Only four out of ten working-age adults with disabilities are employed

Worker with disability

The low unemployment rate is leading employers to recruit and hire people they might otherwise screen out, such as people with disabilities or criminal backgrounds. The effects are also showing up in the data: The number of people who cite disability as a reason for not working has recently fallen, reversing a decades-long trend.

But if the goal is to substantially increase the employment of people with disabilities, as envisioned by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), then a low unemployment rate won’t be sufficient. Employment rates among people with disabilities are very, very low: Only 40 percent of adults with disabilities in their prime working years (ages 25-54) have a job, compared to 79 percent of all prime-age adults. Employment is central to the goals articulated by the ADA—equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency—but there is clearly more work to do on that front.

In this analysis, a follow-up to an earlier post on disability among adults of prime working age (25-54), we examine employment among working adults with disabilities and how it varies by geography, race/ethnicity, and education. The data for this analysis comes from the American Community Survey, which specifies six areas of functional limitation: difficulties with vision, hearing, the ability to walk or climb stairs, cognition (remembering, concentrating, or making decisions), self-care (dressing or bathing), and independent living (doing errands alone, such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping).

People with disabilities have higher employment rates in regions with tighter labor markets

Employment rates among prime-aged adults with disabilities in the 100 largest metropolitan areas range from 28 percent to 60 percent (Map 1). Workers and would-be workers with disabilities fare better in places where higher shares of the overall working-age population are employed. Such places include Madison, Wis.; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; Washington, D.C.; Denver, Colo.; Austin, Texas; Wichita, Kan.; Omaha, Neb.; and Boise, Idaho.

Nonetheless, even in places with high employment rates among people with disabilities, the gap relative to the population as a whole is huge, anywhere from 20 to 35 percentage points. For example, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the employment rate among adults with disabilities is 51 percent, compared to 87 percent among all adults. In fact, the highest employment rate among people with disabilities (60 percent in Madison, Wis.) is still below the rate for all working-age adults in Bakersfield, Calif. (70 percent), the region with the lowest employment rate among the 100 largest metro areas.

Map 1

In contrast to these places, metro areas with the lowest employment rates among adults with disabilities generally have lower overall employment and labor force participation rates and higher unemployment rates. These places include Spokane, Wash.; Bakersfield and Stockton, Calif., Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn.; Lakeland, Fla.; and Winston-Salem and Greensboro, N.C.

The employment gap for adults with disabilities relative to the adult population as a whole tends to be even larger in these weaker-market places. Looking at Bakersfield again, only 28 percent of people with disabilities are employed, a full 42 percentage points lower than the rate among all adults (70 percent). In Lakeland, Fla., that gap is 45 percentage points (29 percent of people with disabilities are employed, versus 74 percent of all adults). 

Within each race/ethnicity, employment among people with disabilities varies widely by place

Nationally, employment rates among prime-aged adults with disabilities are highest among Asians (47 percent), followed by Hispanics (42 percent), whites (41 percent), blacks (33 percent), and Native Americans (31 percent).


But those rates vary widely by geography within each racial/ethnic category (Figure 1). Among adults with disabilities, Hispanics exhibit the widest range of employment outcomes, with only 17 percent employed in Jacksonville, Fla. compared to 75 percent in Tulsa, Okla. Among blacks, outcomes are similarly disparate, from 19 percent employed in Minneapolis-St. Paul to 60 percent employed in Tucson, Ariz. Employment rates among whites with disabilities range from 28 percent in Spokane, Wash. to 63 percent in Honolulu. Among Asians with disabilities, employment is lowest in Sacramento, Calif. and Honolulu (39 percent) and highest in Washington, D.C. (67 percent).

Higher educational levels lead to higher employment levels

Mirroring larger labor market trends, adults with disabilities do better in the labor market if they have higher levels of education. Nationally, 31 percent of adults with disabilities who have a high school diploma or less are employed, compared to 44 percent among those with some college education but no credential, and 59 percent among those with a two- or four-year college degree.

However, even with the boost provided by higher levels of education, employment rates among people with disabilities are still much lower than among the whole population—strikingly so.  Adults with a disability and a college degree have an employment rate (59 percent) that is 10 percentage points lower than all adults with a high school diploma or less (69 percent) and 27 percentage points lower than all adults with a college degree (86 percent).

Local labor markets shape these outcomes significantly, too. Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, employment among people with disabilities and a high school diploma or less ranges from 17 percent in Bakersfield, Calif. to 59 percent in Madison, Wis. Among people with disabilities and an associate degree or more, employment ranges from 43 percent in Spokane, Wash. to 76 percent in Wichita, Kan.


Increasing employment among people with disabilities: a role for state and local leaders

Employment gaps of the magnitude described above stem from multiple sources. Federal disability policy emphasizes income support and disincentives employment, with only an estimated 1 percent of federal and state expenditures on working-age people with disabilities going to education, training, and employment. Turning to education, improving opportunities and removing barriers for students with disabilities is an ongoing process, as evidenced by the lower levels of educational attainment among people with disabilities. Employers may be unaware of the capacity of people with disabilities, unfamiliar with how to recruit and hire them, and unfamiliar as well with workplace accommodations. Moreover, several reports document that people with disabilities face attitudinal barriers and stigma in the labor market, a perception that is reinforced by a recent field study finding that employers were less likely to respond to resumes and cover letters from job candidates who disclosed disabilities, even when the candidates were equally qualified as those without disabilities.

Clearly, opening up employment and educational opportunities for people with disabilities is an ongoing task, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2015 prompted many to take stock of progress to date and think about the future.

But even as many do the important work of re-imagining approaches to support greater access and inclusion, state and local leaders can press on with existing resources and systems to increase employment among people with disabilities. In fact, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, which provides the architecture for federally-funded workforce programming, includes provisions to improve services for people with disabilities. And many evaluations, reports, and resources regarding employment among people with disabilities focus on core practices that will look familiar to anyone in workforce development: developing strong partnerships between employers and organizations representing job seekers, understanding employers’ recruitment and hiring practices, and using sector strategies and workforce intermediaries. These practices are the bread and butter of workforce boards, community colleges, and job training organizations. To further the goal of increasing employment among people with disabilities, local leaders can continue doing what they do best: applying public and private resources to craft employment and service interventions tailored to local needs.