IDRPP Research Shows Continuing Employment Gap

By JoLynne Lyon | November 10, 2023
Dr. Tim Riesen directs IDRPP's Center for Employment and Inclusion.

Since 2014, federal policy has focused on competitive, integrated employment for people with intellectual disabilities. Supported and customized employment are two strategies intended to help individuals with disabilities who are traditionally underemployed,  unemployed or who have been in sheltered workshops obtain meaningful work in community settings.

But new research from the Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice shows that after nearly a decade, there is lots of room for improvement.

In an article published in Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, IDRPP researchers analyzed data gathered from the US Rehabilitation and Services Administration between 2017 and 2020. Their conclusion: 31 percent of people in supported employment and 59 percent of those in customized employment are not exiting into competitive, integrated employment.

“There's been a big push federally to really increase competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities, especially those with more significant disabilities,” said Dr. Tim Riesen, the paper’s lead author and the director of the Institute for Disability’s Research and Training Division. “So we're developing a lot of different programs and supports and strategies. And the fact that people are still not exiting into competitive, integrated employment is really concerning.”

In the case of supported employment, an employment specialist supports the job seeker with disabilities in work that is advertised and available to all workers. It’s a strategy to assist people with disabilities as they compete for existing jobs. For customized employment, an employment specialist works with an employer to create a tailor-made job that did not previously exist—one that meets the needs of the business and will also meet the needs of the worker.  

So why are the strategies not resulting in better employment rates? It will take more research to puzzle that out, Riesen said, and IDRPP researchers are working to understand how to close the gap. But it’s safe to say direct support staff typically have high turnover rates, and it can be tricky for them to follow best practices.

“If staff members do something to fidelity, does it improve the outcome? We're collecting that data as we speak,” Riesen said. But it will take years to gather the information.

Meanwhile, the group’s current research points out other troublesome trends. “We're still only preparing people for what we call the F jobs: fast food, flowers, filth, and folding. … These data showed the same thing. It didn't matter if you're in customized employment or supported employment.”

The data also showed a persistent problem for employment among people with intellectual disabilities: lower wages. On average, people in supported employment were paid $10.39, while the national hourly wage for food preparation and service-related jobs was $14.16. Those in customized employment enjoyed higher wages, at $14.16, but their job placement rates were much lower.

Do the lower wages reflect lower output? Riesen said productivity rates for workers with intellectual disabilities can be on par with those of their typical peers. “If you take the time to have a good match, then there shouldn't be a productivity gap.”

The research, co-authored by Audrey C. Juhasz and Corban Remund, is summarized in this research brief. A full text of the article, “An Analysis of the Rehabilitation Service Administration 911 Supported and Customized Employment Outcome Data for Fiscal Years 2017–2020,” is available behind an online paywall.

For more information, contact Tim Riesen.

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