How HR can successfully manage employees with intellectual disabilities


A study from AHRI’s Asia Pacific Journal of HR says the profession is failing managing workers with intellectual disabilities – often leaving them behind. Here is how HR can succeed. 

Professor from RMIT University’s School of Management Timothy Bartram calls many current efforts to be inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities in the workplace ‘tokenistic.’

“Current human resources management approaches for workers with intellectual disabilities are not working,” he says. “A lack of appreciation of workers with intellectual disabilities, along with outdated HR approaches are leading to poor treatment, isolation and exclusion for many of these workers.”

Bartram and fellow researchers conducted a study where they collected data from 78 employees across three hotels, a courier company, a film company, a management consultancy firm and a recruitment company to find out where HR was failing workers with intellectual disabilities (WWID) and how the profession could improve.

They identified six areas and contrasted typical current approaches with a more effective recalibrated approach based on past research and their own real-life observations.

1. HR strategy

The researchers asked some respondents who worked in HR why they hired WWID. 

“We have a target of having two per cent of our employees having a disability…this can vary throughout the year,” says one respondent. 

“We are an equal opportunity employer. It’s a big CSR thing at the moment,” says another.

While neither of the organisations of the two respondents fell victim to it, there is a risk for organisations if their HR strategy for WWID is designed to just meet a quota or perceived responsibility.

In order to truly meet CSR obligations while also creating an inclusive workplace the researchers suggest a shift of focus from quotas to creating “a synthesis between competitive advantage and meeting CSR obligations.”

To do so requires having in place strategic plans which specifically align management goals with maximising the potential and strengths of WWID. 

Because things can go awry if this doesn’t happen. Supervisors at one organisation had negative attitudes towards WWID, and instead of focusing on their strengths seemed to be attempting to just treat them like other workers.

“The [WWID] laundry attendants are quite slow…The other laundry attendants get a bit annoyed as they feel they are carrying them a bit but there is nowhere else to put them,” said one respondent.

And this didn’t go unnoticed. A WWID respondent felt, “The supervisors only care about targets, they just tell us to get on with our work even if they see we are stuck.”

As one consultant from a recruitment company told the researchers, “There’s often a subconscious bias because someone has a disability. Keeping a job is fitting the job to the employee and allowing for flexible working. Employers need a bit of common sense.”

This seems crucial. If you try to fit a WWID to the job, you’re setting them up to fail. A better strategy, if it’s possible, is to fit the job around their capabilities and strengths.

Previous research has shown that another effective strategy is having management promoting supportive and participative activities that embrace WWID. 

Two of the hotels used a company cricket team and a social events to “foster team development and inclusion”. By strengthening the social bonds between all staff in non-work environments, the acceptance of WWID grows. No longer do staff just see their inability to do certain tasks, they begin to know them as people and colleagues and care about making sure they’re inclusive.

2. HR mission and vision

Just as you shouldn’t build strategy around ticking boxes, organisations can’t just put in place policies or documentation that say they are committed to inclusivity. They need to make changes, both big and small, to be truly accommodating.

Because it’s one thing to say you value inclusion, and another to have a culture that lionises different voices. Flatter, more democratic organisational structures help. If anyone and everyone can express their opinion about where improvements can be made, WWID will naturally benefit.

The film and courier companies had systems of open communication and informal support – these “were seen as crucial for WWID to perform their job roles”.

One of the organisations looked at by the researchers focussed on the idea that work needn’t be done in the office to count.

“Being able to work from home makes disability more manageable. Organisations should have a results-based system, where it doesn’t matter how or where the work is done,” an HR professional told the researchers. 

3. Training and development

Traditionally, training in organisations can be quite a technical process. You get staff up to speed on what they need, or try to address a lack of capability, and then let them go. But to better assist WWID the researchers advocate:

  • Specific coaching and mentoring for WWID
  • Training for colleagues and managers around WWID’s needs
  • Developing intervention programs for WWID
  • Innovating ways to support best practice management of WWID

The study also suggests putting in place a ‘buddy system’ as a way to involve all team members in work activities as well as social activities. The researchers called this a ‘non-bureaucratic’ approach to teamwork and found this less rigid strategy allowed for better social and workplace inclusion. 

