As layoffs and hiring freezes flood the news cycle, new federal data shows that people with disabilities are landing jobs at record numbers.
In 2022, about 21 percent of people with a disability in the U.S. were employed, up from about 19 percent in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That is the highest rate since the U.S. began tracking this statistic in 2008.
"The increase [in people with disabilities securing employment] is fantastic," said Craig Leen, an attorney with K&L Gates in Washington, D.C., and a former director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. "Individuals with disabilities have historically experienced a much higher unemployment rate and much lower labor force participation rate than the population generally, making individuals with disabilities the largest potential group of untapped labor in the U.S."
According to the report, in 2022:
- Half of all people with a disability were age 65 or older—nearly three times larger than the share for those with no disability.
- 30 percent of workers with a disability were employed part time, compared with 16 percent of workers who were not disabled.
- Disabled people with jobs were more likely to be self-employed than people with jobs who were not disabled.
The unemployment rate for people with a disability ages 16-64 fell from 10.8 percent in 2021 to 8.2 percent in 2022, the report showed. But the unemployment rate for this group was still twice as high as it was for people without a disability.
Why the Employment Rate Keeps Climbing
Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public-policy organization, assessed past BLS reports and noted that the employment rate for people with disabilities has been rising since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
They attributed this positive trend to the "gradual tightening of labor markets," which has created job opportunities for this group of workers that have continued into the pandemic.
"With wage growth and job openings high, the data suggests that labor demand has outstripped labor supply for at least the last year, creating labor shortages," the Economic Innovation Group researchers stated. "This appears to have been a boon to employment rates [disabled people]."
The ubiquity of remote work has also helped individuals with disabilities secure employment.
"The increase in labor force participation during the pandemic is largely attributed to the widespread availability of remote work, which tends to increase workforce participation for both individuals with disabilities and caregivers," Leen said.
He added that remote work has also led to increased use of more accessible technologies, such as web conferencing with captions, and accessible websites, which have made it possible for individuals with disabilities to work from home more easily.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing an Accessible Workplace]
Making remote work available to individuals with disabilities also helps federal contractors retain experienced workers and make progress toward their Rehabilitation Act of 1973 affirmative-action goals.
But some employers have begun requiring employees to come back to the office, which could negatively affect workforce participation gains among those with disabilities, Leen noted.
"Businesses should look at this empirical data and find ways to increase and retain individuals with disabilities in their workforces," he said. "Continuing to make telework available is an effective way to do this, whether provided individually as an accommodation or more generally as a matter of universal design."
Do Your Benefits Packages Support Workers with Disabilities?
Jessica Tuman, head of the Voya Cares and Voya Enterprise ESG Centers of Excellence for Voya Financial in Atlanta, said the rise in workers with disabilities landing jobs is encouraging, but companies must not rest on their laurels.
"More still is needed to close the employment gap between individuals with disabilities and their nondisabled colleagues," she said.
To further support workers with disabilities, employers should take a hard look at their employee benefits packages and evaluate whether they intentionally support the well-being of employees with disabilities, Tuman said.
For example, an employee concierge service can help support workers and families with complex, chronic and ongoing care needs. And a special-needs planning service can connect disabled employees to experienced consultants who can answer questions about:
- Government benefits rules.
- Company benefits.
- Financial considerations for caregivers and people with disabilities.
"Employers that are recruiting and hiring individuals with disabilities need to do more than provide a competitive workplace benefits package to retain them," Tuman said. "Creating a supportive and inclusive culture is the 'secret sauce' that will make an organization an employer of choice for people with disabilities."
Launching an employee resource group for employees with disabilities can help new hires feel welcome through shared experiences. Workforce training initiatives also can help dispel stigmas surrounding disabilities and prepare managers to interview, onboard and work with people with disabilities.
"Providing educational opportunities for employees with disabilities helps recognize and meet their unique needs, such as an introduction to special-needs planning, the ins and outs of ABLE accounts, the basics about government benefits and how-to sessions on family meetings," Tuman said. "All these efforts help solidify a culture of inclusion."