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The rights of people with disabilities have been given new attention with the entry into force of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in May 2008. The provisions of the CRPD contribute to other international standards concerning persons with disabilities, signalling a dramatic shift in international policy terms. In relation to training and employment, for example, states are called on to provide opportunities for disabled people alongside non-disabled people.

Many countries have already declared their commitment to the goal of inclusion of persons with disabilities through ratification of the CRPD, while others have signed it with a view to ratification. Many have also ratified ILO conventions, committing themselves to the goals of equal opportunity and non-discrimination.

People with intellectual disabilities are entitled to benefit from the provisions of the CRPD and ILO Convention concerning the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons), 1983 (No. 159), as well as people with other kinds of disabilities. Yet, they are frequently not well placed to gain from this changed emphasis on inclusion. In many developing countries, in particular, they are often excluded from school and deprived of opportunities to acquire relevant vocational skills at all, presenting further disadvantages when it comes to seeking jobs. Yet, experience in many countries shows that, with the right training, support in the workplace as required, and the right opportunities, they can make valued contributions in the workplace and to a country’s economy.

Measures to open employment opportunities for this group of persons with disabilities in line with the CRPD and ILO Convention No. 159 can build on extensive experience in recent decades in developing new approaches to training and employment. The review of international experience carried out for this working paper highlights good practice in supporting people with intellectual disabilities in integrated employment settings. Evidence clearly points to better outcomes for employees with intellectual disabilities, when they work in integrated settings, with appropriate supports.

The aims of this paper are to: examine changes over time in the understanding of intellectual disability and the capacity of persons with disabilities to learn; provide an international overview of employment options for people with intellectual disabilities, with special emphasis on Supported Employment (SE) models; examine and critically analyse from a research perspective examples of SE across a range of low- and high-income countries; and make recommendations for the expansion and future development of inclusive employment options for this population. Section 1 provides a brief overview of the shift from classifying people with intellectual disabilities on the basis of IQ bands to a support needs 2 framework. It then explores the impact of research initiatives that demonstrated the learning capacity of people with intellectual disabilities in a work environment. Section 2 discusses the range of employment models currently accessed by people with intellectual disabilities in countries around the world. It highlights that, despite the emergence of a number of more inclusive practices, the predominant model continues to be sheltered employment in segregated settings, and that a high proportion of people with disabilities are unemployed. Section 3 reviews recent and emerging developments in promoting training and employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, drawing from examples in both high- and low-income countries, with reference to factors facilitating and posing challenges to the spread of supported employment. The findings of research on these developments are summarized. Section 4 examines the policy implications of research findings and draws some conclusions about the way forward. The Working Paper has been informed by the report of the ILO/Irish Aid sub-regional conference People with Intellectual Disabilities – Opening Pathways to Training and Employment, held in Lusaka, Zambia 9-11 March 2010 (ILO, 2010a), and the accompanying Lusaka Declaration People with Intellectual Disabilities: Achieving Full Participation in Training and Employment (ILO, 2010b).

The views of several individuals with intellectual disabilities on what work means to them are presented in different parts of the report, so that their voices are reflected, in line with the self-advocacy movement which is gaining momentum.