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Helping Persons with Cognitive Disabilities Be Productive

Workforce productivity is a common concern among employers. Many persons with cognitive disabilities, such as mental retardation, sometimes are initially unable to work fast enough to satisfy job requirements. The best way to improve and maintain production is to use strategies that are naturally found in the workplace. These are typically used with all employees, not just those workers with disabilities. For example, common strategies used to maintain or increase the production rate of employees include:

  • Performance charts showing an employee's production rate
  • Bonus pay for work exceeding the production standard
  • Worker of the week or month commendation
  • Bonuses, pay raises and/or promotions
  • Daily production counts
Teaching an employee to respond to the "natural cues" within the environment is another technique to increase work production. A "natural cue" represents some feature of a work environment, job task, or activity that signals the next task to be completed. For example, when the dish trays stack up at the end of the conveyor belt while the employee is operating the dishmachine, the employee could stop operating the dishmachine and clear the trays or he could continue to operate the dishmachine. If the employee continues to operate the dishmachine, the trays will continue to stack up. If the employee consistently responds with the appropriate response of clearing the trays, the work will proceed efficiently. Regardless of whether you use "natural cues" or another technique, always follow these guidelines.
  • Inform the worker of the company standard
  • Inform the worker of her current production rate
  • Keep the worker informed of her progress
  • Model appropriate production rate
Typically, a "natural cue" is one that the worker can see, hear, touch, or smell. Other examples may include the color of a cleaning supply, an on/off indicator light, a buzzer on the service door, the telephone ringing, announcements of the loud speaker, signs on the restrooms, or verbal, gestural, or pictorial instructions. The use of "natural cues" enhances the ability of all workers to perform their duties in an efficient and effective manner.

To illustrate further, lets look at a couple of examples. Lets' start by looking at Sarah working in a hotel. Some of her job duties include restocking toiletries on bathroom counters. However, without any reading skills, she has difficulty discriminating among the identical packets of shower caps and shoeshine cloth. To remedy this, a solution is offered to distinguish between the two by squeezing the packets; the shower caps make a "crinkling" sound, whereas shoeshine cloth has a soft feel. The natural cue in this instance is the distinct texture and sound that each toiletry has, signaling to the employee what needs replacing.

For some workers, natural cues are not sufficient, and they may fail to respond or recognize the cue even if it is pointed out to them. On an as-needed basis, Eric is responsible for restocking a condiment bar, by filling depleting supplies. He is not responding to the natural cue, that the bins are empty. So, an additional cue of a 2" piece of colored tape is placed in the inside of the bins, signaling that they needed refilling. Eric begins to recognize the natural cue, the box being empty, through the association with the colored tape prompt. The additional prompt of the colored tape is gradually faded, by reducing its size from 2" to 1". It is then changed to dots placed at increasingly wider distances apart and the size of the dots are reduced in size until eventually they are nonexistent.

Strategies such as these and others benefit employees without disabilities as well. Obviously, if a worker responds to a natural cue, instruction is not necessary. However, as in the example of Eric, some workers must learn to recognize and respond to these cues. The utilization of natural cues makes task organization and performance easier for everyone, and can help make work in general more efficient.