Workers with Disabilities Face Steep Occupational Obstacles

By Maria Williams Dec 8, 2010

New data from the Current Population Survey (CPS),published in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review (MLR) for October 2010, revealed that the recession hit workers with disabilities particularly hard, reducing their presence in the labor force by 9 percent from October 2008 to June 2010.

In the same MLR issue, a separate analysis of the 2008 CPS data warned of a possible overall long-term decline in the employment rate for people with disabilities by 2018. However, the authors predict that employment of people with disabilities could increase if such individuals can make inroads into a number of growing occupations well-suited to a range of impairments.

Disability Subgroups Affected in Different Ways

In the MLR article titled “The Impact of the 2007–09 Recession on Workers with Disabilities,” H. Stephen Kaye, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, took a close look at the decline in employed workers with disabilities. According to Kaye, the subgroups of workers with disabilities that suffered the most job losses between October 2008 and June 2010 were those:

  • With mobility impairments (declining 17.8 percent).
  • With difficulty performing routine daily activities (declining 16.7 percent).
  • Ages 18 to 39 (declining 17.5 percent).
  • Working in medium-skill occupations (declining 17.3 percent).

Kaye found that men with disabilities were more likely to lose their jobs than women, and people with disabilities who hadn’t graduated from college were more likely to lose their jobs than those with college degrees.

Those performing highly skilled work were the subgroup least affected by recessionary job losses, the article noted.

Those with Disabilities Most Affected by Recession

A comparison of CPS survey data on the employment rates of disabled and nondisabled workers makes it clear that from October 2008 to June 2010 a much greater proportion of workers with disabilities (12.3 percent) lost jobs than did those without disabilities (3.4 percent ).

Asked whether such disparities could indicate employer discrimination, Kaye told SHRM Online that much of the recession’s uneven impact relates to “the tenuous relationship that many workers with disabilities have with the labor force”—a relationship that exists, in part, because workers with disabilities are more likely to work in part-time, temporary, contract, low-skill or other positions that make them vulnerable.

Because employment data for workers with disabilities has not been collected long enough to be seasonally adjusted, the CPS numbers don’t show how many jobs were lost because the low-security jobs held by many workers with disabilities are at greater risk during economic turmoil.

Although the CPS data Kaye worked with don’t suggest discrimination, he said he has conducted other research showing that “even after controlling for factors such as education,” workers with disabilities are still more likely to work in low-status occupations. “That fact … probably reflects some level of employer discrimination in not offering the same opportunities to workers with disabilities,” he said.

Another factor, according to other research cited by Kaye, is that those with disabilities might have been more vulnerable to job losses because the mental and physical stresses associated with economic downturns could worsen or cause disability. Moreover, health issues related to the recession might lead people to see themselves as less able to work and might influence their decision to seek benefits rather than jobs, he explained.

Current Occupational Landscape

Employment for working-age people with disabilities lags far behind that for workers without disabilities. For November 2010, BLS statistics showed that working-age men and women with disabilities were employed at less than half the rate (30.2 percent and 26.4 percent, respectively) of working-age men and women without disabilities (74.2 percent and 65.2 percent, respectively).

This lag persists despite the fact that between two-thirds and four-fifths of unemployed people with disabilities say they would prefer to be employed, according to the authors, and even though low employment rates of people with disabilities contribute to high poverty rates and add to the cost of government benefits programs.

Yet even when employed, workers with disabilities face significant obstacles to equality and are less likely than workers without disabilities to work in jobs that are “economically and psychologically rewarding,” research shows.

On average, workers with disabilities receive lower pay, less job security, and less access to health insurance, pension plans and training than their nondisabled counterparts.

In the second MLR article, titled “Disability and Occupational Projections,” authors Douglas Kruse, Ph.D., professor of human resource management, Lisa Schur, Ph.D., professor of labor studies and employment relations, and Mohammad Ali, doctoral student in industrial relations and human resources, all at Rutgers University, frame the need for change in the context of the U.S. economic climate.

Kruse’s team of researchers agreed that the disparity in average education levels between people with disabilities and the general population does not explain the disparity in professional achievement levels. “Within each of the educational categories, people with disabilities are less likely to be in management, management-related, or professional/technical occupations and more likely to be in service and blue-collar occupations,” the authors said in the article.

Opportunities by Occupation

The researchers found that workers with disabilities—6.1 percent of employed people—were overrepresented in all but one of the nation’s top 20 declining occupations, most of which are in manufacturing and require only short- to moderate-term on-the-job training. The one exception is utility meter readers.

Yet this population is underrepresented in all but three of the nation’s top 20 growing occupations, most of which deal with health, wellness and technology. The three areas in which people with disabilities are overrepresented (that is, exceed 6.1 percent) are biomedical and agricultural engineers (7.2 percent), personal and home care aides (12.3 percent), and nursing, psychiatric and home health aides (8.6 percent).

In projections of demand (in which the assumption is that the occupational distribution of workers with disabilities remains the same as today), the category of “nursing, psychiatric and home health aides” is predicted to create the most jobs for workers with disabilities by 2018 (63,900 jobs), followed by the related occupation of personal and home care aides (46,100 jobs).

If occupational distributions remain the same, overall employment opportunities for people with disabilities are projected to grow by 9 percent by 2018 (compared to 10.1 percent for the general working-age population), which would increase the number of jobs for people with disabilities by 825,000 by 2018.

However, if the rate of employment growth for people with disabilities were to match the 10.1 forecast growth rate for the overall population, the projection would increase by an additional 104,000 jobs.

Added opportunities exist for stoking the job growth rate if workers with disabilities shift toward a greater proportion of growing occupations, many of which can accommodate a wide range of disabilities, according to the researchers.

“Further research into how specific accommodations can help people with impairments in different occupations would likely lead to better estimates of the potential for job growth,” the authors added.

Maria Williams is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Related Articles:

Disability Employment Agencies Yield Mixed Results, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, November 2010

Survey: Companies Have Scaled Back Disability Hiring Programs, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, October 2010

Statistics Highlight Gap in Disability Employment, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, August 2010

Quick Link:

SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page

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