In 2014, the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities was 64.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Labor Force Characteristics Summary. In other words, after two-plus decades since the signing of the ADA, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities decreased by only 5.4 percentage points, leaving many wondering why.
According to the BLS’s 2008 Monthly Labor Review, the downward trend of unemployment for people with disabilities actually began in 1990. The report states that some researchers and economists believe the ADA contributed to this decrease in employment, speculating that if employers view hiring someone with a disability as being too costly or too difficult to accommodate, they simply won’t hire them.
Although the ADA made it unlawful for companies not to hire a qualified candidate based solely on the fact that he or she has a disability, its language is vague, making it easy to circumvent.
“Managers are often primarily evaluated by objectives in their role as individual contributors, and as a result, they do not have sufficient time to be actively engaged as effective supervisors,” says Deborah Dagit, a diversity and inclusion leader who advises companies through her organization Deb Dagit Diversity.
Dagit also adds, “Managers also seldom receive training on how to provide an accommodation — including where funds can be accessed if a rare but more expensive accommodation that does not fit their budget is needed — as well as on what the interactive process with the employee needs to look like. Not everyone needs an accommodation, but for those who do, the process needs to be a lot more like the one typically found in higher education settings.”
Statistics support Dagit’s claims, revealing that the number of companies helping support people with disabilities is relatively low. According to the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, in 2010, there were more than 27 million businesses in the U.S., yet the 2012 Economic Census Industry Series shows that only 2,794 businesses provided special needs transportation and only 7,834 provided job counseling, training, and work experience for employees with a disability.
“If people with disabilities aren’t getting help with accommodations, they likely won’t reach their full potential,” Dagit says. “However, the majority of disabilities do not require costly accommodations — just understanding.”
Beyond the issue of accommodations, there is a lack of hard data showing the true number of people with disabilities nationwide. Often the information gathered by the government is inherently flawed.
The BLS’s Current Population Survey (CPS) — the nation’s official source for unemployment rates and labor force statistics — includes data collected from nearly 60,000 households. The survey consists of six questions that help the BLS identify people with disabilities. Answering “yes” to any of these six questions indicates that the participant has a disability. However, the results of these surveys aren’t always accurate.
“Extensive research conducted as part of the effort to include disability questions in the CPS demonstrated that it’s very difficult to accurately measure all persons with disabilities using only a few questions,” says Janie-Lynn Kang, economist for labor force statistics at BLS. “The scope of disability statistics captured is very limited.”
Another problem is that many people choose not to self-identify as having a disability. According to Dagit, 71 percent of disabilities are not apparent, and people who don’t have to disclose their disability typically won’t for fear they won’t be considered for a position.
An Educational Advocate
Despite lingering issues around disability inclusion in the workplace, one higher education institution is addressing some of these challenges and working to create actionable solutions.
Founded in 2000 and housed within the University of Tennessee, Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD) is a national association of higher education professionals and employers focused on issues related to the employment of graduates with disabilities.
“In the interactions I have with employers, there is a great deal of interest from a diversity standpoint, and employers are now fully understanding that disability is an important part of diversity,” says Alan Muir, co-founder and executive director of COSD.
The association has helped foster collaborative relationships between Career Services and Disability Services offices in higher education institutions, providing students with disabilities opportunities to gain exposure to employers who visit campus.
“This level of collaboration, from just knowing what each other’s offices do to having a person acting as a liaison between Career Services and Disability Services offices, provides greater preparation for these students to be competitive in the career search with their non-disabled peers,” Muir says.
Although the BLS doesn’t have specific data for higher education institutions, it’s possible that efforts like those of COSD are helping. According to BLS Labor Force Characteristics Summary data, the employment rate for people with disabilities increased 2.7 percent from 2014 to July 2015.
Although some progress is being made, Dagit believes higher education has a large role to play in helping organizations and businesses hire more people with disabilities. Educational institutions should be “schooling corporations” on how to accommodate individuals with disabilities, Dagit says.
While there is still no concrete answer or foolproof way to improve these employment numbers, Dagit and Muir, as well as many other people across the U.S., are working to create more inclusive strategies and opportunities for these job seekers.●
Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. COSD is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Deborah Dagit is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.