This is much more of a holistic approach to helping WWID. It’s thinking about training and development not just as a top-down function, but something that can happen horizontally. It must be said, you can imagine a lot of organisations balking at this – wondering what the return on investment would be for such a comprehensive approach to inclusion.

But the researchers say that by using WWID unique, skills, knowledge, abilities and attributes then the organisation can gain an edge when it comes to training and innovation.

As HRM has written previously, there is evidence that workers with a disability have particularly high levels of reliability, productivity and safety. 

4. Performance management

Organisations that put in place a ‘standards of performance’ that applies to all employees found ‘not too much difference’ among workers with or without intellectual disabilities – aside from the fact it may take WWID a little longer to get something done or that they would have to take on less responsibility. 

When it comes to performance management, the researchers suggest “that immediate supervisors focus on understanding and responding to the individual’s performance needs.” In other words, you can’t just have an ad hoc approach but instead have to think more specifically about the employee.

This should also involve developing a clear career path, making sure the performance management helps build relationships with the supervisor, and provides the WWID with relevant information about their rights and responsibilities – as well as promotion opportunities – rather than assuming they can find it for themselves. 

“Extensive teamwork and mentoring of WWID is critical to the inclusion and growth of WWID at the workplace,” the study says. 


This study is from the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources. Access to the journal is open to AHRI members only. If you are not already a member, find out how to join today.


5. Occupational Health and Safety

“Occupational health and safety concerns can often act as a barrier to the employment of WWID,” the study says.

At the bare minimum an organisation will adhere to legislation surrounding occupational health and safety (OHS). However, researchers advise (if possible) to extend that further to small workplace adjustments like purchasing ergonomic furniture to larger changes like complete job re-designs.

Other adjustments or additions to a workplace include:

  • Well-being programs for WWID, their managers and colleagues 
  • Putting up appropriate and easily understood signage around the office 
  • First aid programs for WWID

6. Management development

Learning and development surrounding disability for managers usually come from short online courses but these kinds of courses can often skim or completely skip how to manage WWID.

“It is important for researchers to pay attention to the lack of practical diversity management that ensures inclusion for all employees,” the study says. “General diversity frameworks may not suitably address small minority groups within a larger minority group.” 

The researchers say, in order to extend upon basic management development, organisations need to fill in the gaps through the following methods:

  • Training that specifically touches on how to manage WWID
  • Develop staff that also have a diverse background
  • Provide knowledge around government and non-government disability support services
  • Implement a reward system which incentivises staff to reach goals around organisational diversity

The study concludes, “Diversity should reach a point where the very concept is not discussed because everyone is accepted equally in an organisation.”

Here is a table from the researchers, that breaks down the above.

Current HR practice for workers with intellectual disability (WWID)Recalibrated approach to HR for workers with intellectual disability (WWID)
HR Strategy
Management plans to achieve goals of the organization and predominantly meet CSR responsibilitiesStrategic plans – aligning management goals to maximize the potential and strengths of WWID
Management promote supportive and participative activities that embrace WWID
HR Mission and Vision
Values of the organization that support goals and resources; documents/statements that set out and promote diversity and inclusion in a workplaceValuing people with difference
Building a positive culture of inclusion for all staff regardless of difference
Promote an organizational climate that facilitates WWID involvement in work
Promote individual expression of voice and two-way communication between WWID and managers and/or supervisors
Utilising employees’ knowledge, skills and abilities and attributes as the greatest assets of the organization
Training and Development
Improving the performance of workers in an organization as a technical process; on the job trainingCoaching and mentoring for WWID
Training for colleague co-workers and managers
Developing intervention programs for WWID
Innovation – bringing new ideas to the organization to support best practice management practices to support WWID
Performance Management
Monitoring and reviewing an employee’s work; future planning; responding to performance gaps; managing relationship with supervisorFocus on the individual’s performance needs
Understand and respond to the needs of WWID
Develop a career path and opportunities for promotion
Provide relevant information on promotion-related options for WWID
Building relationships with supervisors and managers
Provide WWID with relevant information regarding their rights and responsibilities
Occupational Health and Safety
Health, safety and welfare of all staff; adhering to legislationAssess accommodation needs, such as ergonomic furniture, at job design and recruitment stages
Proactive well-being programs for WWID, managers and colleagues
Building a healthy environment and safety awareness for WWID, e.g. appropriate signage
Health and safety training programs that include WWID
First Aid programs for WWID
Create opportunities for social interaction with management and colleagues at work
Management Development
Short/online courses about diversity, inclusion, and disabilityLeadership management (training and development) for managers/supervisors of WWID
Diversity & inclusion development for managers
Team building training
Developing staff from diverse backgrounds – disability, gender, race, any type of difference
Knowledge of government and non-government disability support services
Reward system – incentives for managers who reach organizational diversity goals relative to WWID

