Disability Employment Rates Lag Behind

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 1, 2013

​Dramatic employment discrepancies separate Americans who have a disability from those who do not, according to Cornell University research released during a Jan. 18, 2013, webinar.

In 2011, for example, the employment rate of working-age people (those 21 to 64) with disabilities in the U.S. was 33.4 percent, while for those without disabilities it was 75.6 percent. What’s more, 20.7 percent of working-age people with disabilities worked full time/full year in the U.S., compared with 55.5 percent of those without disabilities who worked full time/full year.

The findings are from Cornell’s 2011 Disability Status Report for the United States, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent demographic and economic statistics on the noninstitutionalized population with disabilities. Comparisons are made to people without disabilities and across disability types. The data were not limited to occupational disability.

Similar reports are available for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The authors of the Cornell report note in its introduction that they primarily looked at the working-age population “because the employment gap between people with and without disabilities is a major focus of government programs and advocacy efforts.”

The data confirm there are “pools of people out there” who not only want to work but “already are in your labor force,” said Susanne Marie Bruyere, director of Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute (EDI), in an interview with SHRM Online.

“[Employers] don’t think about nonevident disabilities,” Bruyere explained. “They don’t think of [workers with disabilities] as being in their own workforce, and to some extent that’s good. They just think of them as a productive employee in the workforce.”

When it comes to recruiting workers with disabilities, employers may not have an appropriate recruiting pipeline for this demographic, Bruyere noted. She advised employers to partner with community rehabilitation programs that focus on employment for people with disabilities. These include state vocational rehabilitation agencies and veterans’ organizations that help disabled military personnel transition into civilian jobs.

Having identifiable recruiting sources heightens “the likelihood that [employers] will have qualified people with disabilities in their recruitment pool,” she said.

But there has to be an organizational commitment to hire qualified people who have a disability, and that commitment must be embedded in the company’s diversity vision, Bruyere observed. Make commitment a part of the company’s mission and vision for how it treats a diverse population—customers as well as employees—“and have that [commitment] articulated from the top leaders of the organization,” she suggested.

Bruyere recommended the following resources for increasing employment of people with disabilities: http://askearn.org/, 1-855-AskEARN, and the free Technical Assistance line at 1-855-275-3276.

Disability Types and Unemployment

The survey examined sixdisability types: ambulatory, cognitive, hearing, visual, independent living and self-care. Self-care was determined by asking if the person has difficulty dressing and bathing. Independent living was determined by asking respondents if they have difficulty doing errands alone, such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping, because of a physical, mental or emotional condition.

The survey’s sample size was 3 million people in the U.S., weighted to a total population of 308 million. Estimates from the report are based on survey responses from a sample of the U.S. population.

Findings on employment of people with disabilities include:

  • Those with a hearing disability had the highest employment rate (49.4), followed by those with a visual disability (36.8 percent), ambulatory disability (24.3 percent), cognitive disability (23.0 percent), self-care (16.2 percent) and independent living (15.8 percent).
  • In 2011, 10.5 percent, or 18.8 million working-age people in the U.S., reported having a disability.
  • Median annual household income of working-age people with a disability was $36,700 versus $60,400 for those without a disability.
  • The poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities was 27.8 percent versus 12.4 percent for those without a disability.
  • Native Americans, Alaska Natives or both had the highest prevalence of disability (18.0 percent), followed by blacks alone (14.2 percent) and whites alone (10 percent). The “alone” designation is used to differentiate from multiracial individuals.
  • Asians alone had the lowest prevalence of disability (4.1 percent).
  • Among military veterans in the working population, 19.1 percent, or 2.3 million, had a service-connected disability.
  • Hawaii had the lowest percentage rate of disability among the working population (7.3 percent), followed by North Dakota (7.4 percent) and New Jersey (7.7 percent).
  • West Virginia had the highest prevalence of disability among the working population (17.8 percent), followed by Kentucky (16.6 percent) and Mississippi (15.6 percent).
  • Factoring in U.S. territories, Puerto Rico (18.6 percent) had the highest percentage of the working-age population with a disability, compared with the rest of the U.S.

The data did not indicate reasons for the higher and lower prevalence of disability in certain geographies or other populations, although William Erickson, who presented the webinar for Cornell, told SHRM Online that factors could include the age of the population in those areas or, perhaps, inaccessibility to health care in more rural areas.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor of HR News.

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