Before the Disabled Americans Act, the country was a very different place for people with disabilities to negotiate hurdles like inaccessible public buildings. When it comes to the workforce, however, the hurdles may not look much different than they were 27 years ago.
The proportion of adults with disabilities who work with certain measures has not improved since the ADA was adopted in July 1990. When the bill was signed, roughly half of disabled Americans were employed, a percentage that fell to 41 percent by 2010 according to census data.
Ironically, some economists suggest that the ADA may have made employers less likely to hire people with disabilities, as they may have incurred the cost of providing housing. Disability advocates, however, point out that Americans with disabilities face a variety of complex issues, including stigma, typically lower education rates, and higher poverty rates, which add to the difficulties of finding work for the disabled.
“My organization has collected data on disability going back to the mid-1980s when we conducted our first so-called gap survey, which reports on the quality of life of people with and without disabilities and examines the gaps,” said Carol Glazer. President of the National Disability Organization. “A number of gaps have been closed. Unfortunately, unemployment is one thing that has not improved significantly since the measurement began.”
The ADA was a civil rights bill that improved physical access to schools, public spaces, and other buildings while ensuring legal protection, noted Philip Kahn-Pauli, director of politics and practices at RespectAbility, a nonprofit that advocates Opportunities for people with disabilities.
He added, “What the law didn’t do was remove barriers to hiring. You can make explicit discrimination illegal, but you cannot change people’s hearts and minds.”
Unconscious prejudices could play a role, as researchers at Rutgers University found out in a field test when they sent applications for more than 6,000 fictitious accounting positions. Two thirds of the applicants stated their disabilities – a spinal cord injury or Asperger’s syndrome – in their cover letters, while a third did not mention any disability. While these disabilities would not affect bookkeeping and applicants would otherwise be equally qualified, applicants with disabilities received 26 percent fewer responses from employers.
Aside from lower employment rates, workers with disabilities generally also earn less, which, according to Kahn-Pauli, is related to the educational level of disabled people. About 16 percent of adults with a disability have a college degree, or about half the rate of those without a disability. A higher level of education is associated with a higher income.
“Despite significant improvements in access to education, people with disabilities are still faced with barriers to receiving the quality education they need to be successful in the workforce,” said Kahn-Pauli. “Nationwide, only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate from high school each year, compared with 86 percent of students without disabilities.”
When it comes to the workforce, demands for greater diversity often overlook disabilities. Part of the problem may be stigma, but another factor is the complexity of the disability, which can range from cognitive and mental disabilities to physical disabilities.
Companies “think about race, gender and sexual orientation / identity,” emphasized Kahn-Pauli. “They don’t think about disability. What they may not realize is that disability is a natural part of the human experience and overcomes other barriers that separate us.”
The aging of the American workforce could bring the problem to the fore: Approximately one in three Americans ages 65 to 69 has a disability, compared to one in ten Americans ages 25 to 44.
These trends are already noticeable: the number of people with disabilities rose by 2.2 million between 2005 and 2015, which corresponds to an increase of around 4 percent.
Geography is another component, with higher disability rates among less educated adults in the Midwest and South, according to a study by Martha Ross, a collaborator at the Brookings Institution. Nearly four in ten prime-age workers without a college degree report some degree of disability in Johnson County, Kansas, the largest proportion of all 130 US cities and counties studied.
Many of these locations with high disability rates among the less educated also deal with aging workforces as well as less economic opportunities.
The relationships between education, age, poverty and disability can be complex. Economists such as Princeton University’s Angus Deaton and Anne Case are investigating whether a lack of good jobs for middle-aged white Americans with less education is leading to thisas well as higher death rates, which they call “deaths of desperation”.
“There’s a plausible story here against the backdrop of lower demand for workers with less than a bachelor’s degree,” said Ross von Rossing. “Health problems and the ‘death of desperation’ that Case and Deaton talk about are mounting because of the inability to find support and work for the family. It has cascading effects.”
Older workers who develop disabilities may have different outcomes in the labor market depending on their educational level and whether their job suits them. Some companies are developing programs to reach disabled workers, such as the accounting firm Ernst & Young, which has a network for the disabled and an inclusivity program, Glazer said.
As Kahn-Pauli noted: “We are the only minority that someone can join at any time due to accidents, illness or aging.”