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Equal access to employment opportunities for people with mental retardation: an obligation of society.

The unemployment rate for persons with mental retardation has been estimated to approximate 58% (Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Rusch, Chadsey-Rusch, & Johnson, 1991; Smith, 1994; Wehman, Kregel, & Seyfarth, 1985). Since the majority of persons with mental retardation have the desire and capability to work, that high unemployment rate is disturbing (Elder, Conley, & Noble, 1986; Revell, Wehman, Kregel, West, & Rayfield, 1994; Rusch & Hughes, 1989).

It has been argued that people with mental retardation have a right to equal access to employment opportunities (Bernstein, 1976; Farkas, 1989; Fisher, 1992; Friedman, 1976; Satcher, 1992). A right for an individual or a group establishes an obligation on others to either provide something or refrain from doing something (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). If persons with mental retardation have a right to equal access to employment opportunities, some individuals or groups in society have a corresponding obligation to provide them equal access to employment opportunities. To date, however, the issues of who has what obligation and why have not been fully addressed in the rehabilitation literature.

The main purpose of this article is to argue that society in general, government agencies, private employers, and rehabilitation professionals in particular, have an obligation to provide equal access to employment opportunities for persons with mental retardation. Equal access to employment opportunities in this context can be defined as: an otherwise qualified person with mental retardation should be free from employment discrimination based on his or her mental impairment and should have equal access to employment opportunities with or without reasonable accommodations. Society's obligation to provide equal access to employment opportunities for persons with mental retardation has its legal foundation in rehabilitation laws (e.g., the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act) and its moral foundation in the ethical principles of beneficence, justice, and respect for autonomy. The position that society should share a responsibility for resolving the unemployment problem among persons with mental retardation also finds support in the current conceptualization of mental retardation reflected in the new manual (1992) of American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR).

Legal Foundation of the Obligation

The right to employment is not listed as a fundamental right in the United States Constitution. However, The Fourteenth Amendment's "guarantee of equal protection" has been viewed as a constitutional basis for citizens to be free from employment discrimination (Gilhool & Cook, 1988) and to have equal access to opportunity for employment (Burgdorf, 1980). Based on this amendment, most courts have held that public employment opportunities fall within the scope of the equal protection clause (Burgdorf, 1980). It has also been pointed out that the equal protection principle establishes a constitutional basis for sections of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Maffeo, 1990). Thus, citizens do have a right to equal access to opportunities for employment and this right should be extended to citizens with disabilities. However, under the Fourteenth Amendment, it is not clear who has the obligation to honor this inferred right.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 represented a major step toward integrating persons with disabilities into employment settings. It granted a legal right to people with disabilities to be free from employment discrimination and requires certain employers to take affirmative action to employ qualified individuals with disabilities.

In order to promote employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, Section 501 of the Act requires federal government agencies to establish an affirmative action plan for hiring, placement and advancement of people with disabilities in federal agencies (PL 93- 112). Government agencies are expected to be a role model by creating equal employment opportunities for qualified individuals with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities in programs receiving federal financial assistance (PL 93-112). These programs should also work actively to provide equal access to employment for persons with disabilities. Thus, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 represented a major break from the traditional assumption that persons with disabilities were unemployable. It established a prohibition on disability-based discrimination.

Since persons with mental retardation, mental illness, and physical disabilities were targeted by the act (Maffeo, 1990), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has important implications for persons with mental retardation. This group of people is now seen as a legitimate minority group entitled to the protection of basic civil rights (Mayerson, 1988). Certain employers, including government agencies, have a legal obligation to provide persons with mental retardation with equal access to employment. However, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has its limitation in that it could not prevent most private employers from discriminating against persons with disabilities including those with mental retardation (Morin, 1990).

That limitation in the coverage against employment discrimination was greatly rectified by the Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits all employers in the private sector with 15 or more employees from discriminating against people with disabilities. Examples of discrimination include, but are not limited to, limiting, segregating, or classifying a job applicant in a way that negatively affects the applicant's opportunities based upon his or her disability; utilizing criteria of administration that are discriminative on the basis of disability; and using tests or other selection criteria, irrelevant to the job position, that tend to exclude individuals with disabilities (42 USC 12112). Furthermore, Title I directs employers to make reasonable accommodations to assist people with disabilities in meeting job requirements. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1992) has further indicated that there are three categories of reasonable accommodation. The first category requires modifications to the job application process so that a qualified applicant with a disability will be able to apply for the position. The second category requires modifications to the work environment so that a person with a disability can perform the essential functions of the position. The third category requires modifications or adjustments that will enable employees with disabilities to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by other employees without disabilities (The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission & The U.S. Department of Justice, 1992).

