October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time to recognize the contributions that disabled Americans make to the United States’ labor force. It is also a time to take stock of the current employment outlook for those with disabilities and to re-dedicate ourselves to increasing inclusion and opportunities for disabled workers.
“A strong workforce is the sum of many parts, and disability has always been a key part of the equation,” said Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy Taryn M. Williams in a press release. “People with disabilities make up a wonderfully multifaceted group. By recognizing the full complexion of our community, we can ensure our efforts to achieve disability inclusion are, in fact, truly inclusive.”
This year’s NDEAM theme is “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation.” But how equitable is the American workforce and what is the current status of disabled workers in our country? The answer is complicated.
This week’s blog looks at disability employment – the advances worth celebrating and the path forward.
1. Record-breaking employment numbers
During the pandemic, employment of disabled workers rose dramatically. After vaccines became available and COVID deaths plummeted, many in the disability community feared the upward trajectory would end. Happily, the reverse was true. In fact, the latest employment numbers for people with disabilities are stronger than ever. According to a new report from the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability (UNH-IOD), in September 2023 the employment-population ratio for disability employment stood at 37.9 %.To provide some context, in 2019, it was just 19.3%.
2. Remote work is here to stay.
A major reason employment rates among disabled workers rose during the pandemic, was because remote work became widely available. Since mobility and travel are difficult for many people with disabilities, the ability to work from home made it possible for a large number of disabled individuals to enter the workforce.
Disability activists feared that once the pandemic slowed, employers would insist that workers return to the office. Though some have, they’ve encountered resistance from employees with and without disabilities and many have continued to allow remote work.
3. Diversity in the workplace is viewed more positively
In recent years, study after study has proven that diversity is good for business. As employers have become more aware of this fact, they are making greater efforts to accommodate disabled workers. In some cases, employers are even creating programs specifically geared toward training intellectually and developmentally disabled workers.
4. Assistive technology boom
Video conferencing services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams as well as improvements in assistive technology have made it easier for employers to accommodate the needs of all their employees.
5. Adoption of telehealth programs
During the pandemic, medical and healthcare businesses accelerated their use of telehealth services. Most have continued to utilize telehealth, opening up new positions for disabled individuals with skills in health and mental health care.
6. Online training opportunities
In recent years, remote training and higher education opportunities have increased dramatically, making it convenient and more affordable for individuals with disabilities to gain career skills and certifications that made them more attractive to employers.
The path forward:
While all of the developments we’ve mentioned are good news, it’s important to recognize that disability employment rates are still dismal when compared to non-disabled employment numbers. Likewise, disabled individuals who are employed are approximately twice as likely to work part-time than their non-disabled counterparts. Additionally, employees with disabilities are often paid less than non-disabled employees for the same jobs.
Though employers are becoming more cognizant of the value that disabled employees offer, some remain uninformed about the simple and inexpensive steps they can take to make their workplaces more accommodating and inclusive. They may also be unaware of their implicit biases against disabled people. That’s where celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month can help. NDEAM helps to educate employers and other non-disabled people about the strengths and talents of people with disabilities, breaking down stereotypes, challenging assumptions and encouraging prospective employers and colleagues to welcome disabled employees and co-workers.
For more information about how you can help raise awareness about both the obstacles facing disabled workers and ways to overcome those obstacles, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.