Employment of People with Developmental Disabilities in Canada: Six Key Elements for an Inclusive Labour Market

Prior research has well-documented the fact that the employment rate for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities continues to remain the lowest of all people with disabilities in Canada (Crawford, 2004, 2005, & 2011; Statistics Canada 2008), hovering in the 25-30% range. In light of this statistic, The Institute for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society (IRIS) undertook this research study to identify best practices for more effectively bridging the skills and competencies of working age adults with developmental disabilities to the increasing demands of employers looking for skilled employees.

This research is most applicable for employers as it explores strategies, innovative approaches, and policy conditions that can support increasing employment rates for people with developmental disabilities. It outlines some of the benefits of employing people with developmental disabilities that can accrue to individuals with developmental disabilities themselves, employers, supportive competitive employment public programs, and taxpayers.

The report begins with a scan of the literature on promising practices to increase employment of people with developmental disabilities. Six key themes which emerged from the review are:

  1. Building employer capacity and confidence – encourage organizations to undertake awareness training and outreach activities targeting employers such as peer to peer workshops and presentations by and for employers; sharing success stories about employing people with developmental disabilities and the business case for hiring people with developmental disabilities; the production of guides and information packages on accommodations as well as the “facts and myths” about hiring employees with disabilities;
  2. Facilitating transitions of youth with development disabilities from high school to employment and careers – ensure that there is a proper transition in place for the individual while they are in school so that they will have a higher likelihood of getting employed after graduation;
  3. Access to inclusive post-secondary education programming at colleges and universities – ensure that individuals with development disabilities have access to post-secondary programs or initiatives that can facilitate the greatest degree of integration and inclusion;
  4. Engagement of employer-to-employer networks and private sector service clubs – provide opportunities for employers to network with their peers to facilitate opportunities to share the business case for employing people with developmental disabilities;
  5. Strategies to encourage entrepreneurship and small business development – self-employment and entrepreneurship is an important part of the comprehensive strategy to increase the employment of people with developmental disabilities; and
  6. Community service system transformation and modernization – a recommendation to transition out of the sheltered workshops and day programs and move towards more inclusive models that provide individualized planning and support for employment and entrepreneurship.

The research study reviews various policy conditions which reported to be effective in securing the labor market access and labor force participation of people with developmental disabilities and presents the following findings:

  1. Although “supported employment” services could be considered good practice, many of the support systems can be inconsistent based on the jurisdictions within Canada or other specific limitations, such as disparities in availability of funds or the quality of support between communities. The success of supported employment programs and policies depends on a supportive policy and funding framework.
  2. Policy approaches typically favor the provision of sheltered work and day programs instead of more inclusive models of employment support. The report notes that the success of this approach depends on level of reporting, as there are huge variances between provinces and territories. As well, sheltered workshops have been criticized by advocates for relying on “training stipends” and not paying minimum wage.
  3. The “employment first” policy prevalent in current income support systems is frequently cited as a major barrier for employing people with developmental disabilities. However, this approach is about raising expectations of all community members regarding the capacity and potential contributions of people with developmental disabilities. It is about “real work for real pay” and it reflects a commitment in policy and practice to achieving inclusive employment outcomes for people with disabilities.
  4. Lastly, the report notes that a number of provincial governments have begun to address disincentives to employment that are embedded within their income support programs. Chief among the report’s recommendations are addressing deductions in employment earnings from benefits as well as the retention of health and housing subsidies for people with developmental disabilities who have been able to find work.