this job-seeking population segment (Brostrand, 2006). These employers are not overtly discriminating against potential applicants with disabilities, but they are, nevertheless, regarding the hiring of people with intellectual disability as an action that requires expertise or special skills they do not have nor are inclined to acquire (Morgan & Alexander, 2005). They are, thus, disinclined to actively recruit or consider people with intellectual disability for jobs in their companies and remain disengaged in any effort to recruit them.

Fortunately, these attitudes and perspectives are amenable to change, and some studies clearly show that they can be counterbalanced through positive hiring experience. These studies illustrate that employers are not necessarily intrinsically averse to hiring individuals with disabilities, including those considered to have significant disabilities. In fact, employers are also often willing to go well beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Pub. L. 101-336) requirements for reasonable accommodations. Unger (2002), for example, found that under circumstances where employers receive targeted and effective assistance from disability employment professionals, they are willing to go well beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for reasonable accommodations by providing an array of supports to workers with significant disability. Luecking, Cuozzo, and Buchanan (2006) found that employers cited the value of competent disability employment professionals who helped identify operational improvements as a key reason for hiring and retaining employees with intellectual and multiple disabilities, in spite of the fact that their employment was contingent on significant customization of job duties and conditions of work.

Among the factors illustrated by these three distinct perspectives is that unless and until employers are actually exposed to specific individuals with intellectual disability, they are unlikely to regard them as people who could contribute to their operations. This further suggests that continuing campaigns to “raise employer awareness” will have limited effect on actual employer hiring behavior without simultaneous improvements in connecting employers to actual applicants with intellectual disability. Indeed, employer demand for labor is affected by a host of variables other than specific categories of job seekers in the labor pool. It seems incumbent on advocates and practitioners to understand these variables in order to bridge the disparity between the growing advocacy for presumptive employability on the one hand and the often unfavorable or inadvertently exclusive perceptions employers may have of people with intellectual disability on the other. Ideas about bridging this disparity and more effectively engaging employers can emerge by further illustration of employer perspectives.

Distinctions of Employer Perceptions

Employers tend to have distinct views about the characteristics of ideal candidates they seek for their workforce, conflicting attitudes about the public disability employment system, characteristic ways of talking about what they do, and discrete ways to measure success. These factors are sometimes at odds with the traditional disability employment system paradigm that has focused primarily on the needs and preparation of job seekers (Luecking, 2008). However, when examined carefully, they point to important implications for efforts to engage employers as partners with programs and services that represent job seekers with intellectual disability.

Employers Search for Workers—Not a Disability Label

The problem with employer awareness and recruitment initiatives is that they assume that the mere education of employers will lead to more positive hiring dispositions. Employers, however, have limited interest in hiring “categories” of workers. They are interested in meeting specific workforce needs. When surveyed about what they look for in employees, companies listed dependability, attendance, good work habits, and teamwork as desirable traits. Further, when asked about when they recruit, the typical responses reflect specific operational requirements dictated by business activity (Phillips & Gully, 2009). Similarly, government and nonprofit employers, although more predisposed to be engaged in affirmative disability hiring than the private sector, still cite personnel procedures and their strict job description requirements as dictating recruitment and hiring practices. One illustration of this phenomenon is the ongoing federal emphasis on recruiting individuals with disabilities, which has not significantly increased the proportionate representation of people with disabilities in the federal workforce (National Council on Disability, 2009).

Employers Find the Public Disability Employment System Daunting

Even when employers express an affirmative desire to hire people with disabilities, they often experience difficulty finding applicants or understanding the array of disability-specific entities that have a role in promoting and facilitating employment. In fact, employers have frequently expressed confusion and frustration in relation to disability employment programs, their constituencies, and their processes (Butterworth & Pitt-Catsouphes, 1997). In addition, employers have consistently perceived disability employment personnel as being naïve about or unfamiliar with business practices (Locklin, 1997; Luecking, 2008). As a whole, employers have difficulty making the connection between the mission of disability employment initiatives and the inherent demands of their enterprises (Katz & Luecking, 2009). To complicate this phenomenon, employers have historically expressed frustration with the reliability of disability employment programs to attend to their needs and concerns (e.g., see Kregel & Unger, 1993). It is clear that there is still work to be done to not only simplify employer connections to disability employment programs, but to elevate the engagement with the employer community to a more professional and attentive level.

