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Unrealized Potential: Differing Outcomes for Individuals with Mental Retardation and Other Disability Groups

Research to Practice 13


Originally published: 9/1997

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This study was conducted to gain a better understanding of the relationship between job search practices and employment outcomes such as hours worked, wages, relationships at work and supports from supervisors. The study gathered information on job search practices used with individuals with mental retardation, mental illness, sensory impairments and physical impairments. This brief will focus on the practices used with individuals with mental retardation and how their outcomes differ from individuals with other disabilities.


Survey participants included employment staff and individuals with disabilities (consumers) from community rehabilitation providers, Independent Living Centers and state vocational rehabilitation agencies. A multi-level design was implemented to obtain the perspective of both staff and consumers. Staff were nominated by their director and then received a survey. This survey asked for demographic information and a status report on the last consumer they assisted in obtaining employment who had remained on the job for at least sixty days. Surveys were also mailed to consumers directly, requesting that it be completed individually or with the assistance of someone other than the rehabilitation staff person.

A total of 568 staff people and 303 consumers responded to the survey. Two hundred and nineteen staff responses described the job search process for individuals with mental retardation. One hundred and sixteen individuals with mental retardation completed consumer surveys.


The job search process for individuals with mental retardation was different than the process for individuals with other disabilities.

Employment outcomes for individuals with mental retardation were generally in entry level, service occupations.

Hourly Wages for Individuals with Mental Retardation

Wage %
less than 4.25 2
4.25-4.49 35
4.50-4.99 25
5.00-5.49 20
5.50-7.00 14
more than 7.00 4

Employment outcomes reported by staff were significantly different for individuals with mental retardation in comparison to individuals with physical disabilities, sensory impairments and mental illness.

Mean Hourly Wage by Primary Disability

Disability Dollars per hour
Physical disabilities 7.74
Sensory impairments 6.81
Mental Illness 5.64
Mental Retardation 4.87

Mean Hours Worked by Primary Disability

Disability Hours
Physical disabilities 34.2
Sensory impairments 36.5
Mental Illness 27.3
Mental Retardation 26.7

Individuals with mental retardation indicated they were very satisfied on the job and comfortable in their interaction with others.


There are many positive findings in this study, notably, that individuals with mental retardation were satisfied with their jobs and comfortable in interacting with supervisors and co-workers. However, the employment outcomes of hours, wages, and types of jobs indicate that individuals with mental retardation continue to be employed in entry level service industry jobs with low hourly wages and a lower number of hours worked per week. These outcomes are significantly lower than individuals in other disability groups.

A different emphasis in job search practices was used with individuals from other disability categories, and this may have contributed to the differences in outcomes. A networking approach (contacting previous employers, family and friends; identifying an advocate in the target agency; and using the staff person's personal and professional network) was used less frequently with individuals with mental retardation than other disabilities. Regardless of the nature of the individual's disability, when the networking approach was used it resulted in higher wages and hours. To increase the use of this approach with individuals with mental retardation, employment staff need to encourage more active involvement and collaboration in the job search process. To promote this staff can:

This document is supported, in part, by a cooperative agreement, No. 90DN0032, from the Administration on Developmental Disabilities for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research by grant number H133B30067-69. For further information on this study, please contact Sheila Fesko, Institute for Community Inclusion, 100 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, MA 02125 (617) 287-4300; (617) 287-4350 TDD email: sheila.fesko@umb.edu

ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities