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International Practice Forum Special Series Industrial-Organizational Psychology Helps Heal the World (Part 5): Employment, Disability and the Role of Work Psychology

Lynda Zugec, The Workforce Consultants, and Walter Reichman, Org Vitality

This issue continues our efforts to describe how industrial-organizational psychology practitioners and academics are helping to heal the world by applying our discipline to improve the lives of those who are underserved in our world. This article, contributed by Susanne Bruyère and Vicente Martínez-Tur describes some of the advances made in aiding persons with intellectual developmental disabilities to achieve a productive working life and contribute to the success of organizations that employ them. The article points to directions for continued practice and research in our field.



Employment, Disability and the Role of Work Psychology


Susanne M. Bruyère
Cornell University

Prof. Vicente Martínez-Tur
University of Valencia, Spain

People with disabilities are approximately 15% of the world’s population or one billion people (WHO, 2011). People with disabilities are the world’s largest minority and most people will experience disability at some point in their lifetime. Rates of disability are increasing worldwide due to casualties resulting from conflict, the global increase in chronic health conditions, and the population aging. Therefore, it is imperative that I-O professionals think about how they might contribute to addressing these issues, particularly in the area of improving employment outcomes, which remains one of the biggest challenges in equitable participation in society and is critical to the well-being of every individual. Engagement in gainful and meaningful work is the right of every global citizen. Work affords economic independence as well as enhanced health, physical and mental well-being, and a sense of self-worth by providing an opportunity to contribute one’s talents and skills to the economy and civil society more broadly.

Despite this fact, three-quarters of the current global population of working age individuals with disabilities (approaching 800 million) are significantly more likely to be unemployed or underemployed compared to those without disabilities. These disparities are the result of inequitable opportunities for educational preparation and access to job openings, and inaccessible environments and services, such as transportation, housing, schools, workplaces, and public services. The greatest barrier to inclusion for individuals with disabilities, however, is the continuing inaccurate perceptions and resulting pervasive bias about the capability of these individuals and their right to full participation in all facets of civil society. Among those historically most often compromised by these negative stereotypes are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which is the focus of this article. We discuss efforts and perspectives from the U.S. and Spain.

U.S. Efforts to Improve Outcomes for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

In the United States, approximately 36% of working age people with disabilities are employed, compared to 79% of Americans without disabilities (Erickson, von Schrader, & Lee, 2018). This translates to a significantly lower average household income rate and higher poverty rates for people with disabilities in the U.S. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities fare even more poorly, with approximately 15% in paid work in the community (Institute for Community Inclusion, 2012). The preponderance of people with intellectual disabilities are in unpaid facility-based activities or facility-based work that is under minimum wage in pay. Although there is now an effort by the United States government to remediate these inequities with changes to what is acceptable day programming and paid employment for individuals with intellectual disabilities, individuals to date have not received equitable opportunities for training and work experience that prepare them for this kind of transition.

One effort to address these historical disparities for individuals with disabilities in the United States are the Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) funded by the U.S. government. This is a (see This program is designed to provide academic enrichment to students who previously have not been afforded this opportunity, including socialization on college campuses. They afford structured activities that cultivate independent living and self-advocacy skills, and opportunities for integrated work experiences and career skills development that will lead to gainful employment. Higher education institutions funded must move their programs toward self-sufficiency over time, identifying alternative sources of funding from the home institution or related community organizations that provide services and supports to individuals with intellectual disabilities. The model has proven quite effective to date, with 48 projects currently federally funded and 207 programs listed in College Search.

Because of the success of these projects, more modest models without the benefit of the federal seed grants are beginning to flourish throughout the country, and one such effort has blossomed at Cornell University. The Cornell University Public Service Center (PSC) initiated a partnership in 2014 with the local Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Counties Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to initiate an on-campus experience for six to eight young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities from this local school district. The focus of the program has been to promote dynamic career exploration afforded by the diverse work environment of the Cornell campus, skills building, and mentorship by Cornell University students. Students attend specially designed career skill building classes twice a week on the Cornell campus and are mentored by Cornell students as they learn work tasks in various settings such as grounds keeping, animal care in the vet school, and housekeeping and dining services in the on-campus hotel and restaurant, and support services for scientific laboratories.

In the second year of the program, a new facet was added to further students’ opportunities to build self-confidence, self-esteem, problem-solving skills, as well as gain physical strength and have fun while challenging themselves. The Cornell Outdoor Education Program asked if it could join the effort and provide the students with a climbing experience. The program launched in 2015 with the support of the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability and continues today (Bruyère, Aiken, & Biatowas, 2018). PSC and BOCES program organizers report that this facet of the program continues to be the element of highest interest and enthusiasm of the students. They report increased confidence and sense of self-efficacy. An additional unanticipated beneficial outcome of these efforts has been the avid enthusiasm of the Cornell University students who have supported the BOCES students in these efforts across the 3 years to date. The experience in supporting the young students with intellectual disabilities in this experience, has enriched Cornell students’ understanding of the capability of the BOCES students but also instilled an enormous sense of pride in contributing to their accomplishments in learning how to climb the wall. A video portrayal of this experience captures these outcomes and can be viewed at:



An Experience From Spain: Improving Social Inclusion Through Autonomous Teams1

Estimates indicate that 460,000 people in Spain have an intellectual disability. Of them, 60% (N = 277.472) seek and receive support and have official recognition of their disability (IMSERSO, 2016). As in the rest of the European countries (, people in Spain with an intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) experience a lack of inclusion in their local communities due to excessive institutionalization, overprotection by their families, and low employment levels. Different governments in Spain have developed services and laws that try to guarantee support, avoid discrimination, and stimulate the social inclusion of people with disabilities. One particularly noteworthy characteristic in Spain is the very active role of the civil society. The nongovernmental organization (third sector) called “Plena inclusion,” with more than 50 years of history (, represents more than 140,000 people with IDD in Spain. This organization provides support and services through the contributions of 40,000 professionals, 8,000 volunteers, and 900 associations across the country. Working at national and international levels, this organization strives to achieve a better society (fair and supportive) as the adequate breeding ground to achieve its main goal: the full inclusion of people with IDD, which means that every person with IDD would have his/her own life project and be able to participate in the social life like the rest of the citizens. To reach this goal, one relevant action taken by this organization is the transformation of services, focusing the attention on the service user, providing personalized support, and maximizing the opportunities for social inclusion.

In this context, “Plena Inclusión,” the State Research Agency in Spain, and the University of Valencia cooperate in a project where I-O psychology plays a central role. We designed and tested an intervention that focuses on the implementation of projects to enhance the self-determination, social inclusion, and employability of persons with IDD through the creation of autonomous teams composed of professionals, family members, and persons with IDD. These types of teams facilitate cooperation among relevant individuals (professionals, family members, and persons with IDD). Previous research efforts have identified significant gaps between family members and professionals. In general, findings showed that family members are less engaged in promoting an active and independent life for their relatives with IDD than professionals are (e.g., Zhang, Katsiyannis, & Zhang, 2002; Zhang, Wehmeyer, & Chen, 2005). However, effective programs to enhance self-determination and social inclusion require coordinated efforts between professionals and family members (Martínez-Tur, Estreder, Moliner, Gracia, Pătraș, & Zornoza, 2018). Powers et al. (1996) indicated the existence of relevant obstacles in family members, such as uncertainty about the strategies to be used and risks associated with the independent living of their relatives with IDD. Working in autonomous teams is the appropriate context for coordinating the individuals and involving the family member as a relevant stakeholder in order to facilitate the successful implementation of projects that stimulate the social inclusion and employability of persons with IDD. Moreover, the autonomy underlying autonomous teams is at the core of well-consolidated approaches and theories due to its positive effects. According to self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000), autonomy is a means to satisfy basic human needs (autonomy, competence, and connectedness) and increase motivation (Nelson, Della Porta, Bao, Lee, Choi, & Lyubomirsky, 2015). It is evident that the need for autonomy is satisfied in our teams because the autonomous team creates an environment that stimulates a sense of choice and free will. Autonomy also promotes the satisfaction of competence needs because members of autonomous teams are capable of managing their own behaviors. Finally, connectedness is satisfied because the autonomous team facilitates interaction among its members. Therefore, autonomy creates the appropriate environment to motivate participants in implementing projects to improve the social inclusion of persons with IDD.