The ADA defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities" (42 USC 12102). Like the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA also covers broad mental disorders including mental retardation. Thus, provisions of the Title I create a legal obligation for employers to provide equal access to employment for persons with mental retardation. Under the ADA, discrimination in employment against persons with mental retardation is considered illegal.

Legal foundations are necessary but not sufficient for the realization of the obligation of society to persons with mental retardation. Legislation that lacks an underlying moral foundation can fail to achieve its desired effectiveness. In the short run, the emphasis of the legal aspect of the obligation may lead to desired results. In the long run, however, equal access to employment for persons with mental retardation depends on society's moral consensus as to what its obligation really is and why (Kass, 1988).

Ethical Principles and the Obligation of Society

As discussed earlier, a moral foundation is needed in order for society to be motivated to fulfill its obligation. To this end, it is important to develop and articulate ethical arguments for the obligation of society to meet the employment need of persons with mental retardation. Legal discussions clarify the questions of who has what obligation. Ethical discussions address the issue of why society has this obligation.

In American society, the ethical principles of beneficence, justice, and respect for autonomy are central to the moral system. Many moral obligations are both derived from and justified by one, or a combination, of these principles. It can be argued that if society is to be beneficent, just, and respectful of autonomy of all its members, it has a moral obligation to provide equal access to employment for all people, including those with mental retardation.

The Principle of Beneficence

This principle asserts that we ought to help others further their important and legitimate interests (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). There are two specific requirements under the general principle of beneficence (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). The first requires promoting the interests and providing benefits for others. The second requires a balancing of benefits and harms.

In terms of the first requirement, earning a wage is an important interest for most people in a modern society. If a society, by providing equal employment opportunities, helps people with mental retardation increase their wages, then the society is fulfilling the principle of beneficence. Nobel and Conley (1987) revealed that workers with mental retardation earned three to four times higher wages in community-based employment than in work activity centers. This finding was supported by later studies (Moon, Inge, Wehman, Brooke, & Barcus, 1990; Rusch et al., 1991). Employment settings also provide opportunities for the social integration of people with and without mental retardation (Moon et al., 1990). The benefits of regular interaction of persons with mental retardation with persons without mental retardation in vocational settings has become increasingly apparent. For persons with mental retardation, integration with others in regular workplaces helps to create a sense of community, to develop friendships, and to share with others interests and activities (Rusch et al., 1991). In this sense, providing equal access to employment opportunities for people with mental retardation can be considered a moral obligation of society based on the ethical principle of beneficence.

In reality, policies and actions may have conflicting consequences. According to the second requirement of the principle of beneficence, we might justify a moral obligation by showing that the positive consequences associated with the obligation exceed or outweigh any associated negative consequences. Employment offers opportunities for persons with disabilities to become at least partially self-supporting. As a result, their dependence on public programs is reduced (Bellamy, Rhodes, Mank, & Albin, 1988). However, programs directed at promoting the employment of persons with mental retardation such as supported employment involves costs. While costs can easily be seen as a negative consequence, many studies have found that those programs are much less costly than some other alternatives such as adult day care (e.g., Conley & Nobel, 1990; Rusch, Conley, & McCaughrin, 1993). Thus, it may be concluded that, all things considered, employment of people with mental retardation is beneficial to both individuals with mental retardation and society as a whole.

The Principle of Justice

Another prominent ethical principle in American society is justice. According to the fair opportunity rule of justice, no persons should be granted social benefits on the basis of undeserved advantaging properties because they are not responsible for having these characteristics, and no persons should be denied social benefits on the basis of undeserved disadvantaging characteristics because they also are not responsible for these properties (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). The implication of this rule for employment of people with mental retardation is important. Since individuals with mental retardation can not be held responsible for their mental impairment in the etiologic or causal sense (AAMR, 1992; McLaren & Bryson, 1987), it is unjust to deprive them of equal access to employment opportunities because of their mental impairment. Accordingly, a just society has a moral obligation to provide equal access to employment for people with mental retardation.

