Skip to content Skip to main navigation
Return to homepage

2. Factors positively influencing the employment of people with intellectual disability

Skip to sub navigation

The problem

People with intellectual disability experience low rates of employment in Australia and around the world and, when they are employed, are less likely to work in inclusive settings than their peers with disability.

In 2012, in Australia, only 39% of people with intellectual disability were in the labour force (including a mix of seeking employment, being employed in ADEs and open employment). This compares to 55% of people with other disabilities and 83% of people without disability in the labour force. Additionally, only 12% of people with an intellectual disability were employed full-time compared to 32% of people with other disabilities (32%) (ABS, 2012; Thoresen et al. 2018). More recent data does not distinguish between intellectual and other disabilities but overall there has been little change between 2003 and 2015, though the rate of employment of people with severe or profound activity limitation has decreased from 27% in 2003 to 22% in 2015 (AIHW, 2017).  Data recently released by the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA, 2019) shows that 18% of NDIS participants with an intellectual disability aged 15-24 had a paid job, the same level as all NDIS participants (when taken as a group). Interestingly, NDIS participants with an intellectual disability aged 25 and above were more likely to be employed than their peers in the NDIS: 31% of people with intellectual disability were in a paid job compared to 23% of other NDIA participants, though paid work includes ADE as well as open employment settings.

People with intellectual disability have lower uptake of employment as they leave school and are more likely to leave the labour market in their 30’s.

On finishing school, people with intellectual disability are far less likely to move into post-secondary education or the labour force than their age peers without disability. In 2003, the labour force participation rate of those aged in their 20s was around 60% and between 34% and 46% for those aged in their 30s, well below the 85% participation by young adults without disability. Transitions out of the labour force were common at ages 30–34 years and onwards, possibly highlighting difficulties for people with intellectual disability in maintaining employment and a need for those who do leave a job to find alternative means of social participation (AIHW, 2008, pp.2-3).

Why do people with intellectual disability have lower rates of employment than the general population?

Perceived ‘unemployability’ has been synonymous with the identity of adults with intellectual disability for the last century (Thoresen et al. 2018, p.161).

There is no single factor that explains why people with disability have lower rates of economic participation than others. Research suggests that it is a result of the broader environment of negative attitudes, lack of supports for employers, the policy environment, as well as the aspirations and skills of people with disability, limited expectations of their parents and supporters, and a lack of supports available to assist them customize and undertake a job.

The solution

Overall, a wide range of international and Australian research has identified that people with intellectual disability can be employed in open employment, can complete apprenticeships, traineeships, vocational education and training courses, participate in some University programs, and be self-employed.

Provided adequate supports and training are in place, people with I/DD [intellectual and developmental disability] have significant long-term potential for securing competitive employment and living independently (Southward and Kyzar, 2017, p. 26).

The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO) reinforces the importance of the provision of supports to people who need them. AFDO suggests:

Supported employment recognises the capacity of people with disability to work with the right ongoing supports in a variety of settings that include open (mainstream) employment, mobile crews, social enterprises and small businesses (AFDO, 2018, p.4).

In countries with different employment policies and different employment related supports, people with intellectual disability experience vastly better employment outcomes than they do in Australia. While noting that it is difficult to compare data, Wakeford and Waugh (2014) point out that national statistics in the US identify that 76% of young people with intellectual disability experienced open employment across an eight year period, compared to only 25% of young people with intellectual disability in Australia.

This points to a need to shift expectations about and supports for employment. Evidence that this is occurring, with support, is provided within the Ticket to Work program, encompassing strategies in both mainstream and special schools:

Employment used to be aimed at those ‘top edge’ students particularly for those that can read and write. What we are now doing is moving that down the IQ scale, these kids do have employability skills. So, in our school we are raising the employment aspirations of all students in our school. We discuss careers and all types of employment such as paid full time, part time and casual employment as well as voluntary and supported employment……. It means that those students that used to do training and recreation programs at day services once leaving school can consider paid and volunteer employment also. It’s a real recognition of what they can do and that they are all employable (Principal, special school, Ticket to Work partner) (Wakeford and Waugh, 2014, p. 10).

Factors that positively influence the employment of people with intellectual disability

Across Australian and international research, a range of factors have been identified to support the employment of people with intellectual disability, including those relating to the individual with disability, their supporters (families, friends, service providers), employers, and the broader policy environment. As a US researcher explains:

It is also important to note that due to the diversity of the population, the type of job, and available community and state resources, no one model [of pathways to employment] can possibly serve the workplace support needs of all people with disabilities’ (Wehman et al. 2018, p.132).

Factors that have been identified as positively influencing employment outcomes for people with intellectual disability include:

  • having early experiences to develop a view or vision of one’s self as a worker
  • having work experience, including a ‘typical’ pathway of work experience and paid work as the person grows up through teenage and adult years
  • parental expectations
  • expectations and support of family and friends (and accessing their social capital)
  • effective transition support
  • completing secondary school
  • participating in post-secondary education
  • customized employment
  • individualized placement and support
  • mentoring to support employment
  • self employment through microenterprise
  • interagency collaboration.


ARTD Consultants. (2019). Ticket to Work Post School Outcomes. Report for National Disability Services, Final Report, Sydney, Author,

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2012). 4433.0.55.003 – Intellectual Disability, Australia, 2012 ,

Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO) (2018). AFDO – Position Paper on the Future of Supported Employment, March 2018.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2017). Disability in Australia: changes over time in inclusion and participation in employment,

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2008). Disability in Australia: intellectual disability. from

National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIS) (2019). People with an intellectual disability in the NDIS.

Nicholas, D. B., Mitchell, W., Dudley, C., Clarke, M., & Zulla, R. (2018). An Ecosystem Approach to Employment and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 48(1), 264-275. doi: 10.1007/s10803-017-3351-6

Papay, C. K., & Bambara, L. M. (2014). Best Practices in Transition to Adult Life for Youth With Intellectual Disabilities,Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 37(3), 136-148.

Sheppard, L., Harrington, R., & Howard, K. (2017). Leaving School and Getting a Job. Research to Action Guide, A guide for young people with disability who want to work.,

Southward, J. &  Kyzar, K. (2017). Predictors of Competitive Employment for Students with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities, Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, Vol.52(1), pp.26-37.

Thoresen, S. H., Thomson, A., Jackson, R., & Cocks, E. (2018). Meaningful social and economic inclusion through small business enterprise models of employment for adults with intellectual disability. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 49, 161-172. doi: 10.3233/JVR-180962

Wakeford, M. & Waugh, F. (2014). Transition to employment of Australian young people with disability and the ‘Ticket to Work’ initiative, National Ticket to Work Network,

Wehman, P., Taylor, J., Brooke, V., Avellone, L., Whittenburg, H., Ham, W., . . . Carr, S. (2018). Toward Competitive Employment for Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What Progress Have We Made and Where Do We Need to Go. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43(3), 131-144. doi: 10.1177/1540796918777730, p.132

The authors would like to acknowledge the usefulness of Crosbie, J.: Murfitt, K.; Hayward, S. & Wilson, E. (2019), NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce. Literature review: Employment and economic participation of people with disability, Burwood, Deakin University, as a review of similar literature that provided initial guidance.

A project by Inclusion Australia

Subscribe to the Inclusion Australia newsletter to stay up to date