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The Work Project Survey: Consumer Perspectives on Work

McQuilken, M., Zahniser, J.H., Novak, J., Starks, R.D., Olmos, A., & Bond, G. R. (2003). The work project survey: Consumer perspectives on work. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 18(1), 59-68.

Article Summary

Despite passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1998 poll by Lou Harris & Associates indicated that the widest gap between American with and without disabilities is in the area of employment. The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research has estimated that the unemployment rate for working-age individuals with severe mental illness (SMI) is approximately 85% as compared to an unemployment rate of approximately 70% across all categories of disabilities and 20% for Americans without disabilities. Studies have indicated that as many as 70% of individuals with SMI would like to work.

The variation between rates of employment and desire for employment may be due to one or more of the following: employment discrimination, concern over losing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, low expectations from support staff, symptoms of the illness, side effects of medications, and lack of training and skills for desired jobs.

The authors sought to determine the desire to work, perceived barriers to employment, motivation for employment, and specific experiences in finding employment by 389 individuals with SMI receiving services through the Mental Health Corporation of Denver (MHCD). This study is unique in that it was designed and carried out by a partnership between mental health consumers and the provider organization, thus giving it increased input by consumers. Another distinctive feature was the breakdown of groups by their stated interests in working:

  1. Do not want to work
  2. Want work but not looking
  3. Looking for work
  4. Working for pay

Generally, a majority of the respondents agreed with the statement, "I am on benefits and cannot risk losing them right now." Of those who were not employed, one-third to one-half agreed with the statement, "If I work, I do not think I will be paid well enough." Overall 79% of respondents agreed with the statement, "If I go to work, get off benefits and get ill again, I'll have a hard time getting back on benefits."


A majority of respondents across all four groups agreed that working helped them to forget their mental illness. There was also agreement that employment gave them increased dignity and self-respect. However, a majority of all of the respondents agreed that they needed more training and education but were receiving neither vocational training nor a higher education. Although numerous barriers to employment remain for individuals with severe mental illness, the greatest need appears to involve the concern over losing SSI and SSDI benefits.