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Putting Ability First

posted May 10, 2014, 9:52 AM by Ezra Lockhart   [ updated May 10, 2014, 9:52 AM ]
The cost of services for adults with developmental disabilities is extremely high in the United States (Cimera & Cowan, 2009), United Kingdom (Knapp, Romeo, & Beecham, 2009), Australia (Stancliffe & Lakin, 2005), and broadens to other countries.  Indeed, open employment placements defray the associated costs of adult services by decreasing the duration of time spent receiving such services.  In other words, adults with developmental disabilities when employed spend less time per day receiving services.  Open employment, additionally has economic benefits for adults with developmental disabilities, their families, and society (Sturmey, 2014). 

On one hand, it is of merit to consider the economic benefit as it relates to service administration and delivery as managing expense is a vital component.  On the other hand, the service is ultimately in place to habilitate individuals with developmental disabilities and augment their natural support systems.  In recognizing this primary objective there are further benefits to placement in open employment for this population.  Research literature shows several benefits for adults with developmental disabilities being employed competitively.  Improvements have been observed in quality of life through developing social relationships with coworkers without disabilities (Schalock, 2004).  Placement in open employment provides opportunities to develop social relationships (Jahoda, Kemp, Riddell, & Banks, 2008).  Such placements provide opportunities for individuals to improve their emotional well-being and social status (Jahoda et al., 2008).  The evidence for the many benefits is abundant and for those reasons open employment for adults with developmental disabilities is worth the effort.

\Along with the benefits associated with open employment there are a few persistent difficulties.  In brief, 1) few obtain or sustain employment, 2) individuals with severe disabilities are rarely placed, 3) full social inclusion is limited, and 4) many employment placements are dead-end, low paying, and unskilled work.  To address these difficulties it is necessary to shift the current societal and cultural perceptive of disability away from inability and towards capability.  When a typically developing individual applies and interviews for employment the focus is on their individual characteristics, previously obtained skills, if they have the capability to learn the job functions, and if the placement deems it the ability to work well with others.  The focus is not on what the individual’s deficits are.  Any employer would quickly screen out an applicant that focuses on what they cannot do.  In the case of individuals with developmental disabilities the focus is immediately on what they cannot do and as a reaction employers quickly consider accommodations or what they must do to compensate for the employee’s inability.  This is an issue that needs to be addressed.  If the focus is on capability, we enter into the employment process offering the individual’s characteristics, skills, and capability to learn as marketable characteristics to the employer.  This stark contrast in perspective places the individual with developmental disabilities in a competitive position first rather than an accommodative one.  I acknowledge that this is not the only issue that needs to be addressed, but it definitely a start.


Cimera, R. E., & Cowan, R. J. (2009). The costs of services and employment outcomes achieved by adults with autism in the US. Autism, 13(3), 285-302. doi:10.1177/1362361309103791

Jahoda, A., Kemp, J., Riddell, S., & Banks, P. (2008). Feelings about work: A review of the socio‐emotional impact of supported employment on people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 21(1), 1-18.

Knapp, M., Romeo, R., & Beecham, J. (2009). Economic cost of autism in the UK. Autism, 13(3), 317-336. doi:10.1177/1362361309104246

Schalock, R. L. (2004). The concept of quality of life: what we know and do not know. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 48, 203–216.

Stancliffe, R. J., & Lakin, K. C. (2005). Costs and outcomes of community services for people with intellectual disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Sturmey, P. (2014). But is it worth it?. In P. Sturmey, & R. Didden (Eds.), Evidence-Based practice and intellectual disabilities (1st ed., pp. 85-99). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.