NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Mentally Disabled Being Drawn Into Work Force

November 15, 1999

U.S. employers are turning to the ranks of the mentally retarded in their search for new workers.

  • From 1988 to 1996, employment increased more than 300 percent among people served by mental retardation agencies.
  • Some 337,000 adults with mental retardation hold jobs -- or about 17 percent of the more than 2 million Americans of working age who have cognitive disabilities.
  • Of those working, nearly half have jobs in competitive employment -- while the others work in jobs subsidized for people with disabilities.
  • The level of employment is highest among young adults who have left school in the last five years, with about 23 percent holding nonsubsidized jobs.

Traditionally, mentally retarded people were kept at home and rarely allowed to do anything challenging. But experts say that is changing -- and not simply because of the current tight labor market.

Over the years, society's view of the mentally retarded has been evolving. Younger people are being taught in what are called mainstreamed classrooms where they learn alongside other youngsters. Some corporations have been hiring the mentally retarded for years. Recently, however, that practice has become more widespread.

Several studies of such workers show they tend to be at least as productive as their fellow employees. They work as janitors, gardeners, grocery clerks, office receptionists, toll collectors, farm hands and short-order cooks, among many other occupations. In some cases, they are even rising to supervisory jobs, experts report.

Source: Dirk Johnson, "Tight Labor Supply Creates Jobs for the Mentally Disabled," New York Times, November 15, 1999.


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