Employment Service Providers Do Not Speak the Same Language as Employers

Fabian, Luecking, and Tilson (1995) compared the responses and opinions of employers with those of job developers. In separate groups, job developers and employers who have hired people with disabilities were asked the same question: What factors contribute to successful employment of people with disabilities? Overwhelmingly, job developers identified such “soft” factors as employers' understanding attitudes and flexible approach to accommodations. By contrast, employers pointed to quality service from employment specialists and competence of particular workers as contributing factors to successful employment. In other words, to employers, worker performance and the delivery of competent, responsive service by the employment service professional were the critical factors in hiring decisions and successful employment. The issue of the applicants' disabilities was seen as a relatively unimportant element in hiring decisions. As much as anything, this reinforces the importance of a dual customer approach advocated by many workforce investment practitioners and researchers (Gilroth, 2005). That is, the employer is simultaneously targeted as an end user of employment service programs while the programs also assist the job-seeking individual. This has significant implications for not only the responsiveness with which employment service programs react to employers, but also the nature and type of communication used with employers.

Indeed, the jargon that is characteristic of the disability employment field is mostly foreign to employers. Words, concepts, and descriptors, such as vocational assessment, supported employment, IEP, discovery, and other terms in common usage by disability employment programs and professionals, do not resonate with or are misunderstood by employers, who consistently report that interaction with disability employment programs is characterized by both unfamiliar terminology and a lack of understanding of business protocol (Locklin, 1997; Luecking, Fabian, & Tilson, 2004). Connections between employers and disability programs and services certainly would be better served by using language and terminology that is common and familiar.

Disability Employment Service Providers and Employers Use Different Success Metrics

One fundamental impediment to better employer/service provider collaboration has been the difference in how the two groups measure success. On the one hand, the disability employment system measures placements (i.e., whether and when someone starts a job). Markers for service provider success also typically include wages, hours worked, and length of time on the job. On the other hand, employers measure time to fill positions, time to productivity, cost/productivity ratios, and retention. From the employer's perspective, the hiring of the individual must also do one or more of the following: save the employer money, help the employer make money, or help the employer's operation run more efficiently by providing a means to accomplish more work and deliver better products or services (Luecking, 2004).

To better align disability employment processes with business principles, it is useful to understand well-established business operational paradigms. Process improvement (i.e., analyzing and addressing the way work gets done) is a common business concern. Toyota, for example, has adopted and popularized a process called Lean (Liker, 2004). Lean is an outgrowth of Toyota's continuous quality improvement efforts. It requires that its management and staff look at every part of the work process in order to eliminate waste and adopt the most efficient and productive work flow. The object is to eliminate steps that add no value to the ultimate customer. Lean has been adopted by many American healthcare, manufacturing, and banking companies as well as by many large organizations and systems. The implications of learning about continuous improvement processes such as Lean as a way of connecting employers to people with intellectual disability is best represented by Project SEARCH, a prominent demand-side initiative that has resulted in work experience and jobs for thousands of individuals with intellectual disability (Rutkowski, Daston, Van Kuiken, & Riehle, 2006).

Project SEARCH was initiated by Cincinnati Children's Hospital in the mid-1990s and has been replicated in hospitals, banks, and other companies throughout the United States. It promotes using Lean concepts in analyzing and optimizing potential jobs for people with disabilities in these companies. For example, one hospital hired a person with an intellectual disability to clean and sterilize a diagnostic apparatus so that it could be re-used instead of discarded. This saved the hospital several thousand dollars a year. Lean is a problem-solving philosophy that has parallels in traditional job development and rehabilitation processes. The concepts of environmental analysis and functional assessments, when applied in helping companies identify wasteful processes or alternative methods for task completion, can help employment specialists meet the needs of both job seekers and their prospective employers. Project SEARCH illustrates how the field can adopt and use processes and language that are more aligned with how businesses operate and talk. Just as important, it illustrates a very effective example of using demand-side approaches in the whole process of employment of people with disabilities.

