Introduction

Blind Works Progress Administration Worker
WPA Worker Operating Braille Machine at the Indiana State Library

For people with disabilities in the United States, despite deinstitutionalization, significant legislative advances, and improved public attitudes, the employment rate has not really changed since World War II. Barriers such as discrimination in the workplace and lack of transportation have kept Americans with disabilities lagging behind their nondisabled counterparts. As an exception, some gains occurred with supported employment options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 1980s and 90s. Individuals with disabilities who have overcome the obstacles to employment make it evident: There are talents and skills missing from the workforce.

The history of employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities includes the unpaid work, or peonage associated with their confinement in institutions since the 19th century. In Indiana, farming operations and other unpaid labor were a way of life at New Castle State Hospital and Muscatatuck State School. Peonage was abolished there by 1969, not long before populations of institutions began to shrink and sheltered workshops appeared in community-based rehabilitation agencies. These facilities, paying subminimum wage to workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, were thought to be the best way to provide vocational preparation.

As services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities moved toward more genuine community integration, best practices in employment shifted to individual employment with services customized to meet the person’s needs. “Supported Employment” in the open labor market grew rapidly for Hoosiers with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 1990s. The workshops did not completely disappear however. And attendance at facility-based day centers, where clients neither work nor are paid, increased. In 2016, 27 percent of Hoosiers with intellectual and developmental disabilities receiving day services were employed in competitive jobs, or jobs within the community, a decline from 30 percent in 2009. Their pay and hours had stagnated.