Surveys Highlight Disability Employment Gap

By By Steve Taylor Jul 26, 2010

Employment of people with disabilities lags significantly behind other gains made since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, according to two surveys.

Two-thirds of those responding to a poll by Professor Lex Frieden of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston said the ADA has been “the most significant social, cultural or legislative influence on their lives” since President George H.W. Bush signed it on July 26, 1990.

More than 90 percent of the 870 U.S.-based respondents surveyed by Frieden said the quality of life for people with disabilities has improved greatly, especially regarding access to retail businesses and other public places, as well as in transportation, community and independent living, government services, education and telecommunications.

However, almost half of those polled put employment as one of the areas where the ADA has had the smallest impact on their lives.

“Some of the ‘fear’ that employers have had and myths about people with disabilities have been allayed,” said one respondent quoted in the Frieden survey. “Companies like Wal-Mart are willing for a person with a disability to be the first person you see when you enter the store—breaking down a lot of attitudinal barriers. There is still discrimination in employment, but not like there was before.”

Frieden, who has been disabled since a car accident in 1967, is former executive director of the National Council on the Handicapped and was one of the authors of the ADA. From 2002 to 2006 he chaired the National Council on Disability. He labeled his poll “nonscientific” and characterizes its respondents as “disability community leaders.”

Other statements by those responding to the Frieden poll:

  • “Awareness and Understanding is a clear accomplishment, but stereotypes still persist and these still limit people with disabilities. There is a serious lack of knowledge about the ADA and what are reasonable accommodations and who is covered under the law.”
  • “My community is still living in the dark ages when it comes to the ADA and people with disabilities. I am hopeful that will change in the years to come, but it hasn’t made much of an impact so far.”
  • “Discrimination continues to exist for those of us who are cancer survivors and others with invisible, hidden and emerging diseases and disabilities.”

At a news conference at the National Press Club on July 22, 2010, Frieden called employment of disabled people “an area of gain [under the ADA] but also a big disappointment. … They expected more.”

Harris Poll

“Expected more” is the theme of another 20th anniversary examination of the ADA’s effectiveness, made by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability (NOD). Those organizations report that employment “is still the area where people with disabilities seem to be at the greatest disadvantage compared to the rest of the population.”

The poll was conducted by the polling organization Harris Interactive. Some of its findings:

  • Among all working-age people with disabilities, 21 percent said they were employed full-time or part-time compared to 59 percent of working-age people without disabilities.
  • Among those with disabilities who described themselves as unemployed, 73 percent cited their disability as one of the reasons. Other reasons for unemployment included an inability to find a job in their line of work, inability to get necessary workplace accommodations and fear of losing federal health benefits.
  • Forty-three percent of working-age people with disabilities claimed to have encountered some form of job discrimination in their lives.

This is the sixth time since 1986 that Harris has surveyed the attitudes and experiences of people with disabilities for Kessler and the NOD. According to Harris, the surveys have used a consistent sampling approach and methodology; the latest effort sampled 1,001 U.S.-based adults with disabilities and 788 adults without disabilities. For questions about employment, Harris says, it used an oversample of 315 workers with disabilities.

Some other findings from the Harris poll:

  • A significant percentage (42 percent) of employees with disabilities suggested they are underutilized in their jobs by saying that their work does not require them to use all of their abilities. This number has remained steady since 1998.
  • Seventy-eight percent of employed people with disabilities said someone at their organization knows they have a disability. A number of reasons were given for disclosing a disability. Nearly half (49 percent) of respondents said they did so because they thought it was important for others to know, while 33 percent said they needed to do so because their ability to perform essential job duties was harmed by their condition and 32 percent said it was because their disability was visible.
  • A quarter of employed people with disabilities said they have experienced discomfort or a negative reaction from a supervisor, co-worker or customer in their current job.

Bottom Line

Like the Frieden survey, the Harris poll inquired about accommodation and quality-of-life matters and asked questions about overall satisfaction with the ADA. In that area, the Harris results were the reverse of Frieden’s. Just 24 percent of people with disabilities told the Harris pollsters that the ADA has made their lives better. Four percent said the ADA has made their lives worse, and 61 percent said the act has made no difference in their lives. In 10 indicators of economic and lifestyle quality, the Harris poll showed little or no meaningful gain.

Harris weighted its findings by age group to reflect their shares of the general population. That, said Frieden, might account for the difference in results, because people born after 1990 have no way of assessing the changes the ADA has brought, and older respondents, if they acquired their disabilities since 1990, lack a frame of reference.

Frieden stressed the areas where the two surveys agreed, most notably about the employment gap for people with disabilities. “Bottom line,” he said, “We need to work aggressively… to find solutions for people who need employment.”

When SHRM Online asked for specific suggestions, Frieden said, “We need to have equal opportunity. We don’t have [enough] job fairs that include outreach to disabled people. [Employers] don’t attend to disabled groups on college campuses.”

Companies, he continued, should educate middle managers who typically are faced with the need to fill vacancies quickly and under pressure: “Those people will choose folks that look like the last person who did the job well,” rather than expanding their fields of consideration to include those with disabilities.

Appearing with Frieden at the National Press Club was James G. Carlson, chairman and CEO of Amerigroup, a Virginia Beach, Va., company that provides health insurance services to publicly sponsored programs, including Medicaid and Medicare.

Speaking of his company’s workers with disabilities, Carlson said, “We’ve learned that when we can make accommodations, they’re among our most dedicated employees.”

He called the ADA’s impact on business a “non-issue.” Continued Carlson, “Since the business community was foretelling doom and gloom” when the ADA was passed, “all we’ve done is preside over the biggest economic expansion in years.”

Steve Taylor is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Related Articles:

Has the Americans with Disabilities Act Made a Difference?SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 9, 2010

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