A total of 59 sheltered workshops for persons with IDD participated in the experience. In these types of centers, the job of the PID is supervised, and the final goal is the incorporation of persons with IDD into the labor market. All the centers were affiliated with “Plena Inclusión,” the aforementioned NGO located in Spain. In each participating center, at least one autonomous team was created with the participation of two professionals and two families. A person with IDD and one of his/her relatives (the one who had more frequent contact with the center) represented each family. Professionals and families were selected randomly. For each autonomous team, one researcher played the role of facilitator following a standardized procedure. He/she provided an initial half-hour speech to introduce the rationale of autonomous teams and the objective to improve the self-determination and social inclusion of persons with IDD who participated in the team. After this speech, teams were free to decide on the project to be implemented. They had 2 hours to create a plan to improve the self-determination skills and social inclusion of persons with IDD. Family members were considered members of the center with regard to the project. They then executed the plan during the next 8 weeks. Plans designed and executed by the teams were based on different topics (e.g., participation of persons with IDD in volunteer activities; participation of persons with IDD in the design and commercialization of products), but all of them had the stimulation of social inclusion as their common concern. We carried out three measures in which we asked the family members about the inclusion of their relatives with IDD: before starting the project and 4 and 8 weeks after the meeting where the team decided to execute the plan. Initial evidence indicates that social inclusion improved after the intervention, compared to a control group. In addition, projects were uploaded to an electronic platform of “Plena inclusion” in order to share and facilitate knowledge management within the NGO. In sum, the creation of autonomous teams, as an intervention associated with I-O psychology, had promising results in stimulating the social inclusion of vulnerable people such as those with IDD.

In Closing

As articulated at the start of this article, people with disabilities are a large part of the world’s population and yet one of its most ignored groups in terms of equitable opportunity for health and human services, education, employment, and equal participation in society. To address these inequities, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was adopted in 2006 and came into effect in 2008.

Work-focused psychology practitioners and academics have a significant role to play in contributing their time, talents and energy to working side by side with individuals with all kinds of disabilities to address these inequities. They can do so by educating themselves in the issues and the disparities that exist within their countries, learning about legislation such as the UNCRPD and that of their own respective locale that afford protections for these individuals, and identifying areas that they would like to lend their expertise. Because economic independence is in large part dependent on ability to access employment, a focus on assisting individuals to equitably access jobs is a significant area to contribute I-O psychology expertise. Assisting with the design, implementation and evaluation of local training programs, and facilitating entre to integrated employments settings, are skills that I-O psychologists readily possess. Applying these skills toward the humanitarian focus of full participation of individuals with disabilities in society is a worthy application of this expertise.

Do you know of someone who is using I-O psychology to heal the world? WE NEED YOU AND YOUR INPUT! We are calling upon you, the global I-O community, to reach out and submit your experiences for future columns. Give us your insights from lessons learned as you help heal the world.

To provide any feedback or suggestions on the International Practice Forum, please send an email to the following address:


[1] With the support of “Agencia Estatal de Investigación” (Spain) and Feder (PSI2013-48509-P and PSI2016-78158-R). The author wants to thank “Plena Inclusión” and associated centers that participated in the project. 


Bruyere, S., Aiken, S., & Biatowas, N. (2018, April).  Hitting the wall: Building vocational and self-confidence capacities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Paper presented at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Annual Conference, Chicago, IL.

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