According to a 2008 report published in the Monthly Labor Review, there has been a downward trend in the employment of people with disabilities 1990. With few exceptions, this trend has persisted despite the inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), into law almost thirty years ago. Moreover, this decline has continued to worsen despite a growing employment rate for those living without disabilities. As of January 2017, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) reports that the unemployment rate for people living with disabilities is 11.0 percent, constituting a 6.1 percent gap between the disabled and those without disabilities.
Reasons for this chronic employment discrepancy are highly complex and multi-faceted, involving physical barriers in the workplace, low education, an increasingly older and more experienced workforce, as well as a growing dependence upon government support programs.
As either part of the architectural design of a building or as mobile features throughout a facility, physical barriers restrict the participation of disabled employees in the day-to-day operations of any business. A recent news article in the Guardian emphasized this issue, asking, “When was the last time you were assisted in a shop by someone in a wheelchair?” The article continues, stating “…physical barriers are the main problem…for customers and potential staff.”
However, creating an accessible environment is often neither difficult nor expensive. In most cases, simply rearranging furniture or office fixtures is enough to adequately accommodate any accessibility needs. According to a Job Accommodation Network (JAN) report, 59 percent of employers polled, “…said the accommodations needed by employees [with disabilities] cost absolutely nothing.” Moreover, the report further states that only 36 percent of employers reported experiencing a one-time expenditure of roughly $500.
In addition to architectural barriers in “brick-and-mortar” stores, another increasingly common impediment to employment for the disabled is inaccessible job applications. For many of those living with sight, hearing, and certain mobility difficulties, both online and hardcopy applications must be made accessible.
Once again, such a task is not insurmountable. For instance, online applications can be easily navigated and completed by disabled applicants with assistive technologies, such as screen readers or captions. However, websites must be appropriately constructed in order for these tools to be used, while further assistance may be required for hardcopy applications.
According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the availability of accessible job applications is imperative to influencing employment growth for the disabled; “Ensuring that job applications are…accessible to all applicants is essential to enable people with disabilities to find work and advance in their jobs.”
Incidentally, studies show that companies that hire employees with disabilities report higher employee retention rates in addition to overall employee efficiency and moral. In addition, according to the Guardian, “…people with disability take fewer days off, take less sick leave and have a higher retention rate than other workers. Recruitment, insurance cover and compensation costs are also lower.”
Many studies spanning the last three decades agree that those living with disabilities tend to have lower educational attainment rates than those living without disabilities. Reasons for such a disparity can include severe disabilities or chronic health issues, a school administration’s misconceptions of the abilities of students with special needs, as well as personal or family financial circumstances. However, regardless of why lower education rates are a common denominator amongst the disabled population, reports indicate that this lower educational attainment substantially impacts an individual’s employment opportunities.
One such report, a study co-authored by the Kessler Foundation’s Director of Vocational Research, John O’Neill, Ph.D., asserts such a correlation in the case of those living with disabilities. “ [It is] estimated that employment rates of people with disabilities in their 20s and 30s would be 23% higher if they completed high school….young adults who graduate from college have 22% higher earnings and 1.85 greater odds of finding employment than those who do not graduate from high school.” The article continues, stating, “People with disabilities may receive an additional benefit if education can both mitigate aspects of disability that affect productivity and act as a signal of productivity.”
However, the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that, out of the more than 28 million people age 25 and older living with disabilities in the U.S., only about 36 percent graduated from high school by 2015. What’s more, only about 16 percent – have attained at least a bachelor’s degree. In comparison, roughly 35 percent of those in the same age group and living without disabilities have attained a bachelor’s degree or greater.
Based on the BLS estimates, the employment rates for this group will continue to decline in the future unless educational attainment rates increase amongst those living with disabilities. According to an executive summary by Georgetown University titled “Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020”, 65 percent of jobs in the U.S. will require at least an associate’s degree in the next three years. Not only will such a large demand for college-level education affect employment for many of those with disabilities, but it will severely limit the nature of employment that this group of people will be able to acquire.
As a National Public Radio (NPR) online news article titled, “Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America,” points out, having only a high school diploma or less drastically changes the nature of employment one can acquire, “…people who have only a high school education aren’t going to be able to get a sit-down job.” For those with disabilities and low educational attainment, not being able to find work outside of manual labor fields may make employment impossible.
However, creating an inclusive environment in schools to support equal education opportunities for all students is difficult. Aside from the administrative and logistic complexities of re-organizing the educational programs at current schools, establishing inclusive education as a standard rather than an aspiration requires large change.
