UMass Boston Professor on Jobs for Adults With Intellectual Disabilities: ‘Needle Hasn’t Changed’

Colleen Locke | March 03, 2014
Professor Gary Siperstein's study shows only 34 percent of intellectually disabled adults are employed.

Professor Gary Siperstein's study shows only 34 percent of intellectually disabled adults are employed.
Image by: Harry Brett

The emphasis was on how schools can prepare people for the world of work. Have we moved too far away from that?

Study: 34% of Working-Age Adults with Intellectual Disabilities Employed; More than Half Not Employed and Not Looking

Despite the education, training, and employment goals of the decade-old Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement acts, the vast majority of adults with intellectual disabilities are not finding jobs.

According to a University of Massachusetts Boston survey published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, only 34 percent of intellectually disabled adults are employed. Compare that to the 76 percent of adults without disabilities that the Department of Labor says are employed. Even more telling, 56 percent of those in the survey sample were not working and not seeking employment. About 28 percent have never held a job.

“The needle hasn’t changed,” says Gary Siperstein, one of the co-authors of the study and the director of UMass Boston’s Center for Social Development and Education. “In 1966, when I entered the field of vocational rehabilitation, the emphasis was on how schools can prepare people for the world of work. Have we moved too far away from that?”

Those in the study who were employed tended to be in service or laborer type jobs, fields where low-skill workers are often employed. Over the past 30 years, low-skill jobs have made up an ever-shrinking proportion of the nation’s economy. Siperstein and his coauthors are concerned that the percentage of employed adults with intellectual disabilities will continue to drop if the number of available low-skill jobs continues to shrink.

“We’ve lost sight of the fact that there are critical groups of people who don't have the opportunity to enter the labor force or don't have the support to stay in the labor force. When we talk about work in the United States, we have to be talking about preparing everyone--those who are at risk of not graduating from high school, those who have lost their jobs, who have been working, and those with disabilities who begin without a head start,” Siperstein says.

Siperstein, who is also a professor in the Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, says the study provides one of the first ever national snapshots of adults with intellectual disabilities. Out of the approximately 341,000 households that Gallup screened over a 16-month period, parents of one thousand adults with intellectual disabilities between the ages of 21-65 in all 50 states were included in the sample.

The Special Olympics sponsored the research. Siperstein says additional results will be released in the coming months.

About UMass Boston
Recognized for its innovative research addressing complex issues, the University of Massachusetts Boston, metropolitan Boston’s only public university, offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve 16,000 students while engaging local, national, and international constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service activities. To learn more about UMass Boston, visit

Tags: center for social development and education , csde , disabilities , mccormack graduate school , special olympics

Comment on this story

Comments (2)

Posted by C. Pasa | April 04, 2014 - 5:10 p.m.

Thank you for the study and very informative news which may explain why the government is now phasing out the sheltered work places for disabled individuals (such as the Brockton Area Arc) and having the agencies train them and get them into the workforce. I have mixed emotions because I have a son with intellectual disabilities. I’m not sure if it’s a good move or not when it’s difficult to get hired with limited skills or no skills. What’s going to happen to these people?  What do you see as the next logical step? Thank you.

Posted by Jon Hutton | March 06, 2014 - 2:45 p.m.

So, 76% of the general population is working, and 66% of the identifiably “intellectually disabled” population is working. That doesn’t sound like a dire discrepancy, especially if the number of low-skill jobs has been declining “over the past 30 years.” Something must be working or the gap would be greater.