Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities at Work


with Peter Berns of The Arc


Oct 08, 2018

According to a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the workforce participation rate among Americans with disabilities is three and a half times less than the general population. While the unemployment rate for those with a disability has declined, many remain jobless or face challenges at work.

Peter Berns, Chief Executive Officer of The Arc, discusses workplace inclusivity.

Hosted by: Nathalia Ortiz Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Ortiz: The unemployment rate for Americans living with a disability is nearly double than for those without. And for those with a disability who are in the workforce, many face significant gaps in pay and compensation. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Nathalia Ortiz. Joining me to talk about employment issues for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities is Peter Berns, chief executive officer of The Arc. Peter, thank you for joining us today.

Berns: Well, thank you for having me.

Ortiz: Peter, I think the first thing that I think we should address is that after people with disabilities, whether it´s physical or intellectual, turn 18, graduate, or leave the school system, is probably when they start falling off the radar more. Am I right?

Berns: Well, that´s absolutely true. For folks with disabilities, intellectual and developmental disabilities, really, they may be in high school, up to 22, and they´re receiving services through the school system. But once they pass 22, they´re back out on their own, and they need to transition to adult life, just like everybody else.

Ortiz: Yeah, and I know that a recent statistic says that the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the percentage of working-age people with disabilities in the labor force is about 1/3 that of persons with no disability.

Berns: Yeah. We´ve actually done some research where we found that roughly 36% of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are employed. And so there are many, many people who are not employed who really want to have jobs. And for those who are employed, on average, they´re making under $8.50 an hour, and they´re only working 13 hours a week. So there´s a lot of room for growth in terms of employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Ortiz: What deters employers from hiring people with these sorts of disabilities, and how can they be overcome, those obstacles?

Berns: Yeah, well, one of the big barriers for folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities is that, for those coming out of high school, only about half are graduating with an actual diploma, and you really need a diploma to get a job now. So that´s one significant obstacle. And then, I think for a lot of employers, they have no experience interacting with folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So they have all sorts of misconceptions about whether these folks actually have abilities and can actually make a contribution in their workforce. And that´s something that we as an organization are really working on.

Ortiz: I have to say, personally speaking, my sister has a learning disability, and I have been able to witness how challenging it is. Just to graduate high school for her was such a challenge. And then to be able to become financially independent is still an ongoing challenge. How does your organization help people like her to go into the workforce and not just make the minimum wage but perhaps become a little bit more financially sustainable?

Berns: Sure, sure. So, The Arc is a nationwide charity federation dedicated to promoting the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, you know, conditions like Downs Syndrome, autism, and many others, and supporting them to be included in their communities. So, we have 660 chapters throughout the United States.

Ortiz: Quite a bit.

Berns: Our chapter are really the biggest charity focusing on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And our chapters work one-to-one with people to help those young people as they´re coming out of high school to find jobs and to make sure they have the skills to get into the workplace and support them on-boarding into an employer´s place of business and then supporting them while they´re in the workforce.

Ortiz: And to go a step further, I know that you also help people with disabilities become self-employed and business owners. Tell us a little bit about that.

Berns: Well, that´s true. We´ve seen a lot of interest in the disability community and people creating their own little micro-businesses or small businesses. That´s absolutely something that´s very hard to do and hard to be successful at, but real interest in that area, as well.

Ortiz: And I also read they don´t want pity, they want opportunities. Is it common for hiring managers or people around them, any person, whether it´s family, friends, or employers, to take on that attitude of feeling sorry for the person, and then, therefore, seeing them as weaker than and perhaps not able to fulfill these jobs?

Berns: I mean, I think that sometimes business owners are skeptical about whether the individual really is capable of performing. But what we hear all around the country is that once a business takes that step and hires someone with disabilities, they are just totally blown away at how reliable these individuals are as employees and the positive impact that they have in the workforce. It really kind of raises the standard for everybody in their workforce. So, for lots of businesses, once they hire that first person with an intellectual or developmental disability, they become advocates to other businesses that ought to do the same.

Ortiz: What message do you have for employers that perhaps don´t have anybody with disabilities at their company?

Berns: Well, I´d love to see every employer commit to hire at least one person with disabilities in their workforce. And if they don´t know how to do it, reach out to your local chapter of The Arc. And if there isn´t a chapter of The Arc in your local community, contact us at the national office. We have a program called The Arc@Work, where we work directly with employers to try to help them learn how to integrate people with disabilities into their workforce.

Ortiz: And what sort of motivation or message would you have for people with disabilities who are watching and thinking, "I´m so frustrated. I´d like to work. I know I can contribute something" -- What do you say to them? What words of encouragement do you have for them?

Berns: Don´t give up. There are jobs out there. You are a very valuable employee, and you just need to put yourself out there and find a job that is going to be meaningful to you individually.

Ortiz: Peter Berns with The Arc, thank you for joining us.

Berns: Thank you for having me.

Ortiz: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Nathalia Ortiz.

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