Special Olympics CEO Janet Froetscher delivering a speech in Aspen, Colorado. Photo by Leigh Vogel

A Matter Of Worth

The following was written by Janet Froetscher, the current CEO of Special Olympics, Inc., and originally published on the Huffington Post.

Earlier this week the Associated Press highlighted a recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts on adults with intellectual disabilities in the labor force.

One of the most dramatic findings of this research is that only 44 percent of adults with intellectual disability aged 21–64 are in the labor force. This compares to 83 percent of working-age adults without disabilities who are in the labor force.

The unemployment rate for adults with intellectual disability (21 percent) is more than twice as high as those without disabilities (9 percent).

Yet the data from the University of Massachusetts also finds that 62 percent of adults with intellectual disabilities employed in a competitive setting have been in their job for more than three years. For job sectors seeking stability, low turnover and high employee retention rates — people with intellectual disabilities prove to be ideal job candidates.

So why aren’t more employers looking toward this population to fill jobs?

Lynnae Ruttledge, a member of the National Council on Disability, tells the Associated Press, “A lot of the problem has to do with low expectations. Schoolteachers don’t have high expectations, and parents tend to be very protective of their children.”

This sentiment was on display in a recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart when radio host and investment advisor Peter Schiff was asked, “Paint me a picture of someone whose work might be worth $2 an hour?” The question, posed by Samantha Bee was in response to Schiff’s position on labor and minimum wage after stating that in a true capitalist society there would be no minimum wage, people would earn a wage equivalent to their value.

His answer to Ms. Bee’s question?

“Maybe somebody who is, what’s the politically correct word? Mentally retarded.”

Watching the interview, it is clear Mr. Schiff is not trying to use derogatory language. In subsequent interviews and on his own website, Mr. Schiff clarifies that $2 per hour is his perception of the value provided by a worker with intellectual disabilities.

When we look at the University of Massachusetts data it seems Mr. Schiff’s perception — that 200 million people with intellectual disabilities are not valuable to the workforce — may be a common one.

Those of us in Special Olympics who have experienced first hand the enormous contributions of our athletes know this is a gross misperception. We have seen, through sports, people with intellectual disabilities learn valuable skills, gain confidence and demonstrate abilities that make them incredibly valuable assets in a variety of work environments.

We know from our own Special Olympics partners like Mattel and Safeway that employees with intellectual disabilities not only bring valuable skills to the workplace, but they also have invaluable positive effects on the morale of their fellow employees, often creating an improved work environment.

AJ Fry is one of more than 50 employees with special needs that Mattel employs through a program that has been in place more than 20 years at the company’s global headquarters in El Segundo, California. AJ, a Special Olympics Global Messenger, works in their recycling department and the mailroom and brings value to the workplace every day. Alan Fry, AJ’s dad, has worked at Mattel for almost 30 years and learned about Special Olympics through Mattel’s volunteer program. He has since become a very active volunteer and coach for Special Olympics. Alan and AJ truly represent the full circle of incredible value that comes from these special partnerships.

Patrick Hulsbus is a Safeway employee and Special Olympics athlete who is described by his co-workers as “the ultimate Safeway Ambassador” and an “amazing example of what tenacity and dedication can accomplish.”

Another great example is Special Olympics athlete Tim Harris who owns and operates his own restaurant in New Mexico. “For over 10 years, I had a dream to own my own business,” Tim told CNN in 2013. “Well I’m here to tell you that dreams do come true.”

AJ, Patrick and Tim are but a few examples of the millions of people with intellectual disabilities that are productive and respected members of our societies. Yet, their value to society in many cases continues to be grossly undervalued and unappreciated. Many industries like food service, hospitality and retail struggle with high employee turnover. People with intellectual disabilities are great employees. Hire them. We need them in our workforce and they want to contribute to their communities.

Empirical and anecdotal data tells us many do work and contribute enormously, but the data tells us many more are denied this opportunity. Special Olympics’ mission may not be to place people in jobs or force employers to employ people with intellectual disabilities. But our mission is to help people with intellectual disabilities share their gifts and skills with their communities. Each of you can help them do that and in doing so, can strengthen our communities.

Each one of us has a role to play. If you are an employer — hire people with intellectual disabilities in meaningful roles that allow them to contribute and collaborate with co-workers. Your organization will benefit as a result.

As an employee, ask your employer to hire someone with an intellectual disability. You will be amazed at what you learn from them.

It’s up to each of us to change the perceived value of people with intellectual disabilities. We know our best workplace is a fair and just workplace — it’s why we no longer tolerate the discrimination of others. So why do we allow this to continue? It’s time to stop. It starts with you.

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