Demand-Side Activity

Although the processes that prepare job seekers with intellectual disability for the employment search, connect them to jobs, and support them after the hire are important, what is often neglected in job search preparation is the value of influencing workplace operations in order to create a demand for these job seekers and the employment services representing them. Perspectives of employers suggest that attention to demand-side activities can yield more effective and sustained connections between employers and people with intellectual disability. There are opportunities to help employers meet their labor needs, assist them to examine their work processes, and even to change the nature of the work environment. Such an approach has been increasingly recognized by the broader field of vocational rehabilitation, by federal policy leadership, and in contemporary rehabilitation and job development practice (Gilbride & Stensrud, 1999; Federal Register, 2005).

Moreover, there have been increasing calls for a dual customer approach to employment service delivery. That is, the notion that both job seekers and employers are to be regarded as end users and customers of employment service initiatives has been gaining momentum throughout the broader workforce development system (Marino & Tarr, 2004). According to many leaders in the workforce development field, relationships between employers and any initiative designed to connect individuals with perceived barriers to employment should be characterized by mutual benefit (Gilroth, 2004). The example provided by Project SEARCH and other prominent demand-side approaches suggest that when employers see value and self-interest in initiatives representing people with disabilities, substantive employment success is possible for these individuals. However, although Project SEARCH has a lot to teach the field about employer perspectives, the proliferation of programs on the scale of Project SEARCH is not necessary for regular and effective employment connections for individuals with intellectual disability. It is instructive to examine case descriptions of the kind of processes that can occur in virtually any community when the connection to employers is based on mutual benefit and addressing a demand-side circumstance.

Two Case Descriptions

Enhancing Customer Service and Sales

Janeen participated in a school-to-work transition program designed to expose her to authentic work environments during her secondary education years. The program was designed to culminate in a direct hire paid job targeted for ongoing postschool adult employment. Through several work-sampling experiences during the 2 years prior to her final year in school, it was clear that Janeen preferred work environments that provided consistent, stable tasks. She also performed best when she had specific breaks in her schedule so that she could rest to extend her endurance during her work schedule. Finally, she needed initial coaching to learn her tasks and follow the social protocol of the work place.

Given these circumstances, and the fact that Janeen and her mother enjoyed shopping for clothes together, the transition program's staff worked with Janeen and her family to develop a job search plan that targeted retail clothing stores within commuting distance from her home. They created a list of several stores from prominent national retail chains that fit this description. The transition specialist visited each of them, meeting with the store managers to determine how they managed their inventory, what they valued in serving customers, and whether there were operational challenges that prevented optimum sales goals. At one store the transition specialist learned that a crucial problem area included the mismatching of sizing tags on clothing with the size nubs on hangers. In fact, the store was cited by the national chain's headquarters 3 months in a row after failing tests from visiting quality control inspectors. In addition, considerable disorganization in the stock room often created a problem for sales clerks as they were trying to re-stock shelves and racks and as they were waiting on customers. The store was underperforming, losing revenue from headquarters citations and from lost sales. There were also customer complaints and a higher than normal volume of returned items.

Based on her knowledge of Janeen's abilities, as well as her need for support, and based on the store's need for revenue improvement, the transition specialist made a proposal to the store manager for Janeen to be assigned to three specific primary tasks. First, she would conduct accuracy checks of clothes size tags to make sure they were matched to the size nubs on the hangers. Mismatches would be removed and re-hung. Second, in the stockroom she would hang clothes delivered daily on matching hangers so sales clerks could easily locate and retrieve clothing items. Third, Janeen would retrieve clothes from the fitting rooms, bring them to the stock room, and re-hang them. The transition specialist suggested that the performance of these tasks would enable the store to avoid fines by headquarters, create order in the stockroom, and ultimately enable sales clerks to make more sales. The transition specialist also assured the store manager that she would help Janeen learn her tasks, help determine appropriate break schedules for Janeen, and be available any time the store manager had questions about supervising Janeen's performance. After meeting Janeen, the store manager agreed to hire her. The resulting mutual benefits are illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1