The fair opportunity rule also requires that an unequal distribution of resources should be allowed if this distribution benefits the least advantaged people (Rawls, 1971). It has been demonstrated that individuals with mental retardation, including persons with severe mental retardation, can acquire job skills (Rusch & Hughes, 1989). Some of them may need additional instructions and ongoing supports to enhance their competencies. These additional supports are not provided equally to all employees. According to the fair opportunity rule, however, an unequal distribution in favor of persons with mental retardation should be allowed in a just society because those individuals in a disadvantaged position can benefit greatly from it.

The Principle of Autonomy

The principle of autonomy recognizes and honors the freedom of individuals to control their own lives and make their own choices (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). The obligation of society to provide equal employment opportunities for persons with mental retardation is also in accordance with this ethical principle. Employment is an empowerment process through which persons with mental retardation and their families can have greater control of their own lives. Employment can provide the resource to help achieve self-sufficiency (Rusch et al., 1991). For example, the results of Wehmeyer's (1994) survey of persons with cognitive and developmental disabilities indicated that surveyed individuals employed in community-based work settings perceived themselves as having more control of their life styles than individuals unemployed or employed in sheltered settings.

Employment has also been increasing the choices of persons with mental retardation. Discussing the impact of employment on persons with mental retardation, McDonnell, Wilcox, and Bardman pointed out: "Work allows people to make choices about where they live, whom they see, what they do in their free time, and so on. When people do not work, such decisions usually are made by family members or service providers" (McDonnell, Wilcox, & Hardman, 1991, p. 400). For many persons with mental retardation, work means creating a lifestyle that differs totally from their previously powerless daily activity pattern.

From Functional Limitation Model to Ecological Model: A Paradigm Shift

According to Thomas Kuhn's classic definition, paradigms are professionals' shared world views or shared ways of viewing certain realities (Kuhn, 1962). Certain paradigms have significant implications for practical strategies. This section will argue that the new paradigm of mental retardation as reflected in the current AAMR manual (AAMR, 1992) is consistent with Section-504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title I of the ADA. The new AAMR paradigm reinforces the position that society should share responsibilities for promoting employment opportunities for persons with mental retardation.

The traditional paradigm of mental retardation emphasizes intellectual and behavioral deficits of this population. The 1973 manual of the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD), for example, referred to mental retardation as "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior, and manifested during the developmental period" (Grossman, 1973, p.5). This paradigm focused its attention exclusively on intellectual and functional limitations of individuals with mental retardation. Therefore, it is compatible with the traditional functional limitation model of disability. This paradigm, as well as the underlying functional limitation model, is problematic in that it overlooks the fact that many of the functional limitations can be attributed to social environmental conditions (Hahn, 1988). With regard to the employment issue, this approach has been impeding people from considering society's obligation to persons with mental retardation.

In recent years, efforts have been made to go beyond the narrow traditional paradigm of mental retardation (Schalock, Stark, Snell, Coulter, Polloway, Luckasson, Reiss, & Spitalnik, 1994; Smith, 1994). The 1992 manual of the American Association on Mental Retardation "represents a paradigm shift, from a view of mental retardation as an absolute trait expressed solely by an individual to an expression of the interaction between the person with limited intellectual functioning and the environment" (AAMR, 1992, p. x). According to the new AAMR manual, three key elements in understanding mental retardation are capabilities, environments, and functioning. Capabilities or competencies refer to those attributes that enable an individual to function in society. Environments are the settings in which the person lives, learns, works, and interacts. Functioning can be defined as the degree of need for supports. There are four intensities or levels of supports: intermittent, limited, extensive, and pervasive supports. Thus, mild, moderate, severe, and profound levels of mental retardation in the old classification system are replaced with the four intensities of needed supports in the new classification system. Finally, an assumption underlying all these analyses is that "the existence of limitations in adaptive skills occurs within the context of community environments" (AAMR, 1992, p. 6).

This paradigm represents a new philosophical view in that it is an ecological approach rather than a functional limitation approach. The three elements described above are interrelated. For example, "[f]unction can be influenced as much by the nature of the person's environment as it is by the person's capabilities" (AAMR, 1992, p. 13). Thus mental retardation is a disability mainly as a result of the interaction between the characteristics of the individual and the characteristics of the social environment.

The unique contribution of the ecological approach is its recognition of the importance of the social environment in accounting for disability and in making intervention decisions. A well functioning individual, according to the new paradigm, may conceivably become retarded when the environmental conditions change. Some persons with low IQ scores may experience no major functional difficulties at home. When they go to work, however, unfavorable or discriminative environments may create functional limitations and other mental disorders.