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Brendan
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Brendan

I’d like to thank the editorial team at HRM Online for continuing to shine a light on hr practices that help businesses reflect community values and build better business through influential and effective people management case studies and articles.

Wayne Gobert
Guest
Wayne Gobert

This excellent report highlights the difference between Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity is functional and easy – “let’s have six of those and three of those – then out it in the Annual Report”. Inclusion is cultural – it’s not easy to achieve and except for those in the “others” group more difficult to see or measure. The challenge organisations face is really defining their identity – who are they and what do they stand for? The enemy of this is sole mission focus. The mantra of getting the task done at any price can mask so many sins. Of course,… Read more »

Diane Dimovski
Guest
Diane Dimovski

What an absolute delight it was to see disability being discussed in a mainstream publication. The new calibrated approach demonstrates that managing WWID need not be onerous or scary and that small changes can just be incorporated into existing HR/business practice.

Jane M
Guest
Jane M

So important to consider. I agree with the overall heart behind this. The header for the article (a comment given to a researcher) suggests that work can be done anywhere… Comments like this need to sit in a situational context. There is a danger when isolating such comments and highlighting them as if best practice, or they can come across that way. As a HR professional in the ag industry I often come across “office based” response from the profession. (Try moving your dairy herd into your loungeroom! ) Speaking also as a family member of those with significant disability,… Read more »

Brett
Guest
Brett

Great article. Having worked in the specialised employment industry, I love it when management-oriented publications highlight issues of diversity and inclusion.

For those with the power to recruit and select, read the article and consider unearthing dedicated and hard working staff from a pool of candidates you might not have considered in the past.

More on HRM

How HR can successfully manage employees with intellectual disabilities


A study from AHRI’s Asia Pacific Journal of HR says the profession is failing managing workers with intellectual disabilities – often leaving them behind. Here is how HR can succeed. 

Professor from RMIT University’s School of Management Timothy Bartram calls many current efforts to be inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities in the workplace ‘tokenistic.’

“Current human resources management approaches for workers with intellectual disabilities are not working,” he says. “A lack of appreciation of workers with intellectual disabilities, along with outdated HR approaches are leading to poor treatment, isolation and exclusion for many of these workers.”

Bartram and fellow researchers conducted a study where they collected data from 78 employees across three hotels, a courier company, a film company, a management consultancy firm and a recruitment company to find out where HR was failing workers with intellectual disabilities (WWID) and how the profession could improve.

They identified six areas and contrasted typical current approaches with a more effective recalibrated approach based on past research and their own real-life observations.

1. HR strategy

The researchers asked some respondents who worked in HR why they hired WWID. 

“We have a target of having two per cent of our employees having a disability…this can vary throughout the year,” says one respondent. 

“We are an equal opportunity employer. It’s a big CSR thing at the moment,” says another.

While neither of the organisations of the two respondents fell victim to it, there is a risk for organisations if their HR strategy for WWID is designed to just meet a quota or perceived responsibility.

In order to truly meet CSR obligations while also creating an inclusive workplace the researchers suggest a shift of focus from quotas to creating “a synthesis between competitive advantage and meeting CSR obligations.”

To do so requires having in place strategic plans which specifically align management goals with maximising the potential and strengths of WWID. 

Because things can go awry if this doesn’t happen. Supervisors at one organisation had negative attitudes towards WWID, and instead of focusing on their strengths seemed to be attempting to just treat them like other workers.

“The [WWID] laundry attendants are quite slow…The other laundry attendants get a bit annoyed as they feel they are carrying them a bit but there is nowhere else to put them,” said one respondent.

And this didn’t go unnoticed. A WWID respondent felt, “The supervisors only care about targets, they just tell us to get on with our work even if they see we are stuck.”