Mutual Benefit of Addressing Demand-Side Operational Needs

Mutual Benefit of Addressing Demand-Side Operational Needs
Mutual Benefit of Addressing Demand-Side Operational Needs

The increased sales and improved customer service experienced by the store illustrate two important points. First, Janeen was contributing to the success of the enterprise. Her disability was clearly accommodated and supports were in place to ensure her performance, but her status as a person with an intellectually disability was not a determining factor in the store manager's decision to hire her. Second, her hiring was facilitated by a clear attempt by the transition specialist to address demand-side issues (i.e., how the work is organized, how customers are served, and the volume of the store's sales).

Process Improvement at a Video Editing Company

Jonathan was 37 years old. Prior to obtaining a job as a duplication associate at a small video reproduction company, he worked in a sheltered employment facility for 15 years where he had sporadic opportunity to earn a subminimum wage piece rate assembling plastic component parts. This work did not match his strong interest in video and media or his longstanding dream of working in the media field. For a long time it was presumed by the sheltered employment facility staff that Jonathan's intellectual disability; his mobility disability, for which a power wheelchair was necessary; and his free use of only one hand would preclude integrated employment in this or any other field. Jonathan's referral to participate in a customized employment initiative changed that belief.

The challenge for Jonathan and his assigned employment specialist was finding a position that matched his interest in media, capitalized on his particular strengths, and allowed the necessary supports and accommodations. He was able to very accurately perform repetitive tasks that did not require extreme hand dexterity or visual acuity. He needed an accessible work environment that provided an opportunity for him to perform tasks with limited use of one hand, had consistent job expectations, allowed for a slow but steady work pace, and provided regular social contact with people who can become familiar with his sometimes labored speech.

The employment specialist and Jonathan designed a job search plan to find a company that performed media work, where his accuracy would be useful and where his need for accommodation and support could be effectively addressed. Through networks and listings at the local One Stop Career Center, the employment specialist created a list of video editing and media companies in the large suburban area in which Jonathan lived. The employment specialist visited three of them to determine whether they had operational needs that could be addressed through employing Jonathan. One of the companies the employment specialist contacted was a new business with a small six-person workforce. It was scrambling to fill orders from the company's growing customer base. The company's main business was to duplicate DVDs and CDs, transfer video and audio cassettes to more contemporary formats, and transfer photographs and digital pictures to DVDs and CDs. The process of taking orders, fulfilling the reproduction requirements, conducting quality control checks, packaging the final order, and shipping it to the customers was taking longer than desired. The company identified several operational bottlenecks, one of which was the delay in performing the reproductions because the staff members were busy interfacing with the customers and taking the orders. It was becoming increasingly difficult to deliver the completed order to the customers within the promised time frame.

Negotiations with this company started as soon as the employment specialist determined that there were several tasks that Jonathan could perform and that the performance of these tasks could help address the persistent bottlenecks in filling customer orders. After meeting on two occasions, the company owner, the employment specialist, and Jonathan created a list of tasks that would become his primary responsibility. These tasks included duplicating DVDs and CDs and packing the CDs for shipment. The negotiations also included a work schedule that would accommodate the para-transit van schedule, a workstation that would accommodate Jonathan's wheelchair, and the allowance for initial job coaching to help both Jonathan and the company adjust to the new arrangement. Additionally, a coworker was identified to be Jonathan's mentor to help him learn the ropes at the company and help him express himself to coworkers.

It is important to note that this job did not come with a ready-made job description nor was it advertized in any way. In effect, Jonathan was hired into a job that did not yet exist prior to the negotiations. His job was, thus, customized to his interests, skills, and need for accommodations. However, the opportunity to obtain this job was, as much as anything, a function of addressing a specific company need and showing the employer how Jonathan could contribute to its operation. As with Janeen, the appeal to the employer and the subsequent negotiations for the hire were based on identifying and addressing a demand-side need. It did not happen as a result of an appeal to hire persons with intellectual disability or as a result of creating an awareness of the potential of job seekers with intellectual disability. It required, instead, the identification of a company need and then raising the possibility that a specific individual, who happens to have a disability, could help address the need. In essence, the employment specialist provided demand-side consultation that resulted in discernible mutual benefit. Table 2 illustrates this benefit and how Jonathan's duties addressed a particular company need.

