Self-Advocate Sentinel: Supporting People with IDD in the Workplace

Melanie Hecker, MPA

People with developmental and intellectual disabilities can face many unique challenges in the workplace. Difficulties with understanding directions, navigating the social aspects of the workplace, keeping oneself organized at work, and choosing a suitable career path are all common experiences amongst people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. To address these issues, here are some ways employers and direct support professionals can support people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in the workplace:
Provide extra clarification on task directions at the start of a project
People with developmental and intellectual disabilities may become confused if the instructions they receive for work tasks are ambiguous. To prevent this confusion, employers can provide detailed clarification when assigning new tasks. This detailed clarification should include multiple opportunities for the employee to ask questions about the tasks they have been given.
Develop a workplace organization plan with the employee
Some people with intellectual or developmental disabilities may experience executive dysfunction or other difficulties with keeping themselves organized. These challenges with organization may lead to problems in the workplace. To avoid difficulties stemming from lack of organization, employers and direct support professionals can work with the employee to develop an individualized plan for keeping their workspace, calendar, and computer files organized. This plan can include where the employee will keep certain resources or records, how the employee can set reminders for meetings or tasks, and whether it is easier for the employee to keep important documents in paper or electronic form.
Guide people with developmental and intellectual disabilities through difficult social situations
The social difficulties inherit in many developmental disabilities will often cause trouble in the workplace. Misunderstandings between coworkers, inability to pick up on social cues, and inability to intuit social rules can lead to serious problems in a work environment. It is important for people with developmental disabilities to have someone they can consult on social-related workplace issues. This person, such as a supported employment counselor, can help by assisting in interpretation of social cues, clearing up misunderstandings, and informing on unwritten social rules.
Help people with developmental and intellectual disabilities explore different career paths
Having an intellectual or developmental disability can complicate the process of determining which career path to pursue. Some people with developmental or intellectual disabilities may be interested in certain topic areas but be unable to pursue a career in the topic due to disability-related factors. It is important for direct service professionals to assist in identifying possible career plans by weighing factors such as the consumers’ interests, accommodations they may need, the strengths they possess, and any potential limiting factors. However, it is ultimately the individual’s choice to decide which career they wish to pursue.
Let people with developmental and intellectual disabilities fail
The advice to let people with intellectual and developmental disabilities fail may seem counter intuitive. Families, friends, and direct support professionals often assume they need to protect the people they support from failure. Despite the existence of this impulse, letting someone with a developmental or intellectual disability fail is one of the most important things their supporters can do for them. If a person is never allowed to fail, they are never allowed to explore new paths and opportunities. Trying and failing is the only way any person can discover their true strengths.