As one consultant from a recruitment company told the researchers, “There’s often a subconscious bias because someone has a disability. Keeping a job is fitting the job to the employee and allowing for flexible working. Employers need a bit of common sense.”

This seems crucial. If you try to fit a WWID to the job, you’re setting them up to fail. A better strategy, if it’s possible, is to fit the job around their capabilities and strengths.

Previous research has shown that another effective strategy is having management promoting supportive and participative activities that embrace WWID. 

Two of the hotels used a company cricket team and a social events to “foster team development and inclusion”. By strengthening the social bonds between all staff in non-work environments, the acceptance of WWID grows. No longer do staff just see their inability to do certain tasks, they begin to know them as people and colleagues and care about making sure they’re inclusive.

2. HR mission and vision

Just as you shouldn’t build strategy around ticking boxes, organisations can’t just put in place policies or documentation that say they are committed to inclusivity. They need to make changes, both big and small, to be truly accommodating.

Because it’s one thing to say you value inclusion, and another to have a culture that lionises different voices. Flatter, more democratic organisational structures help. If anyone and everyone can express their opinion about where improvements can be made, WWID will naturally benefit.

The film and courier companies had systems of open communication and informal support – these “were seen as crucial for WWID to perform their job roles”.

One of the organisations looked at by the researchers focussed on the idea that work needn’t be done in the office to count.

“Being able to work from home makes disability more manageable. Organisations should have a results-based system, where it doesn’t matter how or where the work is done,” an HR professional told the researchers. 

3. Training and development

Traditionally, training in organisations can be quite a technical process. You get staff up to speed on what they need, or try to address a lack of capability, and then let them go. But to better assist WWID the researchers advocate:

  • Specific coaching and mentoring for WWID
  • Training for colleagues and managers around WWID’s needs
  • Developing intervention programs for WWID
  • Innovating ways to support best practice management of WWID

The study also suggests putting in place a ‘buddy system’ as a way to involve all team members in work activities as well as social activities. The researchers called this a ‘non-bureaucratic’ approach to teamwork and found this less rigid strategy allowed for better social and workplace inclusion. 

This is much more of a holistic approach to helping WWID. It’s thinking about training and development not just as a top-down function, but something that can happen horizontally. It must be said, you can imagine a lot of organisations balking at this – wondering what the return on investment would be for such a comprehensive approach to inclusion.

But the researchers say that by using WWID unique, skills, knowledge, abilities and attributes then the organisation can gain an edge when it comes to training and innovation.

As HRM has written previously, there is evidence that workers with a disability have particularly high levels of reliability, productivity and safety. 

4. Performance management

Organisations that put in place a ‘standards of performance’ that applies to all employees found ‘not too much difference’ among workers with or without intellectual disabilities – aside from the fact it may take WWID a little longer to get something done or that they would have to take on less responsibility. 

When it comes to performance management, the researchers suggest “that immediate supervisors focus on understanding and responding to the individual’s performance needs.” In other words, you can’t just have an ad hoc approach but instead have to think more specifically about the employee.

This should also involve developing a clear career path, making sure the performance management helps build relationships with the supervisor, and provides the WWID with relevant information about their rights and responsibilities – as well as promotion opportunities – rather than assuming they can find it for themselves. 

“Extensive teamwork and mentoring of WWID is critical to the inclusion and growth of WWID at the workplace,” the study says. 


This study is from the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources. Access to the journal is open to AHRI members only. If you are not already a member, find out how to join today.


5. Occupational Health and Safety

“Occupational health and safety concerns can often act as a barrier to the employment of WWID,” the study says.

At the bare minimum an organisation will adhere to legislation surrounding occupational health and safety (OHS). However, researchers advise (if possible) to extend that further to small workplace adjustments like purchasing ergonomic furniture to larger changes like complete job re-designs.

Other adjustments or additions to a workplace include:

  • Well-being programs for WWID, their managers and colleagues 
  • Putting up appropriate and easily understood signage around the office 
  • First aid programs for WWID

6. Management development

Learning and development surrounding disability for managers usually come from short online courses but these kinds of courses can often skim or completely skip how to manage WWID.

“It is important for researchers to pay attention to the lack of practical diversity management that ensures inclusion for all employees,” the study says. “General diversity frameworks may not suitably address small minority groups within a larger minority group.” 

