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A Million People with Disabilities Have Lost Jobs During the Pandemic

A woman in a wheelchair using a laptop computer.

​Unemployment has risen sharply as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, particularly among people with disabilities. Approximately 1 million U.S. workers with disabilities have lost their jobs since the World Health Organization proclaimed the outbreak a pandemic in March, according to the New Hampshire University Institute on Disability.

"People with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and its economic consequences," said National Organization on Disability (NOD) President Carol Glazer.

Since March, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities have been dismissed from employment, compared with 1 in 7 in the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A survey by NOD of 200 organizations that collectively employ 8.7 million people found that the road back to employment may be difficult for laid-off workers with disabilities, as many companies lack disability-inclusive cultures. The survey also found that many employers do not have adequate accommodation processes and few hiring managers receive disability training to effectively onboard new employees.

Reasons for Disproportionate Drop in Employment

When the COVID-19 virus began to hit businesses, many employees were laid off or furloughed. The last in often were the first out, said Deborah Dagit, president of Deb Dagit Diversity LLC in Washington, N.J.

And people with disabilities often were the last hired into the workforce, Glazer noted.

Furthermore, the greatest job losses have been in the retail and hospitality sectors, where many people with disabilities had found jobs, Dagit added.

"While there continue to be essential-worker roles in fulfillment and distribution centers, grocery stores and health care settings, many people with disabilities have underlying conditions that place them at greater risk in roles that serve the public," she said.

In addition, "some employers may be reluctant to permit a new hire, with whom the employer had no previous relationship, to work remotely," said Reginald Belcher, an attorney with Turner Padget Graham and Laney in Columbia, S.C. But allowing a new hire to immediately work remotely might be a reasonable accommodation required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, he noted.

Some employers have been hesitant to hire people with disabilities during the pandemic out of fear that reasonable accommodations would be expensive, Glazer said.

The pandemic "financially decimated many employers," limiting their ability to accommodate workers with disabilities as robustly as before the spread of COVID-19, Belcher stated.

But Kimberly Seten, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Kansas City, Mo., cautioned that employers "should be careful to ensure they are not automatically rejecting accommodations that they believe would be costly. There is a high burden to overcome for an employer to show that an accommodation truly was too costly to provide."

She added that employers should discuss leaves of absence with employees when there is no other alternative to help employees with disabilities keep working. "Termination should not be the first option," she said.

[Need help with legal questions? Check out the new SHRM LegalNetwork.]

Barriers to Employment

Neil Romano, president of the National Council on Disability in Washington, D.C., said people with disabilities face barriers as they search for work.

He criticized how money is spent for federal training programs for people with disabilities. "Our latest research shows that vocational rehabilitation is largely funneling people into dying industries that are being replaced by automation or technology," he said.

Sometimes the workplace culture isn't conducive to hiring people with disabilities, Glazer said. And even if senior leaders and HR are on board, managers may not be.

In addition, companies relying on common recruiting methods, such as employee referrals and word-of-mouth, may inadvertently overlook people with disabilities. "If you look in the same places you always looked, you'll have the same workforce you always had," she cautioned.

In some instances, unlawful discrimination is a barrier. "Individuals with outwardly visible disabilities [might] be disregarded or presumed less capable than their nondisabled counterparts," said Brooke Ehrlich, an attorney with Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Studies have shown that even the most progressive and inclusive employers can be influenced by implicit bias. In other words, their hiring decisions may be unconsciously influenced by deeply held attitudes and negative stereotypes about disabled individuals."

Disability doesn't mean inability, Glazer said; rather, it means different ability. People with disabilities may perform the job better than those without disabilities, she noted. For example, someone with a visual impairment who uses screen-reading technology when browsing a webpage may read quicker than someone without a visual impairment.

How Can Employers Help?

Dagit said employers can help improve the hire and retention rate of people with disabilities by:

  • Using inclusive images and text on their careers portals, in their job descriptions and on their social media sites.
  • Taking the Disability Equality Index and remedying any gaps.
  • Ensuring that their accommodation process is well-communicated and efficient.
  • Remembering that 75 percent of disabilities are not visible. Mental disabilities, such as depression, have increased during the pandemic.
  • Using digital meeting platforms with disability-related capabilities.

Many platforms used for virtual meetings lack access solutions, Dagit said. They may not have reliable captioning, for example, or the ability to "pin" a sign language interpreter on the screen.

Employers should value "a truly diverse workforce, harnessing the potential of people with disabilities for the good of the individual, the country and the business," Romano said.


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