October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), 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.
The Good News
On the bright side, disability employment reached historically high levels in 2022. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Jobs Report released Oct. 7, 2022 reported the employment-to-population ratio (the percent of the population that is employed) for people with disabilities (ages 16-64) was nearly 35% in September 2022.
One major reason for the increase in employment of disabled individuals this year was due to changes that arose from the pandemic. Though many disabled workers lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, as it continued, changes in the employment landscape such as the increase in remote work opportunities made it possible for many disabled individuals to become gainfully employed. Likewise, workforce shortages encouraged employers to take a chance on hiring individuals with disabilities. As more people return to work and especially to office jobs, it is unclear whether such increases will hold.
In other good news, “federal officials are sending $177 million to states in a major push to shift people with disabilities away from subminimum wage work in favor of competitive integrated employment,” reported Sean Heasley for Disability Scoop on Oct. 3. The Subminimum Wage to Competitive Integrated Employment demonstration project will provide funding to 14 state vocational rehabilitation agencies and will be distributed over five years.
This encouraging trend follows the enactment of another rule meant to prohibit the practice of paying people with disabilities less than their non-disabled colleagues. In July, AbilityOne, a federal program that finds employment for disabled individuals through government contracts, ruled that its employees must be paid at least minimum wage. Prior to the ruling, employers were permitted (with certification from the U.S. DOL) to pay disabled employees less than minimum wage.
According to Disability Scoop, “about 40,000 individuals who are blind or who have significant disabilities are employed through AbilityOne at over 1,000 locations nationwide. The program directs federal contracts to a network of some 450 nonprofit agencies, which provided nearly $4 billion in products and services to the government in fiscal year 2021 alone.”
Hopefully, other employers will soon follow suit.
The Not-So-Good News
The high employment-to-population rate for people with disabilities is a bit deceptive though. According to the BLS, the unemployment rate among persons with a disability is more than twice that of persons without a disability—7.3 percent vs. 3.1 percent, respectively—in September 2022. The unemployment rate measures the share of workers in the labor force who do not currently have a job but are actively looking for work. That means that individuals with disabilities who are able and willing to work are not finding jobs to the same extent as individuals without disabilities.
And there are other reasons that the increase in disability employment isn’t as good as it could be. For one, disabled individuals who are employed are more likely to have only part-time employment than their non-disabled counterparts (29 percent vs. 16 percent). Others are under-employed, which means that they are employed in jobs that are not consistent with their skill level. Still others face barriers to higher education, which hinders access to jobs with growth potential.
Complicating matters further is the fact that individuals with different types of disabilities face different challenges when it comes to employment opportunities. For example, Breeze, a disability insurance vendor, reports that employment rates (employment-to-population ratio) of working age adults vary by disability:
- Learning disabilities: 46 percent
- Hearing disabilities: 52 percent
- Vision disability: 44 percent of people
- Cognitive disability: 26 percent
- Intellectual and developmental disabilities: 14.7 percent
Although there is still work to do before people with disabilities find equity in the workforce, there is reason to celebrate this NDEAM. Employers are gaining awareness about the need for equity and responding by hiring more people with disabilities. To learn more about ways to commemorate NDEAM, visit dol.gov/agencies/odep/initiatives/ndeam.