By recognizing and confirming that the locus of mental retardation is in the community as well as in individuals, the new paradigm implies that society should share responsibilities for, or have an obligation of, solving the unemployment problem among people with mental retardation. For example, despite the existence of legal mandates (e.g., the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA), the availability of various services (e.g., assistive technology, personal care attendants, work incentive programs, and various training programs), and the increasing evidence that persons with mental retardation are capable of competitive or supported employment (e.g., Millington, Szymanski, & Hanley-Maxwell, 1994; Rusch & Hughes, 1989), the employment opportunities for persons with mental retardation have been far from sufficient. This is evidenced by the fact that fewer than one in every seven adults served in state-funded daytime programs holds an inclusive job (Smith, 1994). The employment rate of persons with severe mental retardation is even lower (Rusch et al., 1991). Many authors have explored environmental factors such as attitudinal barriers (Fischer, 1992; Millington, Szymanski, & Hanley-Maxwell, 1994), structural barriers (Ashbaugh, Bradley, & Blaney, 1994; Olney & Salomone, 1992), and barriers created by public policy confounds (Mank, 1994) that seem to impede persons with mental retardation from getting employment.

Of these barriers, the unfavorable attitudes of some employers regarding employment of persons with mental retardation is probably the most debilitating. Employers with these attitudes tend to have low job performance expectations for persons with mental retardation, even in jobs they have traditionally done well. For example, Schloss and Soda in their study (1989) found that employers' expectations for job success of persons with mental retardation were negatively influenced simply by the presence of the label "mental retardation." This was the case regardless of the demonstrated capability of a person with mental retardation to perform the job, and regardless of the level of the job requirements. Their findings were supported by Millington, Szymanski, and Hanley-Maxwell (1994) who conducted a study to determine the effect of the label of mental retardation on employer selection of employees. Their results indicated that "the label of mental retardation negatively affects employer's ratings of fundamental and advanced skills in employment selection" (Millington, Szymanski, & Hanley-Maxwell, 1994, p. 27). The authors concluded that based upon this lowered expectations, employers may limit the access that persons with mental retardation have to employment opportunities. The results of these studies seem to support a more general contention that the public's perception of persons with disabilities as incapable of full participation in society is the foremost barrier to their equal opportunity, including equal employment opportunity (Hahn, 1985; Kilbury, Benshoff, & Rubin, 1992).

Admittedly, it is necessary for individuals with mental retardation to obtain training and make efforts to acquire employability. It is also necessary for rehabilitation professionals to deliver vocational and other services to persons with mental retardation. However, it would be naive to believe that individual efforts and assistive services are sufficient to greatly increase employment opportunities for persons with mental retardation. Improving societal conditions and overcoming attitudinal barriers are equally important, if not more important, in increasing employment opportunities for persons with mental retardation.

The Role of Rehabilitation Professionals

Improving environmental conditions and overcoming some employers' unfavorable attitudes toward employment of persons with mental retardation require major efforts and a broad involvement of many parties of society. Rehabilitation professionals have a responsibility to attempt to overcome employers' attitudinal barriers toward employment of persons with mental retardation. This section will focus on the roles that rehabilitation professionals can play in that regard.

First, rehabilitation professionals should advocate with employers, as well as with members of the general public, for the moral and legal rights of persons with mental retardation to equal access to employment. They should, in particular, clarify to employers their obligations under the ADA. Rehabilitation professionals can not assume that employers are familiar with the antidiscrimination provisions of the ADA. A study conducted by Boone and Wolfe (1995) found that almost half of the employers they surveyed had no exposure at all to the ADA. Rehabilitation professionals should increase their efforts in advocacy and dissemination of the ADA in the employment community. Bahn (1987) suggested that the passage and enforcement of antidiscrimination legislation could help alter negative societal attitudes toward people with disabilities. Hopefully, as more and more employers become knowledgeable of the antidiscrimination mandates created by the ADA, their attitudes toward employment of persons with mental retardation will eventually change in a positive direction.

