Sun | Aug 19, 2018

Theodore Williams: Untapped potential: intellectual disabled youths in the workplace

Published:Saturday | September 19, 2015 | 12:00 AMTheodore Williams
FILE Nathan Anderson (right), who is autistic, perfects his skill on the surf board, with advice from a Jamaica Surfing Association instructor. Children with autism and other intellectual disabilities often face discrimination in the job market when they grow up, but they have scope for efficiency and success if treated fairly and given the necessary support.

Work is a critical pillar in defining our adulthood. Let's be frank. Regardless of the organisation, we are often quick to tell family and friends what we do for a living. Work is extremely important in making the transition from a adolescence to adulthood. Youths with intellectual disability (ID) have to contend with self-limiting beliefs, low family expectations, and society's stereotypes and discrimination. The law of expectation therefore, amplifies the perception that youths with ID are capable of achieving little or nothing.

The current economic situation has reduced the number of possible opportunities to include youths with ID in the workforce. In April, Jamaica's unemployment rate stood at approximately 13.2% (Statistical Institute of Jamaica). However, the youth unemployment rate was almost three times that of the national average (38%).

Data on the unemployment rate of youths with ID were almost non-existent, but my guess is that it may double that of the 38% experienced by youth generally. The harsh reality is that young adults with ID will continue to experience less post-school success than youths without disability, placing them at the bottom of the labour pool.

Persons with intellectual disability experience significant limitations

in both intellectual functioning; intelligence as well as in adaptive behaviour, which covers everyday social and practical skills. The disability originates before the age of 18 years. (American Association on Intellectual and other Developmental Disabilities 2002). Alongside these limitations exist strengths, and with support, the quality of the person's life can improve. The time has come for us as a country to recognise and celebrate the abilities of persons with ID through a system of supports to facilitate their inclusion in the workforce.

Jamaica was one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. The Government of Jamaica, as a signatory to the Convention, highlighted its commitment to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms by all people with disabilities. Article 27 of the UN Convention emphasises the right of each person with a disability to "gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities" (United Nations 2006, art. 27(1)). I dare say, not enough programmes have been implemented to facilitate this right!


Over the years, so much work has been done by community organisations and non-profit organisations serving persons with intellectual disability. These organisations experience resource constraints, thus inhibiting the scope of their services to an increasing population. Service to this group of persons is greatly enhanced through collaboration with government and community organisations in partnership.

One such success story was the partnership with the Jamaican Association on Intellectual Disabilities (JAID) Employment Support Programme, supported through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, with funding from the Japan Government under the Social and Economic Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities Project. The JAID programme enrolled 70 young adults in seven parishes in a job skills training programme with job coaching support. At the culmination of the programme, participants gained skills certification from HEART Trust/NTA. Further to that, 30 participants received employment, and for many, this was their first real job!

Prominent business owner, Omar Azan, CEO of Boss Furniture, was one of the employers who expressed that the experience was a rich and enlightening one. He noted that the participants placed in his company "wanted to work, were energetic and were looking at making themselves better". The participant's direct supervisor, Eric Jarrett, explained that he had doubts about their integration in the workplace and indicated that his perception of the young men changed as a result of their performance.

The experiences of this project have confirmed that with appropriate opportunities and related support, youths with ID equipped with appropriate work competencies can work and add value in any organisation. Hiring youths with ID is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good for business.

I encourage employers to critically examine the job tasks in their organisations and identify routine or repetitious activities that can be best executed by someone with intellectual disability, thus utilising their staff for more core business-driven activities. Mr Azan facilitated work inclusion opportunities for two young men, and with some thought, other employers can, too.

- Theodore Williams is a training development specialist and youth development practitioner. Email feedback to and