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Employment and Disability

American census data as reported in Americans with Disabilities: 2010 reveals that 19% of the population (about 56.7 million people) had a disability in 2010. More than half of those indicated that their disability was severe.

Work team with man in a wheelchair

Here are a few of the employment and income related findings from that report:

  • 41% of those age 21 to 64 with any disability were employed, compared to 79% of those with no disability.]
  • The incidence of persistent poverty among people age 15 to 64 was significantly higher for those with a disability: 10.8% of those with severe disabilities, 4.9% of those with a non-severe disability, as compared with 3.8% of those with no disability.
  • Adults age 21 to 64 with disabilities had median monthly earnings of $1,961 compared with $2,724 for those with no disability.

More recent data (2014) shows that little has changed in the intervening years.

  • For all age groups, the employment-population ratio was much lower for persons with a disability than for those with no disability.
  • Unemployment rates were higher for persons with a disability than for those with no disability among all educational attainment groups.
  • In 2014, 33% of workers with a disability were employed part time, compared with 18% for those with no disability.
  • Employed persons with a disability were more likely to be self-employed than those with no disability.[1]

The Disability Employment Gap

It’s clear the employment gap for people with disabilities continues to be wide in the U.S. You might ask why, especially during those times when employers have struggled to find the talent they need. One thing is certain; it’s not about available resources. The United Nations reports much higher employment rates for people with disabilities in a number of countries, some of which are much less prosperous than the U.S. (e.g. Malawi at 92% and China at 85%[2]).

A review of existing research[3] into why employers don’t hire people with disabilities reveals the following main explanations:

  • People with disabilities lack necessary knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics.
  • People with disabilities have lower productivity and entail higher costs than people without disabilities.
  • Employers believe stereotypes about people with disabilities that lead to biased and unfavorable decision making.

What this review of the research also found is that these most common reasons for not hiring people with disabilities are largely based on inaccurate perceptions:

“…lower levels of education may inhibit the employability of individuals with disabilities, especially where job-specific knowledge and formal education is required. However, individuals with disabilities rate equal or better than people without disabilities on the criterion of dependability…the evidence shows no productivity differences between [people with disabilities] PWDs and people without disabilities…Accommodations for PWDs may entail additional costs to employers, but evidence to date suggests that these costs are usually minor and unlikely to tip the benefit versus cost assessment away from hiring from this source of labor.”

Still, the census data shows that many employers are still not convinced.

Hiring Disabled Workers: The Business Benefits

In addition to legislative compliance and “doing the right thing,” the Australian Network on Disability identifies the following potential business benefits associated with employing people with disabilities:

  • Access to diverse talent: attraction of employees through access to a broader talent pool as people with disability bring a diverse range of skills and abilities and new and valuable perspectives to the workplace
  • Retention: on average, employees with disabilities have longer tenure than those who don’t. In addition, an employer who hires people with disabilities is also more likely to retain existing employees who develop or acquire a disability as they age.
  • Greater creativity and innovation: understanding the needs of people with disabilities as a service provider is critical in retaining those customers. Including diverse perspectives in the workplace enhances creativity.
  • Improved customer service and customer attraction: an ageing population and increased incidence of disability not only impacts the workforce, but also means changing markets. Being disability confident means knowing how to better communicate with and attract customers with disabilities, enhancing customer service.
  • Reputation & Brand: according to a University of Massachusetts survey, 92% of the American public view companies that hire people with disability more favorably than those that do not; 87% of the public also agree that they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire people with disability.
  • Procurement process & tender documents: more organizations and governments are seeking information from suppliers on their employment practices and encouraging tenders from diverse suppliers.
  • Employee engagement: strengthening workplace morale and productivity through a more committed and diverse workplace
  • Risk management: compliance with legislative requirements and meeting international standards reduces litigation risk.

Disabled Employees: The Bottom Line

In a cost benefit comparison of disabled employees versus non-disabled employees, researchers at DePaul University concluded:

“Workers with disabilities have much to contribute to the labor force (particularly when one considers job performance and supervision). Participants with disabilities from the retail sector also stayed on the job longer, had lower absenteeism rates, and had an equivalent number of worker’s compensation claims when compared to participants without disabilities…Further, when reported by employers, the provision of accommodations for participants with disabilities was uncommon and, for the most part, low to no cost.[4]

In spite of the generally positive results of their cost/benefit analysis, the authors of the report went on to share the following conclusion from the focus group phase of their research:

“…although administrators expressed positive attitudes toward workers with disabilities, they were concerned that manager biases may be inhibiting work opportunities for this group. Overall, there appears to be a disconnect between the performance of workers with disabilities (as evident through the cost-benefit survey findings) and managers’ perceptions of this group.”

From a regulatory perspective, diversity, inclusion and the avoidance of discrimination are hiring imperatives. For employers struggling to find qualified and committed employees, expanding the search into a broader, largely untapped talent pool also makes sense. Perhaps the first step is bridging the gap between the negative perception of what it means to have differently-abled employees and the positive reality that plays out in those workplaces that do.


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Photo Credit: Photo by franky242, courtesy of


Additional References

Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S., Census Bureau Reports

Americans with Disabilities Act

Accommodation in the workplace

Reasonable Accommodation

Small Employers And Reasonable Accommodation

Disability Discrimination

[1] Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary

[2] Disability and Economics: The nexus between disability, education, and employment.

[3] Mark L. Lengnick-Hall, Philip M. Gaunt, Adrienne A. R. Brooks Why Employers Don’t Hire People With Disabilities: A Survey of the Literature

[4] DePaul University. Exploring the Bottom Line: A Study of the Costs and Benefits of Workers with Disabilities

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