Employment Levels for People with Disabilities Reach New Highs
By Susan Chandler

Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes and Research

January 3, 2023

The last 12 months have been an unprecedented boon for people with disabilities who want to work. From November 2021 through November 2022, the employment-to-population ratio among people with disabilities rose 5.5% to 36.5%, according to the recent National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE) report. That compares with less than a 1% increase for people without disabilities.

As the economy has slowed in the last few months, an even more unexpected pattern has emerged. Workers with disabilities have continued to make employment gains while workers without them have lost ground. In November, the labor-force-participation rate for people with disabilities rose nearly 3% while it fell slightly for the rest of the U.S. workforce. “I’m finding 2022 quite surprising,” says John O’Neill, PhD, Director of the Center for Employment and Disability Research at the Kessler Foundation in New Jersey. “This is going to be a great period to do employment research on once we’re through it and our samples are big enough for economists to tease out the causes and effects.” The nTide report is produced by Kessler, a leading nonprofit in the field of rehabilitation research, and the University of New Hampshire. It is based on data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics but the numbers are customized to combine the statistics for men and women of working age, which is defined as 16 to 64.

“It’s one of those unexpected but very beneficial consequences of the pandemic.” Allen Heinemann, PhD

As for potential causes, there are likely numerous factors at play, according to economists. But there’s evidence that many companies relaxed workplace policies in ways that benefited people with disabilities, disability advocates say.  Recent Kessler surveys of employment practices from 2017 and 2022 found that the number of companies with flexible work arrangements had more than doubled over the past five years. These included allowing people to work from home, work less than full-time and “job share” with other employees, policies that disability advocates have been encouraging them to adopt for years.

“There have been a whole lot of companies that have finally created an accommodation process because of Covid-related issues,” says O’Neill. Adds Allen Heinemann, PhD, Director of the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago: “It’s one of those unexpected but very beneficial consequences of the pandemic. It helped employers realize that workers can be effective in remote settings and meet productivity expectations, and that benefits people with issues about transportation or other issues with a workplace setting. It also helped people seek promotion opportunities while working remotely.”

“There’s been a much greater focus on disability inclusion in the workplace.” Karen Tamley

The survey also found that twice as many supervisors in 2022 reported that their organizations had created centralized funds to pay for worker accommodations, which removes financial disincentives for individual managers to hire someone with a disability. And more supervisors reported that hiring and recruiting people with disabilities had become a more important priority for them and their managers, and that their companies had established hiring goals. “There’s been a much greater focus on disability inclusion in the workplace,” says Karen Tamley, President and CEO of Access Living, a Chicago nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. “I can tell that by the number of requests we’re getting from employers around training. I’ve had many people reaching out to me during the pandemic saying ‘Karen, I really want to hire people with disabilities.’”

Even though employment among people with disabilities has reached an all-time high since the government began tracking it 14 years ago, they still have a lot of ground to make up. The labor-force-participation rate for people with disabilities reached 38.8% in November, roughly half the 76.9% rate for people without disabilities. The 6 million workers with disabilities in the U.S. represented only 4% of the 148 million U.S. workers in November, according to the nTIDE report.

Some disability advocates also are concerned that people with disabilities could bear an outsized portion of future layoffs as the U.S. economy slows because they have less seniority than others at their companies. Yet there are reasons to believe that pattern won’t hold this time, O’Neill says: “If you’ve put all the procedures in place to recruit, hire and accommodate people with disabilities – and you’re doing better now – that may create a concern on leadership’s part about letting go of people with disabilities first.”


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