People with Disabilities Are Plentiful—and Underemployed


By By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR August 20, 2012

A July 2012 report by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that the percentage of people with disabilities who are employed declined between 2005 and 2010.

The Americans with Disabilities: 2010 report—released to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—found that nearly one in five Americans had a disability in 2010. Forty-one percent of individuals with a disability who were age 21 to 64 in 2010 were employed, down from nearly 46 percent in 2005. By comparison, 79 percent of individuals without disabilities were employed in 2010, down from 83 percent in 2005.

Earnings for such individuals lag behind the able-bodied population as well.

Adults age 21 to 64 with disabilities had median monthly earnings of $1,961, while those with no disability earned an average of $2,724, the Census Bureau reported.

A different government report paints an even less favorable employment picture.

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) news release issued June 8, 2012, just 17.8 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2011, down from 18.6 percent in 2010.

The BLS data is collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 U.S. households that provides statistics on employment and unemployment.

Understanding the Population with Disabilities

The “Survey of Income and Program Participation” (the tool used by the Census Bureau to gather the data in 2010) contains questions about an individual’s ability to perform a specific set of functional and participatory activities. When respondents reported difficulty with certain activities, they were asked a follow-up question to determine the severity of the limitation.

As a result, the Census Bureau learned that more than half of those with disabilities had conditions deemed “severe,” such as being unable to see, hear or have their speech understood by others.

Notably, the number and percentage of people with severe disabilities had increased compared to 2005, as did the number and percentage of individuals who reported they needed assistance because of their condition, even though the percentage of Americans with disabilities overall remained statistically unchanged during the same time period.

Those living in institutional group quarters, such as correctional facilities and nursing homes, and those living in military barracks are not included in the report.

Additional Census Bureau findings:

  • Just 27.5 percent of individuals with severe disabilities age 21 to 64 were employed in 2010, compared to 71.2 percent of individuals with disabilities that were not severe.
  • About 8.1 million people had difficulty seeing in 2010, including 2 million who were blind.
  • About 7.6 million people had difficulty hearing, including 1.1 million whose hearing difficulty was severe. About 5.6 million used a hearing aid.
  • Roughly 30.6 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.
  • About 19.9 million people had challenges with lifting and grasping, such as carrying a bag of groceries or holding a glass or pencil.
  • 9.4 million had difficulty with at least one activity of daily living such as getting around inside the home, bathing, dressing and eating. Of that group, 5 million needed the assistance of others to perform such activities.
  • About 15.5 million adults had difficulties with one or more other activities of daily living such as doing housework, using the phone and preparing meals. Of these, nearly 12 million required assistance from others.

Employer Readiness for People with Disabilities

Companies known for successful disability employment programs usually take steps to ensure their workplace is disability-friendly.

Disability-friendly employers such as Walgreens know that even those with severe disabilities have the ability to perform at the same level, or higher than, their nondisabled colleagues.

“The important thing for employers and for society is to enable our people to fully leverage all their abilities so we all can benefit from their energies and talents,” Lori Golden, AccessAbilities Leader, Ernst & Young LLP, wrote SHRM Online in an e-mail. “We must figure out how to create environments that provide whatever people need to be productive and foster cultures in which every person feels respected and included.”

Ernst & Young LLP has found four key elements to making its workplace disability-friendly, according to Golden:

  • Focusing not just on accommodations, but on accessibility: in the office environment, in technology and tools and in processes and activities like communications, training and events.
  • Planning for career growth and success, not just retention.
  • Educating not only special audiences, like managers and recruiters, but everyone in the organization, and in a variety of ways.
  • Embedding disabilities inclusiveness across functions and processes. “Training alone is not enough to impact the culture,” Golden noted.

“Organizational readiness relative to disability is more important than ever,” wrote Nadine O. Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting, LLC, in a separate e-mail to SHRM Online.

Vogel, who is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel, added: “Companies can no longer wait until they are ready to embark on a disability talent acquisition strategy to assess their readiness and begin to take action relative to all kinds of accessibility, accommodations processes, etiquette, awareness training, etc.”

Employers can find a collection of resources and articles to help them get started on SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page.

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

Related Articles


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job


Join us for the largest and best HR conference in the world, June 23-26, 2019 in Las Vegas.

Join us for the largest and best HR conference in the world, June 23-26, 2019 in Las Vegas.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect