Higher expectations are key to increasing employment among people with intellectual disabilities, members of the U.S. Senate heard Wednesday.

In a packed hearing room, members of the Senate’s health, education, labor and pensions committee heard testimony from employers, government officials, disability advocates and those with special needs who talked about the barriers people with intellectual disabilities face in the workplace.

Congress is not actively pursuing legislation on the issue, but the hearing Wednesday signals that legislative efforts may be forthcoming to enhance employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.

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Currently, employment participation for this group is estimated to be as low as 23.9 percent, a figure which Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the committee, described as “shockingly low.”

“We need to do much better,” Harkin said. “We need to address this problem aggressively and creatively in order to increase the quality of life for the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, including the almost eight million with intellectual disabilities.”

Witnesses told the committee that increasing employment opportunities relies on having high expectations and working closely with businesses to remove attitudinal barriers. In addition, it’s essential to start working with children at a young age to train them for the workplace and get them involved through internships in competitive employment situations.

That’s how David Egan, who has Down syndrome, got his start. For 15 years, the Vienna, Va. resident and special olympian has worked as a distribution clerk at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton where he began as a high school intern.

“Employment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is a smart business decision and a social responsibility,” Egan told the committee. “I feel like I am part of a team. My company offers more than a job — it’s a career.”

Echoing Egan’s sentiments was Randy Lewis, senior vice president of Walgreens. He spoke of the company’s successful initiative to ensure that people with disabilities account for 10 percent of their distribution center workforce.

The result has been higher efficiency as well as an improved work environment, Lewis said. Now Walgreens is looking to replicate the model in its retail stores.

“Our expectations for hiring people with disabilities have been exceeded,” he said. “These are terrific employees and they meet and exceed the same performance requirements for all employees.”

Despite Walgreens’ positive experience, Lewis noted that many businesses continue to harbor concerns about their ability to remain competitive while employing individuals with disabilities.

To that end, Harkin indicated that the hearing was a first step in addressing employment concerns and that senators would continue to work with stakeholders to identify policy avenues to make competitive employment a reality on a wider scale.

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