To that end, the Global Campaign for Education, an organization dedicated to supporting the right of equal education for all, lists seven strategies for implementing inclusive education. These strategies include such far reaching items as legislative change, the proper education or re-education of teachers, as well as re-defining social attitudes surrounding the disabled and others. However, by making large changes and creating inclusive education programs as a standard, learning outcomes and greater levels of attainment become possible for many students.
The Aging Workforce and Work Experience Barriers
As civil rights legislation, the ADA gives those with disabilities a fair chance in the job market when compared to others of similar skills and work related experience. However, as many may not have the education or the experience to adequately compete in the current job market, the disabled often remain at a competitive disadvantage despite the law. “ ‘[The Economy] makes it hard because our folks are all entry level, and most companies these days have a glut of really experienced people that are taking entry level jobs because they don’t have anything else,’ ” said Linda Richman, then deputy executive director for Liberty Resources, in an 2006 article published online in AlterNet.
Currently, many job positions are held by older and experienced employees. According to U.S. News and World Report, out of the over 10 million jobs across 26 different industries in the U.S., at least 30 percent are held by those 55 years of age or older. In addition, a similar U.S. News article reports that, “For three-fourths of employees between ages 50 and 60, [investment firm Charles Schwab] found the primary motivation for work is that they like their jobs and find the work experience satisfying.”
Such a high level of retention among an ageing workforce has created a greater level of competition for even lower-level and entry-level positions. “In today’s competitive job market, more and more positions that are billed as entry-level aren’t actually for people just starting out in their careers. Rather, they’re designed for young professionals whose resumes include a few years of work experience on top of that Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree,” reports Business Insider’s online magazine.
Due to the retention of an older workforce driving the increasing demands for greater education and work experience in even entry-level positions, many of those living with disabilities are, and will continue to be, held at a competitive disadvantage in the current and future economy.
Benefits Program Barriers
A further barrier exists in the growing dependence upon Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). According to NPR’s article, less than 1 percent of all people who enter into the federal disability program leave to reenter the workforce. This is due, in large part, to the need for insurance, such as Medicare, for which many of those receiving disability benefits qualify. In fact “…disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills,” reports NPR.
Incidentally, an article published in the Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law provides several reasons why those on disability are not reentering the workforce.
First, if the wage rate obtainable in the market is low, an individual may determine that the costs of working outweigh the benefits of doing so. Second, with a fixed number of hours in a day, a disabled individual may find that there are a fewer hours than can be dedicated to work, given the number of hours that must be devoted to personal car and other basic tasks. Third, sources of wealth not tied to work, such as disability payments of Medicaid health insurance benefits, may reduce incentives to work, particularly if work hours operate to reduce eligibility for those sources of wealth.
However, as these certifications are only available upon request from states and municipalities, not all areas are certified as they may have not requested certification. Check with a local or state code official for confirmation.
However, single individuals with disabilities are not the only ones susceptible to benefit dependence; rather, the daily lives of children and entire families may be affected. As of December 2016, more than 1.2 million people under the age of 18 receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for some form of disability, according to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) website. In some cases, the funds provided through the SSI program are depended upon by the families of these children. NPR reports on just such a case, “Jahleel’s mom wants him to do well in school. That is absolutely clear. But her livelihood depends on Jahleel struggling in school. This tension only increases as kids get older. One mother told me her teenage son wanted to work, but she didn’t want him to get a job because if he did, the family would lose its disability check.”
Recognizing the cyclical nature of benefit dependence among the disabled and the need to encourage such a large population to work, the SSA provides Return to Work (RTW) programs. RTW programs provide for those who are actively receiving disability benefits to begin or return to work without losing their monthly federal payments or insurance. In addition, vocational training and job training is available through the RTW programs.
Bearing in mind the increasing demand from the job market for more and more qualified individuals to fill even entry-level positions, creating opportunities for increased educational attainment as well as gaining relevant work experience before leaving school must be a priority. In addition, incentivizing low-cost medical insurance options is also paramount in influencing those on federal disability programs to join or re-join the workforce. According to the Huffington Post, encouraging the U.S.’s growing disabled population to become a large part of the current workforce will provide the country with much needed versatility and innovation in a time of heightened global economic competition. “As the U.S. disabled population grows amidst increasing challenges to American economic competitiveness on the world stage, the time is ripe to change our perceptions of disability and integrally incorporate the creative and often resilient disabled population into our workforce.”