Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is becoming a more common component of business strategy, and with good reason. As Dr. Shawn Andrews wrote in Training Industry Magazine, multiple research studies have demonstrated that diversity is positively correlated with improved problem-solving, decision-making and creativity. “People from different backgrounds see problems and solutions from different perspectives, and that richness of ideas leads to stronger outcomes, making diversity a proven ingredient of creativity and innovation.”

However, only about 7 percent of corporate diversity and inclusion strategies target people with disabilities. Unfortunately, about 70 percent of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are unemployed. “It’s a population that’s completely underserved when it comes to employment,” says Emily Klinger, director of organizational excellence at Special Olympics International.

The Benefits of Inclusion

According to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (I4CP), at least three-quarters of employers rate their hires with IDD as “good” or “very good” on most performance measures. In addition, “there is evidence that people with disabilities are more loyal to employers and stay in their jobs longer,” says Olga Yakimakho, director of leadership and organizational development at Special Olympics International. Yakimakho adds that about 85 percent of people with IDD have a mild disability “and are more than capable of being a productive team member.”

Inclusion, says Yakimakho, benefits more than the groups D&I initiatives target. People who participate in Special Olympics programs with individuals with IDD “are becoming much more open, and they go through really transformational experiences … Learning in diverse groups affects the whole organizational culture in very positive ways.” Klinger points out that many accommodations employees with IDD may require – like sending a meeting agenda ahead of the meeting to all participants – will also benefit the rest of the workforce.

The Special Olympics’ leadership academy audience includes athlete leaders with IDD as well as other leaders in the Special Olympics movement, from national CEOs and senior leaders to board members and coaches to youth leaders. “The best spokespeople for our movement are our athlete leaders themselves,” says Klinger. The academy offers instructor-led training (ILT) and on-the-job training through activities such as chairing a committee or co-facilitating an educational session. It also includes mentoring and networking support, and the organization is hoping to implement train-the-trainer model with local facilitators with and without disabilities delivering leadership training locally.

David Egan, who has 20 years of competitive employment experience with increasing responsibilities, has served as the community relations specialist in the government affairs department at SourceAmerica since September 2017. He is also a leader in the Special Olympics as an athlete with Down syndrome (an IDD) and a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, one of 12 Special Olympics spokespeople globally. In 2015, he was the first person with an intellectual disability to serve as a Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Public Policy Fellow, working with the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and then with the National Down Syndrome Society. “Employment is a key element in adult life,” Egan says. “It is more than just a paycheck. It gives us purpose, independence, dignity and a life like everyone else.”

Developing an Inclusive Culture

Being inclusive means “thinking of every person on your team as equal members,” Klinger says. That means setting performance goals for each employee, not just the ones without disabilities. It means making sure all employees have equal opportunities for development and training. It means having equitable expectations for all employees. “It’s an awareness,” she says. “It’s making it a day-to-day conscious choice.” From the beginning, create a safe space and establish inclusive organizational norms. Encourage employees to develop relationships with each other, but make sure “it’s an organic, meaningful process, not a token engagement with someone with a disability.”

“In my opinion – and based on the experience of many others – creating this type of diversity in the workforce makes the environment a better place to work for all employees,” says Egan. “Moreover, the benefits in the workplace are for both the employees and the employer.” He cites research that found that the turnover rate for individuals with IDD is 8 percent, compared to 45 percent for other workers.

Training Employees with Intellectual Disabilities

In training, use materials with visual and graphic content more than words, Klinger advises. Make sure projects have “clear, broken-down tasks with enough time to complete them.” During ILT, provide plenty of opportunities for practice as well as frequent breaks. An employment guide Egan helped create for the National Down Syndrome Society recommends personalized training and coaching to support employees with Down syndrome. It also advises organizations to give employees short-term, concrete goals to work toward.

Provide training to other staff, as well, says Klinger. Make sure they know how to implement your D&I strategy and programs. “Having these conversations early and ongoing allows people to start thinking about what is possible and then adapting their work in the future.”

“We need people to take action in discovering our gifts and getting us ready to be contributing citizens,” Egan says. “You have to match the individual to the job and employer. We may need guidance and mentorship, [but] having Down syndrome does not define me as a person and does not stop me from being successful.” Job coaches, for example, can work with employers to accommodate individual needs and with employees to develop job-related and soft skills.

“I hope that the next generation of people with intellectual disabilities will be employed, have a brighter future, and be fully accepted and not just tolerated,” Egan says. “We need to discover what unifies us rather than what divides us.”