Although people of all backgrounds are struggling to find employment because of the stagnant national economy, the problem is more pronounced for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A national survey by the Arc, released in June, found that 85 percent of adults with an intellectual or developmental disability are not employed, even though many said they want to work. The Arc is an advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
On the regional level, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the unemployment rate for people of working age who have a disability to be about 13 percent. That does not include those who have given up looking for work. Nationally, about eight in 10 people with a disability are not in the labor force, according to a June report by the bureau.
Local disability rights advocates say that doesn’t need to be the case.
“The biggest obstacle is little to no expectations” for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, said Carrin Brandt, board of directors president of the Arc of Northern Virginia.
“A lot of times, people with disabilities end up in lower-paying jobs or jobs that don’t have much career potential,” said Evan Jones, employment services director for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, a county agency.
The local Arc organization tried to demonstrate that people with disabilities don’t need to be relegated to low-skill, low-paying jobs when it hired Jill Egle, a woman with an intellectual disability, as its co-executive director several years ago. Egle recently left The Arc because her family moved out of the area.
“She was able to be successful in a leadership position,” Brandt said. Egle was a leading force in the Arc of Northern Virginia’s advocacy efforts, including successful legislation to eliminate the term “mental retardation” in Virginia statutes and replace it with “intellectual disability.”
One major hurdle is employer education, Jones said. Often employers assume hiring someone with a disability is more of an act of charity than something that benefits the business.
Employers who make the leap generally are surprised at how much work people with intellectual disabilities can do, said Alan Wooten, director of community living services for the CSB.
Lorton-based E-Tron Systems, a nonprofit company that hires people with and without disabilities to assemble wire harnesses, cables and other electronics components, is one example of a business that has found success in hiring people with disabilities. Large corporations such as Marriott and Booz Allen Hamilton also are among the more disability friendly employers in the area, Jones said.
“Once we break through the barrier ... the whole attitude just completely changes,” said Rikki Epstein, executive director of the Arc of Northern Virginia.
People with disabilities “are punctual, they are reliable. ... They tend to stay in their job for years and love the work that they do,” Epstein said.
A shortage of government support also is an ongoing challenge. There are not enough funding slots to provide Medicaid-funded support services for all of the people who qualify in Virginia, and not all types of disabilities are eligible to receive employment supports, such as training or transportation assistance.
Transportation to and from a job also is a big challenge, as many areas of the county still are car-dependent.
As of Dec. 1, there were 1,118 people with intellectual disabilities in Fairfax County on a waiting list to receive Medicaid-funded services to help them stay in the community instead of in an institution, Wooten said. Those are most often residential support services, but can include employment supports.
About 399 of those people meet the state’s criteria for having an “urgent” need, Wooten said.