According to a national study by researchers at Cornell University, only 37.7% of people with disabilities in the U.S. population were employed in 2006, compared with 79.7 percent of people without disabilities. Moreover, surveys have consistently shown the average annual earnings of employed people with disabilities to be significantly lower than those for the non-disabled employee population. In 2000 for example, people with disabilities earned an average of $33,109 compared with $43,269 for non-disabled employees.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) definition, a person with a disability is someone who a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, b) has a record of such an impairment or c) is regarded as having such an impairment. This definition embraces an extremely heterogeneous group of people with different forms and severities of disability.
Although some people may be prevented from participating in the labor force due to the nature of their disabilities, this is not the case for a large number of people with disabilities: an NOD/Harris Poll conducted in 2000 found that more than two-thirds of all people with disabilities who were unemployed wanted to be employed.
An Increasingly Important Population
Since there are around 30.6 million people aged between 21 and 64 in the U.S. who have some form of disability, this group represents a potentially valuable source of recruitment that is likely to become increasingly important as the size of the working age population in the U.S. declines due to demographic change. On the other hand, if the labor force participation rate of people with disabilities does not rise, the pressures on the U.S. economy to support an increasingly large dependent population, consisting of non-economically active older people, children and the non-employed, will be exacerbated.
Clearly there are sound economic reasons why the U.S. labor market and economy would benefit from a higher rate of employment for people with disabilities. Yet there are also some significant barriers to be overcome if this is to occur.
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) made it unlawful for employers to discriminate against a job applicant or employee with a disability, there is little evidence that the legislation has had much impact on the labor market situation of people with disabilities. Moreover, studies have suggested that although some discrimination against people in the labor market does persist, this is often less due to direct prejudice than to misperceptions about this group on the part of employers, a lack of awareness about how to attract job applicants with disabilities or uncertainty about what would be expected of them as an employer of people with disabilities.
Lack of Qualifications
At the same time, many people with disabilities find themselves at a disadvantage when competing for jobs due to factors such as relatively limited work experience, a discontinuous work history or the low confidence or self-esteem that characterizes some disabilities, particularly mental health disorders. As a group, they also have lower levels of qualifications than the non-disabled population: the Disability and Health in the United States, 2001-2005 survey found that adults without disabilities were significantly more likely, on the whole, to hold a college degree than those with various forms of disabilities.
The ADA specifies that employers should provide “reasonable accommodation” if required in order for a person with a disability to carry out the requirements of a job, unless that results in “undue hardship” in the form of significant difficulty or expense. Yet it can be difficult to establish what constitutes undue hardship to the employer and to balance this against the potential benefits of hiring a disabled job applicant, which may include their particular skills or expertise as well as a range of more intangible factors. For example, the U.S. Business Leadership Network, which actively promotes the employment of people with disabilities, stresses that the business benefits of hiring people with disabilities can include the improved creativity and productivity often associated with a more diverse workforce as well as the enhanced business reputation and possible increased market that results from being seen as an equal opportunities employer.
Altman B, Bernstein A. Disability and Health in the United States, 2001–2005. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2008. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/disability2001-2005.pdf.
Human Resources and Social Development Canada (2004). Advancing the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities 2004. http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/asp/gateway.asp?hr=/en/hip/odi/documents/advancingInclusion04/chap4.shtml&hs=pyp.
Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics. (2007). 2006 Disability Status Report. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.