Rehabilitation professionals should use their knowledge and position to educate the general public to change any unfavorable societal attitudes regarding the employment of persons with mental retardation. Rehabilitation professionals can utilize empirical data to show that employment of persons with mental retardation is productive and beneficial to society as a whole (Black & Meyer, 1992; Fowler & Wadsworth, 1991). In particular, rehabilitation professionals should provide factual evidence to employers that shows how they could work together with persons with mental retardation in a mutually beneficial way. For example, Shafer, Hill, Seyfarth, and Wehman (1987) surveyed three groups of employers (employers of workers with mental retardation who received supported employment services, job placement services only, or no services at all). The results indicated that these employers were generally satisfied with the performance of workers with mental retardation, and employers of job-coached individuals were even more satisfied with the performance of their employees. Their ratings portrayed a perception of workers with mental retardation as dependable, trustworthy, and loyal employees. Cooper (1991) reported similar findings.

One source of employers' unfavorable attitudes is a person-environment mismatch, which refers to a situation in which the demands of environments are greater than the capabilities of individuals with mental retardation. Harrison and Tomes (1990) surveyed recruitment officers to identify factors that affected employers' considerations of hiring persons with mental disabilities. They found that incompatibility between a person's skills and the skill level required by the employers was an important factor in employers' hiring consideration. To overcome the problem of mismatch and improve employers' attitudes toward employment of persons with mental retardation, rehabilitation professionals should continue to work with persons with mental retardation and their employers. Rehabilitation professionals, for example, can help their clients "learn how to describe their limitations in functional terms and to identify accommodations to lessen the impact of these functional limitations" (Satcher, 1992, p. 17). Rehabilitation professionals can also serve as a resource for employers who might need information about accommodations (e.g., simplified job routines, flexible working schedules). Finally, rehabilitation professionals can help individuals with mental retardation and employers in determining the best person-job match. Powell, Pancsofar, Steere, Butterworth, Itzkowitz, and Rainforth (1991) suggested that a person-environment compatibility analysis could be used for this purpose. It should include such steps as initial screening (completing a job analysis form), proactive planning (planning supports for anticipated challenges to employment), job retention (considering reasons for remaining at jobs), employment observation (observing currently employed workers), participant observation (observing and analyzing the prospective worker), developing matches (deciding the type of match that occurs), and decision making (weighing the pros and cons of each potential match and deciding where to proceed from there). Beare, Severson, Lynch, and Schneider (1992) described an on-site assessment strategy for the purpose of the person-environment match. The on-site assessment consisted of a person working one week at each of four job sites, accompanied by a staff member. The staff member kept the task analysis record. At the end of the four-week assessment, the data were analyzed and a report presented to the worker and an interdisciplinary team. Based upon this information, a decision on the final placement was made. The positive outcome (69% of persons with disabilities having full-time jobs in the community and 11 % having part-time jobs) reflected employers' improved attitudes toward employment of persons with disabilities, at least due to in part, by avoiding person-environment mismatches.

Conclusions

Persons with mental retardation have been found to have a high unemployment rate. The traditional approach to resolving this problem has been to try to change individuals with mental retardation by increasing their skills via training. That approach alone has proved insufficient for increasing employment opportunities in a major way for persons with mental retardation. It is now becoming increasingly evident that efforts also need to be made to change negative environmental conditions in order to achieve the desired goal (Chadsey-Rusch & O'Reilly, 1992; Lunt & Thornton, 1994).

Historically, persons with mental retardation have experienced discrimination in employment based upon their mental disability. As a result, their access to community-based employment has been limited (Melton & Garrison, 1987). Fortunately, rehabilitation legislation now exists that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. Under these rehabilitation laws (e.g., the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA), employers, including government agencies and private sector employers, have a legal obligation to provide equal access to employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, including those with mental retardation. However, as Percy (1993) pointed out, implementing these laws has never been an easy task. Therefore, it can not be assumed that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA have sufficiently eliminated barriers to equal access to employment for persons with mental retardation.

Ultimately, a consensus to, and an awareness of, society's moral obligation to persons with mental retardation is necessary if equal access to employment for this population is to be achieved. In a morally responsible as well as economically affluent society, persons with mental retardation would have equal access to employment opportunities. However, a long-term social evolution may be needed before the moral consensus can be established and the noble goal regarding employment of persons with mental retardation is achieved. Rehabilitation professionals need to make every effort to lead the way toward the realm where persons with mental retardation can truly have equal access to employment opportunities.

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Weihe Huang, Rehabilitation Institute, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Carbondale, Illinois 62901.
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Author:Rubin, Stanford E.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:5869
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