HR failing workers with intellectual disabilities, study finds

HR failing workers with intellectual disabilities, study finds

Experts are calling for a major rethink of how businesses manage workers with intellectual disabilities, with new research showing they're often left behind in the workplace.

Efforts to include people with intellectual disabilities are often tokenistic and trail far behind progress on workplace inclusion in terms of race and gender, said Professor Timothy Bartram from RMIT University’s School of Management.

“Current human resources management approaches for workers with intellectual disabilities are not working,” he said.

“A lack of appreciation of workers with intellectual disabilities, along with outdated HR approaches are leading to poor treatment, isolation and exclusion for many of these workers.”

While a growing number of organisations employ workers with an intellectual disability, Bartram said this was often being done to fulfil corporate social responsibility obligations, with little thought about how to promote the well-being of these workers or get the most out of them.

Now new research published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources outlines evidence-based approached that help businesses include these workers to support mutual benefit. 

The study focused on what worked and didn’t in managing workers with intellectual disabilities - including Down syndrome or delayed development - at seven Australian organisations: three hotels, a courier company, a film company, a management consultancy firm and a recruitment company. 

“Overall, the study highlighted the importance of an organisational culture in which the diverse nature of individuals is recognised, allowing those individuals to share their unique perspectives,” Bartram said. 

“Those with intellectual disabilities can often display unique talents and perspectives, such as mathematical, organisation and technical abilities to contribute to organisational performance. But without an inclusive workplace culture, managers struggle to incorporate these people and their unique perspectives into job roles and so are unable to utilise their insights.”

Make the job fit the person

This study recommends more flexible and collaborative approach to designing roles according to what workers can achieve, even if it means reducing their work hours and workloads.

Workplace accommodations, such as modified or quieter work spaces and flexibility for medical appointments, can also help workers with intellectual disabilities perform to their potential, Bartram said.

“These adjustments to work hours or workloads are just one part of an entire HR management mindset shift focused on finding a way to include people rather than looking for excuses why they won’t fit existing structures.”

In relation to job analysis and design, the researchers propose an approach that would incorporate working with each person to craft a flexible job description to the individual instead of the out-of-dated practice of fitting the person to the job and the job description. 

The HR manager, working with the supervisor and worker, would design jobs to match their skills, abilities and aspirations to ensure effective utilization. 

Fostering acceptance at all levels

Researchers found top-level management were often committed to the inclusion of workers with intellectual disability at a strategy level, however, the cascade of information and support systems can fade at middle and supervisory level management. 

“It is important that this disconnect is resolved to ensure disability inclusion strategies are successful.”

Another recommendation was for a more considered approach to involving all team members in team work activities, formal and informal mentoring through a ‘buddy system’ and group social activities. 

Organisations that promote ‘teamwork’ in a flexible, non-bureaucratic structure were found to enable better social inclusion of workers with intellectual disability.

“As a strategy, social activities can enable managers to include these workers into a workplace setting by creating a mutual sphere of acceptance through a social activity, including outside work sports teams or drinks to foster team environments,” Bartram said.

“If organisations espouse the acceptance of diversity, they need to show their commitment and capitalise on diversity by continually pursuing ways to improve the work experience and inclusion of workers with intellectual disabilities. Diversity should reach a point where the very concept is not discussed because everyone is accepted equally in an organization.”

The study includes a simple framework to guide HR management practices for improved inclusion of workers with intellectual disabilities.

“By using this framework, we have demonstrated valuable findings that highlight that workers with intellectual disabilities have the capacity to learn, grow and make a contribution,” Bartram said. 

The study, ‘Re-calibrating HRM to improve the work experiences for workers with intellectual disability’ was co-authored by Bartram, Dr Jillian Cavanagh and Dr Patricia Cabrera-Pariona from RMIT University and Dr Hannah Meacham from Monash University.

It was published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources with DOI: 10.1111/1744-7941.12230.


Story: Michael Quin


  • Research
  • Business
  • Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.