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April 12, 2023

Ask the expert: What can the workplace do to break the stigma behind developmental disabilities?

Connie Sung

Connie Sung, associate professor of rehabilitation counseling at Michigan State University and co-director of the MSU Center for Services, Training and Research for Independence and Desired Employment, or STRIDE, speaks about Autism Acceptance Month and the importance of community acceptance.


Why is general awareness about individuals with developmental disabilities important?


Many disabilities are invisible, meaning that generally others cannot see them but they still affect the person’s everyday life. Even for people with visibly recognizable disabilities, the community has many misconceptions that affect individuals’ ability to exist independently in the community.


Most people do not have enough experience with people with developmental disabilities to truly understand this population. Bringing greater awareness to developmental disabilities allows us to address these misconceptions, promote community acceptance and provide resources the community can use to remove barriers.


How many people in the United States and Michigan have a developmental disability?


About 17% of the U.S. population have developmental disabilities and about one in 36 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder every year. Approximately 180,000 people in Michigan have developmental disabilities. 


What do you want the general public to know when interacting with individuals with developmental disabilities in the community? 


People with developmental disabilities are not included or provided equal opportunities to participate in the community. Consider these statistics: About 22% of people with developmental disabilities are employed versus about 65% of the general population, 28% versus 12% live below the poverty line, and only roughly 37% live independently in the community. However, on the job, people with developmental disabilities are on task at almost twice the rate of their peers without disabilities; they stay at jobs longer, they have lower absenteeism and they positively affect a company’s culture.


What’s a common misconception about individuals with autism? 


A lot of people believe individuals with autism may have challenges with social communication, interpersonal relationships or they may have repetitive behavior that may prevent them from engaging in a lot of social interaction. However, we also know people with autism have a lot of strengths.


For example, some individuals with autism have a good memory and work well with routine and rules. If employers focus on the strengths of these employees, that really helps the workforce become more diversified and inclusive.


Why is it important to have specialized training for individuals with developmental disabilities to help them transition to the workforce? 


Some people with developmental disabilities benefit from soft skills training or direct instruction for the hard skills required for the job. Perhaps their disability makes it challenging to learn these skills naturally or simply takes some extra time. Receiving specialized training can help them overcome barriers to employment that others might learn through typical resources. 


Having a developmental disability can mean a person needs instruction provided in a more intentional way than we conventionally provide. However, research and experience show that everyone benefits from the same specialized workforce training.


What do you want employers and other employees to know about hiring, retaining and working with individuals with developmental disabilities?


People with developmental disabilities might not be able to make it through traditional screening methods when they search for employment. This might be because of reading levels, reading access or soft skills required to demonstrate competence. Some people with disabilities require longer to learn the job or need accommodations. But once they learn the job or have the required accommodations, they can have greater attention to detail and are less likely to leave the job.




By: Kaylie Crowe

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