Why Is The Employment Gap For People With Disabilities So Consistently Wide?

This story written by Andrew Pulrang originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Employment rates for people with disabilities go up and down, but never very much. And it seems like the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people has always been massive, and resists nearly every effort to narrow it.

But it’s not much of a mystery why so comparatively few disabled people have good and stable paid jobs. In fact, the barriers are fairly obvious, at least to disabled people themselves and specialists who study the problem. Still, it may help now and then to review the factors that hinder disabled people in the job market, think more carefully about how these factors interact, and rethink what might be done about them.

As this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month ends, there is at least some rare good news. U.S. employment statistics over the last several months show an improvement in employment rates for people with disabilities. Specifically, people with disabilities seem to be entering the job market and getting jobs at a slightly higher rate than non-disabled people.

An October report on disability employment rates from the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability provides details. The Labor Force Participation Rate — the percentage of working-age people employed — increased 0.4 percent among disabled people between August and September, while it decreased by 0.4 percent for non-disabled people over the same month. Employment-to-Population Ratio — the percentage of the overall population employed — increased 0.3 percent among disabled people between August and September, while remaining flat for non-disabled people.

John O’Neill, PhD, director of the Center for Employment and Disability Research at Kessler Foundation, suggests that this may be a substantial trend, citing disability employment rate improvements extending over a year, “at levels consistently above the historic highs of 2008.”

But positive news like this for disability employment is always relative. Employment rates for people with disabilities have never been credibly close to those of non-disabled people, at least as long as reliable statistics have been tracked. And despite clear signs of recent progress, the employment gap for people with disabilities is still very wide.

The Disability Statistics Compendium Annual Report for 2021 from the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire includes comparative employment rates going back to 2008. While employment rates for people with disabilities do rise, fall, and rise again over time, the percentage of disabled people employed has always been only around 30-40 percent, compared to more like 70 percent for non-disabled people — marking an historically consistent employment gap of around 40 percent.

Improvements have always been fairly marginal — valuable and encouraging, but not enough to change the overall picture. Disabled people’s employment rates going up and down seem to relate more to general economic conditions than to any change or initiatives hoping to improve disability employment.

So why is this gap so wide? Why is it still so difficult for individuals with disabilities to find paying work, and for disabled people in general to participate more in the job market? There is no single or simple answer. Instead, it is likely to be a combination of factors. None of them are particularly mysterious or hidden. And some of them might be easy to change, given enough priority and political will.

Disabilities themselves

Non-disabled people tend to view the negative effects of disabilities as much worse than they really are. And disabled people still struggle to be seen as capable and valuable employees. On the other hand, most disabilities really do make at least some things harder to do. Even under ideal conditions of accessibility and social acceptance, most disabilities require specific kinds of planning, equipment, and physical and emotional endurance that non-disabled people simply don’t need to worry about. And these resources aren’t always readily available.

Plus, while some disabilities are relatively stable, and can be made nearly irrelevant in the workplace with the right accommodations, others fluctuate or are progressive. Adaptations that work today may not be enough tomorrow, a month from now, or in two years. And chronic illnesses like diabetes, Crohn’s Disease, and Long Covid can sometimes be harder to adapt to than deafness, blindness, or paraplegia.

Physical accessibility and standard accommodations often aren’t enough. So one thing many disabled people need in order to be able to work sustainably is flexible jobs that can more easily accommodate fluctuating disabilities and medical conditions. This can include work from home opportunities, varied work schedules, more generous, creative time off provisions, and a wider variety of seasonal and part-time jobs.

Bureaucracy and poorly designed support systems

Sometimes, the problem isn’t about the work, or disabilities themselves, but outside factors that hold disabled people back from reaching their full potential. The most familiar example is the limits on monthly earning and saving to maintain eligibility for benefits like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Millions of disabled people exist in a vast gray area between total financial self-sufficiency and complete reliance on benefits. They can work and get a job, but it won’t pay enough to meet their higher expenses, or provide health insurance adequate to meet their disability-related needs. If they earn too much from a job, or save too much at any given time, they risk losing benefits they need to live and function. And these earning and saving thresholds haven’t been substantially updated in decades. It’s a poverty trap.

One solution is to transform government income and health care benefits so they support disabled people working, rather than being viewed as strictly a substitute for work. Working for pay while still being eligible for benefits should be much more common and easier to sustain. That could encourage more people with disabilities who want to work and excel to put their full effort into it, confident that they will be financially safe to take the kinds of risks so often necessary for success and prosperity.

Access barriers and discrimination

Of course, accessibility and mobility are two even more obvious, straightforward barriers to employment. They can’t reliably get from home to work and back because of poor or inaccessible transportation. They can’t get into the workplace or maneuver around it because of steps and narrow pathways. They can’t access the tools, techniques, and technology of specific jobs and professions. Or maybe they just can’t get into the restroom. Accessibility standards have improved access quite a lot over the last 50 or so years. But physical design and layout is still an everyday problem for people with any kind of mobility disability.

At the same time, despite the right to individual adaptations being a core provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it still seems far too easy for employers to refuse them. Or, maybe even more common, disabled applicants and workers themselves instinctively feel a passive pressure to avoid even asking for accommodations, for fear of being seen as too “high maintenance.”

Finally, there are still too many ways for employers to simply screen out disabled job seekers, weed out disabled employees in indirect ways, or underpay them and overlook their potential for advancement. Both conscious and unconscious discrimination on the basis of disability still happens. Fully qualified disabled people are still denied jobs and career opportunities just because they are disabled.

Maybe what disabled people need is some new ways to make the Americans with Disabilities Act a more immediate and credible force for accessibility, accommodation, and non-discrimination. There also should be a more focused effort by employers themselves to reduce the informal stigma against workers self-identifying their disabilities and seeking accommodations. Disability rights protections don’t do much good if, deep down, disabled people don’t believe they will work for them — and opt instead to hide, and muddle through without accommodations.

Other overlapping, intersecting factors

Disabled people are also hindered by forces and situations that aren’t unique to disability — like substandard education, poor training, lack of past work experience, life struggles and barriers outside of work, and the compounding effects of other overlapping disadvantages and privileges around race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, and social class.

Employers, disability professionals, and disabled people themselves need to recognize that while people with all kinds of disabilities have much in common, they face a wide range of different barriers when it comes to employment. The reasons for such high and persistent unemployment among people with disabilities aren’t simple. No single great reform or social change is likely to be revolutionary enough to “move the needle” by itself.

On the other hand, we know the pressure points fairly well. Addressing any of them can help.