People challenged by developmental delay or illness can find meaningful jobs to foster a sense of independence and meaning in their lives. Training, career coaching, making appropriate referrals, and providing support are some ways to overcome challenges that prevent many mentally disabled people from finding and maintaining gainful employment. Because everyone is different, there are no specific types of jobs that suit mentally disabled people, so matching the right person with the right situation is key.
The first step in introducing many mentally disabled people into the workforce is through volunteering. Working on a voluntary basis for just a few days a week allows a mentally disabled person to try on the tasks of various jobs to practicing handling issues like getting on a regular schedule, handling work stress, navigating social relationships at work and dealing effectively with any symptoms of illness that may cause a problem. Volunteering offers employers only benefits and none of the risks of having to pay an employee who might not work out.
If a mentally disabled person can handle the stresses of volunteering, she may be ready to try a paying job -- while getting supportive daily training. If someone hasn't learned viable career skills due to mental challenges, pre-employment training can teach her the skills necessary to work. These government-sponsored programs target youth or individuals out of the workforce for a lengthy period due to their disabilities. Coaches teach practical job skills at actual job sites in their clients' communities.
Supported employment programs are typically government-funded services that assess a mentally disabled person's barriers to obtaining a job and give him enough support to be successful. The amount of support depends on an individual's situation. For example, a chemist who struggles with schizophrenia but is doing well on maintenance medications may need to check in with a counselor periodically to lend a supportive ear. By contrast, a person with a severe mental disability may need a job coach on site to help him plan and organize his daily tasks.
Just as one size does not fit all, not everyone with mental disabilities wants to work, can work or needs to have a career. Similarly, not everyone wants to hold or is capable of holding a full-time, independent job. It's important to assess each person's needs thoroughly to set realistic goals that drive the person to achieve her highest potential, without pushing too hard or too fast. Educating employers on how to work best with mentally disabled employees is key to developing a flexible, understanding work environment that will benefit both parties.