Table 2

Mutual Benefit of a Demand-Side Focus

Mutual Benefit of a Demand-Side Focus
Mutual Benefit of a Demand-Side Focus

Implications for New Directions in Employer Engagement

The above cases illustrate two important ingredients for successful employment outcomes for people with intellectual disability: the presumption of employability and meeting employer operational needs. The first requires the belief in the inherent value of all people with intellectual disability as potentially contributing workers, regardless of the nature of the disability or the need for supports. The second requires the recognition that effective employment service delivery is predicated on a demand-side orientation. Both Janeen and Jonathan presented support and accommodation needs that in past vocational service paradigms would have excluded them from employment consideration. However, in both examples their contribution to their employer's operation is evident. The concept of the presumption of employability and the notion of meeting employer needs are emblematic of the dual customer approach increasingly advocated by many people in the workforce investment arena.

Simply finding employers who were aware of and open to hiring people with intellectual disability would not have yielded the mutually satisfactory outcomes of these two examples. The prospects of tax credits, employer of the year awards, or any other available incentive for disability employment were not factors in the hiring of these individuals. Rather, these examples illustrate how employment outcomes for people with intellectual disability occur when there is an understanding of the processes that companies adopt to get work done and when there is skilled application of common features of disability employment methodology. In both of these cases, job acquisition was characterized by four steps commonly associated with customized employment: (a) discovering interests and task skills of the job seeker, (b) using this information to craft a job search plan, (c) negotiating with employers based on a set of tasks the job seeker might perform to meet a specific operational need, and (d) providing post-hire support so that the employee and employer receive useful follow-up support (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2005). In fact, many of the proven strategies of supported and customized employment, when applied in the context of company organizational demands, will result in both improved company outputs and successful employment for people with intellectual disability.

As discussed above, recent literature and field experience have consistently identified employer hiring motivation to be most influenced when a particular workforce need is addressed rather than by appeals to hire people with disabilities. Thus, the goals of advocates and professionals to promote employment for people with intellectual disability would be served by better marketing messages and approaches that appeal directly to employer perspectives and needs. In fact, as we have seen, there is a history of research that supports the notion that company hiring decisions are less influenced by the presence or absence of disability than by potential contributions by a job candidate to the company, especially when it is clear that value is being added to the employer's enterprise. As in the cases of Janeen and Jonathan, individuals are often hired by employers who did not have an open position, but who, through customization of job tasks, found a benefit from hiring people with intellectual disability. This supports considerable extant research that under the right conditions and with available and competent assistance, employers are willing to incorporate atypical approaches to meet company and human resource needs, even when the people they hire require extensive initial training and follow-up support (see, e.g., Luecking et al., 2006; Unger, 2002; Wehman, 2001).

This is not to say that affirmative efforts to hire people with intellectual disability are not important or that they should not be encouraged. Neither is promoting employer awareness about hiring people with intellectual disability an altogether ill-advised activity. However, in the two case descriptions, disability awareness occurred by virtue of individual employers being introduced to specific individuals with intellectual disability. Such direct contact promises to be a far more effective way of introducing the concept of hiring people with disabilities. Vague appeals for employers to hire from the “untapped resource” represented by people with intellectual disability seem to have limited resonance with employers. These appeals without concomitant attention to demand-side requirements are not likely to change employer hiring behavior. Demand-side considerations must also be understood if connections to employers by job seekers with intellectual disability are to be effective and if the promise of presumed employability is to be realized. It is recommended that there be continued future inquiry into demand-side perspectives and service provider understanding of these perspectives in order to give policymakers and the field more guidance in pursuing effective connections.

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Author notes

Richard G. Luecking, EdD (e-mail: rluecking@transcen.org), President, TransCen, Inc., 451 Hungerford Dr., Ste. 700, Rockville, MD 20850.