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Statistics Highlight Gap in Disability Employment

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  8/27/2010
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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) first tabulation of a full calendar year’s worth of data on the employment status of people with disabilities was released Aug. 25, 2010, more than 20 years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The numbers show that a much larger percentage of people with disabilities—14.5 percent—were unemployed in 2009 than their nondisabled counterparts, at 9 percent.

Just one out of five people with disabilities (19.2 percent) were employed in 2009, compared to nearly two-thirds (64.5 percent) of the nondisabled population.

Moreover, nearly one-third of workers with a disability (32 percent) were employed part time, compared with about one-fifth of those with no disability (19 percent).

The statistics are drawn from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a detailed survey of about 60,000 households that provides statistics on employment and unemployment in the United States. The results of this survey are reported widely each month and have been the focus of considerable scrutiny since the recession began in late 2007.

In June 2008, BLS added six questions to the survey about the incidence of disability in American households:

  • Is anyone deaf or does anyone have serious difficulty hearing?
  • Is anyone blind or does anyone have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses?
  • Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does anyone have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?
  • Does anyone have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs?
  • Does anyone have difficulty dressing or bathing?
  • Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does anyone have difficulty doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor's office or shopping?

Demographic Comparisons

BLS found that almost half of persons with a disability were age 65 and over, compared with about one-tenth of those with no disability, reflecting the increased incidence of disability with age. However, across all age groups, persons with a disability were much less likely to be employed than those with no disability.

Women were somewhat more likely than men to have a disability, partly reflecting the greater life expectancy of women.

Among major race and ethnicity groups, the prevalence of a disability was higher for blacks and whites than for Asians and Hispanics.

The jobless rate for men with disabilities was slightly higher than the rate for women with disabilities (15.1 percent compared to 13.8 percent). And, as is the case for the population as a whole, the 2009 unemployment rates for those with a disability were higher among blacks (22.1 percent) and Hispanics (19 percent) than among whites (13.3 percent) and Asians (11.6 percent).

Higher levels of education are equated with an increased likelihood of employment for people with disabilities, as is the case for the population as a whole. However, at all levels of education, those with a disability are less than half as likely to be employed as their nondisabled counterparts.

Workers with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to be found in service occupations (20 percent, compared with 18 percent) and in production, transportation and material-moving occupations (14 percent vs. 11 percent). And they were less likely than nondisabled workers to be found in management, professional and related occupations (31 percent vs. 38 percent).

The findings might explain why a larger proportion of workers with disabilities were self-employed than were those with no disability (11 and 7 percent, respectively).

Some Not Working by Choice

Those who are not employed and who are not seeking work are counted as “not in the labor force.” BLS found that the vast majority of those with a disability—about eight out of 10 people—were not in the labor force in 2009, compared with just three out of 10 of the nondisabled. In part, this is because many of those with a disability are age 65 and over. However, for all age groups, persons with a disability were more likely than those with no disability to be out of the labor force. Most of those not in the labor force, whether they have a disability or not, reported that they do not want a job.

“We will make sure that people who want to work can work,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis in a statement issued following release of the data. “We will use this new information to help increase service capacity and accessibility to workforce development systems, including the one-stop-career centers, and ensure that people with disabilities have access to employment support, transportation, housing and other support services.”

Such efforts were under way at the time the data was released. In January 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) initiated six “listening sessions” to collect information and comments about the employability, employment, workforce participation, retention and promotion of people with disabilities.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Kathleen Martinez invited stakeholders to provide input in three key areas:

  • More-effective ways to increase employment of women, veterans and minorities with disabilities.
  • Identification of federal and state systems that are working to find jobs for people with disabilities.
  • Identification of top issues on which the federal government should focus.

A summary report, available on the ODEP web site, lists the issues identified during the listening sessions and describes a number of programs, initiatives and organizations that are boosting disability employment in various areas.

“We’re interested in hearing what the problems are, but, frankly, we’ve studied them for the past 30 years,” Martinez said as she launched the listening sessions. “I think that it’s time we look at solutions and how those can be replicated.”

Updates on DOL’s progress can be found at

In July 2010 SHRM launched a Disability Employment Resource Page to give HR professionals and hiring managers access to a wealth of resources, articles and links that help them source, recruit, retain and develop people with disabilities.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Surveys Highlight Disability Employment Gap, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 26, 2010

Has the ADA Made a Difference? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 9, 2010

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