The researchers say, in order to extend upon basic management development, organisations need to fill in the gaps through the following methods:

  • Training that specifically touches on how to manage WWID
  • Develop staff that also have a diverse background
  • Provide knowledge around government and non-government disability support services
  • Implement a reward system which incentivises staff to reach goals around organisational diversity

The study concludes, “Diversity should reach a point where the very concept is not discussed because everyone is accepted equally in an organisation.”

Here is a table from the researchers, that breaks down the above.

Current HR practice for workers with intellectual disability (WWID)Recalibrated approach to HR for workers with intellectual disability (WWID)
HR Strategy
Management plans to achieve goals of the organization and predominantly meet CSR responsibilitiesStrategic plans – aligning management goals to maximize the potential and strengths of WWID
Management promote supportive and participative activities that embrace WWID
HR Mission and Vision
Values of the organization that support goals and resources; documents/statements that set out and promote diversity and inclusion in a workplaceValuing people with difference
Building a positive culture of inclusion for all staff regardless of difference
Promote an organizational climate that facilitates WWID involvement in work
Promote individual expression of voice and two-way communication between WWID and managers and/or supervisors
Utilising employees’ knowledge, skills and abilities and attributes as the greatest assets of the organization
Training and Development
Improving the performance of workers in an organization as a technical process; on the job trainingCoaching and mentoring for WWID
Training for colleague co-workers and managers
Developing intervention programs for WWID
Innovation – bringing new ideas to the organization to support best practice management practices to support WWID
Performance Management
Monitoring and reviewing an employee’s work; future planning; responding to performance gaps; managing relationship with supervisorFocus on the individual’s performance needs
Understand and respond to the needs of WWID
Develop a career path and opportunities for promotion
Provide relevant information on promotion-related options for WWID
Building relationships with supervisors and managers
Provide WWID with relevant information regarding their rights and responsibilities
Occupational Health and Safety
Health, safety and welfare of all staff; adhering to legislationAssess accommodation needs, such as ergonomic furniture, at job design and recruitment stages
Proactive well-being programs for WWID, managers and colleagues
Building a healthy environment and safety awareness for WWID, e.g. appropriate signage
Health and safety training programs that include WWID
First Aid programs for WWID
Create opportunities for social interaction with management and colleagues at work
Management Development
Short/online courses about diversity, inclusion, and disabilityLeadership management (training and development) for managers/supervisors of WWID
Diversity & inclusion development for managers
Team building training
Developing staff from diverse backgrounds – disability, gender, race, any type of difference
Knowledge of government and non-government disability support services
Reward system – incentives for managers who reach organizational diversity goals relative to WWID

5
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Brendan
Guest
Brendan

I’d like to thank the editorial team at HRM Online for continuing to shine a light on hr practices that help businesses reflect community values and build better business through influential and effective people management case studies and articles.

Wayne Gobert
Guest
Wayne Gobert

This excellent report highlights the difference between Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity is functional and easy – “let’s have six of those and three of those – then out it in the Annual Report”. Inclusion is cultural – it’s not easy to achieve and except for those in the “others” group more difficult to see or measure. The challenge organisations face is really defining their identity – who are they and what do they stand for? The enemy of this is sole mission focus. The mantra of getting the task done at any price can mask so many sins. Of course,… Read more »

Diane Dimovski
Guest
Diane Dimovski

What an absolute delight it was to see disability being discussed in a mainstream publication. The new calibrated approach demonstrates that managing WWID need not be onerous or scary and that small changes can just be incorporated into existing HR/business practice.

Jane M
Guest
Jane M

So important to consider. I agree with the overall heart behind this. The header for the article (a comment given to a researcher) suggests that work can be done anywhere… Comments like this need to sit in a situational context. There is a danger when isolating such comments and highlighting them as if best practice, or they can come across that way. As a HR professional in the ag industry I often come across “office based” response from the profession. (Try moving your dairy herd into your loungeroom! ) Speaking also as a family member of those with significant disability,… Read more »

Brett
Guest
Brett

Great article. Having worked in the specialised employment industry, I love it when management-oriented publications highlight issues of diversity and inclusion.

For those with the power to recruit and select, read the article and consider unearthing dedicated and hard working staff from a pool of candidates you might not have considered in the past.

More on HRM