Just A Third Of Intellectually Disabled People Are Employed


Matthew McKeekin, who works at a nonprofit sheltered workshop for less than minimum wage

Just 34 percent of people with intellectual disabilities are employed, according to a new survey conducted by the Special Olympics.

Between 2011 and 2012, just 44 percent of people with these disabilities were employed or looking for work, about half the rate of the general population. Meanwhile, their unemployment rate was more than twice as high: 21 percent compared to 9 percent.

Those with intellectual disabilities who do have work don’t necessarily fare much better, however. Just over half are employed “competitively,” or alongside those without disabilities at a regular wage. And of those, many work in low-wage sectors: 28 percent of those who are employed competitively are in customer service, 17 percent are in retail, and 16 percent are in food service. And just a quarter of employed adults with intellectual disabilities have full-time jobs, while just a third get health insurance through their employer.

Certainly many disabled workers would be happy to make minimum wage, though. Thanks to a loophole in federal labor law, companies can obtain a certificate that allows them to hire disabled workers and set the wage however they’d like, without having to adhere to the federal minimum of $7.25. The provision was originally meant to help people with disabilities enter the workforce, but now it’s gone so far that a place like Goodwill pays some as little as 22 cents an hour. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that people with disabilities are about three times as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled Americans.

Activists for the rights of disabled workers were originally worried that they would be left out of President Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for the employees of federal contractors to $10.10. But the administration announced that its scope will be expanded to cover these workers as well, boosting the incomes of 50,000 disabled workers. A larger fix would require passing a bipartisan bill that would strike down the labor law loophole altogether, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.