Q&A: Employment of People with Mental Retardation

How many people have mental retardation?

Based on the 1990 census, an estimated 6.2 to 7.5 million people in the United States have mental retardation. Mental retardation is 12 times more common than cerebral palsy and 30 times more prevalent than neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It affects 100 times as many people as total blindness.

Mental retardation cuts across the lines of racial, ethnic, educational, social and economic backgrounds. It can occur in any family. One out of ten American families is directly affected by mental retardation.

How does mental retardation affect a person's ability to work?

The effects of mental retardation vary considerably among people, just as the range of abilities varies considerably among people who do not have mental retardation. About 87 percent will be mildly affected and will be only a little slower than average in learning new information and skills. As adults, they are capable of performing a variety of jobs.

The remaining 13 percent of people with mental retardation have serious limitations in functioning. However, with care in assessing their work skills and finding them a job that matches their skills, even those individuals have demonstrated employment success.

What kinds of jobs can people with mental retardation do?

A few jobs where workers with mental retardation have proven themselves competitively include: animal caretakers, laundry workers, building maintenance workers, library assistants, data entry clerks, mail clerks, textile machine tenders, carpenters, medical technicians, store clerks, nursery workers, messengers, cooks, automobile mechanics' helpers, engineering aides, printers, assemblers, factory workers, furniture refinishers, radio and TV repair helpers, photocopy operators, grocery clerks, sales personnel, hospital attendants, nursing aides, cashiers, housekeepers, statement clerks, automobile detail workers, and clerical aides. Other jobs in which individuals with mental retardation can perform successfully are continually being identified.

Don't people with mental retardation need more on-the-job training and supervision than other workers?

In some cases, it does take people with mental retardation longer to master the tasks associated with a job. Supervisors may need to spend some extra time with these workers during the first few days or weeks on the job. However, once trained, workers with mental retardation have demonstrated effective job performance.

In many communities, a job coach may be available to help the person. A job coach is a specialist who accompanies the individual with mental retardation to the job to assist in the initial training period. The job coach may assist the worker in learning tasks or make recommendations to the employer about suitable changes to the job to help accommodate the worker. As the new worker becomes familiar with the job, the job coach gradually fades from being present in the work place, but is often available for consultation if ever necessary.

Employers who hire individuals with mental retardation may be eligible to receive on-the-job training reimbursement from The Arc, the state's rehabilitation agency, or a local Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) program. Employers may also receive tax credits under the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit provisions of the IRS.

Are workers with mental retardation dependable?

People with mental retardation have a lot to offer employers. In a recent survey (Blanck, 1993), employers in Oklahoma were generally positive about the contributions and abilities of their employees with mental retardation. Almost all (96%) reported they were very satisfied with their employee's work attendance. More than three-fourths (78%) were satisfied with the employee's dedication to work, and 95 percent said that employees with mental retardation do not have higher turnover rates than employees without disabilities performing similar jobs. Finally, more than half of the employers were very satisfied with the worker's productivity (59%) and initiative (58%).

Studies by the E.I. duPont Company (1990) revealed similar positive results. Their workers with mental retardation were comparable to employees without disabilities in performance, attendance and tenure.

People with mental retardation typically are not "job hoppers." They reward their employers with loyalty and diligence -- qualities that are sometimes hard to find in today's working population.

Do workers with mental retardation have more accidents on the job?

In the Oklahoma survey, 93 percent of the employers reported that employees with mental retardation did not create a safety risk at the workplace (Blanck, 1993). DuPont (1983) and the President's Committee on Mental Retardation (1983) report safety records equivalent to employees without disabilities.

Do health and other employee benefit costs go up when a company hires people with mental retardation?

In general, group health plans and related employee benefit programs are not adversely affected by hiring people with mental retardation -- a statement confirmed by 95 percent of the employers in the Oklahoma study (1993).

Do most adults with mental retardation have jobs?

No. Recent studies indicate that only 7 to 23 percent of adults with mental retardation are employed full-time. While an additional small percentage (9-20%) are employed part-time, most are either unemployed or not in the labor force. The National Consumer Survey of adults with mental retardation reported 81 percent not working (Temple University Developmental Disabilities Center/UAP, 1990). Another survey of youth out of school three to five years found 63 percent not working (Wagner, et al, 1992). While today's youth appear to be doing better in the job market, they still are unemployed to a greater extent than youth with most other disabilities and those without disabilities.

Why aren't more people with mental retardation employed?

Obviously, there is a great untapped reservoir of workers in this country -- people who can work, people who want jobs. A number of barriers contribute to the low employment rate of people with mental retardation. They may not receive vocational training and work experience while in school. Due to being segregated in special education programs, they may not learn about career options, have experiences to develop appropriate social skills required for successful employment and may not be encouraged to look forward to work.

After leaving school, many adults with mental retardation find there are no services in their communities to assist them in obtaining and maintaining employment. Most need some support in learning a job and interventions when they have trouble with job performance.

Employers may hesitate to recruit, hire and train individuals with mental retardation because they are

not sure that they know how to accommodate their disability. Parents may have low expectations of work for their sons and daughters with mental retardation. They may worry that going to work may cause their son or daughter to lose entitlements which provide a monthly income and health coverage. Transportation to work is often a problem for people with mental retardation, especially since many do not drive. Public transportation is not universally available. Finally, they may have difficulty in finding work when the unemployment rate is high in their community.

What is being done to help more people with mental retardation to become and stay employed?

Perhaps the most positive change to opening employment and other opportunities for people with disabilities, including those with mental retardation, is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Signed into law July 26, 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability. It covers employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunication relay services. In employment, it specifically states that employers cannot discriminate against a "qualified individual with a disability" who can perform the "essential functions" of a job "with or without reasonable accommodations." More information on the ADA can be obtained by contacting The Arc, National Headquarters.

In the area of direct services, new employment options and services to assist people with mental retardation have been developed in recent years. Included in these options are new models for providing supported employment where workers receive ongoing assistance as necessary in performing their jobs.

Where can employers go to recruit potential workers with mental retardation?

To tap this pool of workers, employers can contact local chapters of The Arc, their local secondary school or rehabilitation agencies in their area. Or, they can contact The Arc's National Employment and Training Program at the National Headquarters' office. Staff will be able to direct the employer to an appropriate source.


Blanck, P.D. (1993). The Americans with Disabilities Act: Putting the Employment Provisions to Work. Northwestern University: The Annenberg Washington Program.

E. I. duPont de Nemours and Company. (1990). Equal to the task II. Wilmington, DE: .

President's Committee on Mental Retardation. (1983). The Mentally Retarded Worker _ An Economic Discovery. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.

Temple University Developmental Disabilities Center/UAP. (July 1990). The Final Report on the 1990 National Consumer Survey of People with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families. Philadelphia.

Wagner, M., D'Amico, R., Marder, C., Newman, L. & Blackorby, J. (December 1992). What Happens Next? Trends in Postschool Outcomes of Youth with Disabilities. The Second Comprehensive Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education Students. SRI International.

The Arc
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Silver Spring, MD 20910
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info@thearc.org (e-mail)

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Revised Jan. 1994