By Philip Pauli
New statistics show that Americans with disabilities are entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. New data from the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire reveals that 343,483 more people with disabilities joined the American workforce in 2016, compared to 87,201 the previous year.
But even as Americans with disabilities are entering the workforce in greater numbers, serious gaps in employment still exist between different states. For example, 54 percent of working-age people with disabilities in North Dakota have jobs, while only 27.4 percent of people with disabilities in West Virginia are employed.
New Data on Disability and Employment
According to a recent Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, only 35.9 percent of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 18 to 64 had a job, compared to 76.9 percent for people without disabilities. However, this is an increase from the previous year, which was 34.9 percent. Out of almost 20 million working-age people with disabilities, only 7.4 million people with disabilities had a job in 2016.
A new poll released by RespectAbility shows that millions of people with disabilities want to work. The companies driving successful inclusion include JP Morgan Chase, Pepsi, UPS, SAP, EY, IBM, Starbucks and Walgreens. These companies see people with disabilities as resourceful employees who improve businesses’ bottom lines.
However, looking at topline national statistics only tells part of the story. State-specific data compiled by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics (StatsRRTC) shows massive differences among states. In fact, there are some states where people with disabilities are twice as likely to be employed as in other states.
Best States for People with Disabilities
• 343,483 new jobs for people with disabilities
• Floridians with disabilities experience the biggest jobs gains of any state, with more than 35,000 people with disabilities entering the workforce.
• Employers hire more people with disabilities as they find that recruiting, hiring and retaining employees with disabilities benefits their bottom line.
Top 10 States for Workers with Disabilities (and percentage employed)
1. North Dakota 54%
2. South Dakota 51.6%
3. Minnesota 48%
4. Alaska 47.9%
5. Nebraska 47.4%
6. Wyoming 47.2
7. Utah 47%
8. Iowa 45.9
9. Kansas 44.7%
10. Montana 43.9%
Comparing the number of working-age people with disabilities reveals that Floridians experienced the biggest jobs gains of any state in the nation, with 35,480 entering the workforce. The second largest growth was in the state of Georgia, where 28,000 working-age people with disabilities got jobs. In terms of the largest states in the nation, California added 19,398 working-age people with disabilities to the workforce, while Texas added 17,736 with disabilities to their state workforce last year.
Alaska had the biggest percentage point gain in disability employment rates, going up 5.5 percentage points, followed by North Dakota’s 5.2 percentage point gain in jobs. Idahoans with disabilities have also seen a big increase with their employment rate rising from 38.3 percent in to 43.3 percent. South Carolina has also seen an increase in the number of people with disabilities working, with more than 23,000 getting jobs
Looking at Employment Gaps
Looking at the difference in employment rates between people with and without disabilities can reveal how far behind they are in a state’s economy. The smaller the gap, the more inclusive a state’s economy is, which translates into more opportunities for people to earn an income and become independent. The bigger the gap means fewer jobs for people with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers. Alaska shows great success with only a 28.2 percentage point gap, the smallest gap of any state. According to the new data, Rhode Island had a 48.6 percentage point gap in employment.
Looking beyond the data, two questions emerge—what works to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and what can state leaders do to improve outcomes?
“States including Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Alaska show how a commitment to school-to-work transitions can create brighter futures for young people with disabilities,” says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility. “Pennsylvania and Minnesota have also brought Employment First policies and a collaborative approach around transitions which has resulted in thousands of new jobs for their constituents with disabilities.”
There are two models that are achieving extraordinary success with work-based learning opportunities: Project SEARCH and Bridges from School to Work. SEARCH is a unique, employer-driven transition program that prepares students with disabilities for employment success. Likewise, Bridges offers assessments, workshops and job matching. SEARCH has grown to more than 300 programs in 46 states and served nearly 3,000 youth. Among those young people, more than 78 percent found jobs. These are transformative results for people with disabilities.
Linking Expectation and Education
“Employment rates only tell part of the story,” said Philip Kahn-Pauli, policy and practices director at RespectAbility. “Educational attainment is critical to the success of youth with disabilities because the jobs of the future require technical education and skill training.”
Despite progress made in recent years, students with disabilities are lagging significantly behind their nondisabled peers in educational attainment.
Only 65 percent of students with disabilities complete high school, with less than seven percent completing college. For youth of color with disabilities and English Language Learners with disabilities, their outcomes are even less. Key barriers include low expectations and the fact that many school systems either fail to diagnose early enough or address their issues at all. This often pushes children with disabilities into the school-to-prison pipeline. Appropriate early intervention, positive supports, and basic training for educators, parents, and guardians are vital.
Race, Disability and Employment
Even as companies are driving inclusion and states are finding success, there are still people left behind. “Just as looking at the state level employment rates tells a more complex story,” Kahn-Pauli said. “So too when you look at the employment rates among people with disabilities across racial lines.” Only 28.4 percent of African-Americans, 37.4 percent of Hispanics, and 40 percent of Asian Americans with disabilities hold jobs in their communities.
Building on Success
Despite the still-present gaps, seeing a four-fold improvement in one year’s time is fantastic, said Mizrahi. “The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, strong actions by many governors, and more positive portrayals of people with disabilities on TV are starting to have a positive impact.” she said. Further reports by the annual Disability Statistics Compendium and monthly Trends in Disability Employment show signs for continuing hope as more people with disabilities enter the labor market.
“At the end of the day, our nation was founded on the principle that anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life,” Mizrahi said. “People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else.”