25 Years After ADA, Employment Still Lags

By Micaela Connery*

Last week the New York Times shared the findings of a disability employment study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  While conclusions showed improvement since the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the United States still has a long way to go in the realm of employment for people with disabilities.  The study, following a similar format to research done on gender and race discrimination in employment, sent fake employment applications.  A third of resumes disclosed that the applicant had Asperger’s, a third disclosed a spinal cord injury, and a third had no disability disclosure.  The results: candidates who disclosed having a disability received 26% fewer expressions of interest from employers than those who did not.

The results aren’t surprising when considered in the context of overall dismal employment statistics for those with disabilities. According to October 2015 employment statistics, only 19.4% people with disabilities participate in the labor force, compared to 68.4% of people without.  The unemployment rate for those with disabilities who do participate in the labor force is 10.5%, more than twice the 4.6% unemployment rate for those without disabilities.   If people with disabilities are employed, they earn $9,000 less than workers without disabilities and are much less likely to hold management or professional roles.

How is this possible? Legislative efforts like the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1986 Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (and 2008 amendments) have all included provisions focused on equitable and meaningful employment of Americans with disabilities.  Court cases have been successfully won on behalf of employees with disabilities. State agencies and nonprofit organizations target employment outcomes.  People with disabilities are attaining diplomas and receiving specialized vocational training at higher rates than ever.  Yet the numbers still paint a bleak picture. The following are some of the reasons for this dissonance.

Laws Support Keeping Jobs, Not Getting Them In Disability Rights Law, Samuel Bagenstos argues that among the reasons for why the ADA and other legislative efforts have not strongly improved employment outcomes for people with disabilities is that most of the prohibitions on disability discrimination have been applied to “incumbent” employees, not “applicants”.  During the application period, “it is often difficult to determine with any certainty that discriminatory intent factored into an employer’s decision to choose one applicant”, Bagenstos concludes.  To illustrate, many of the notable successful federal cases concerning disability employment have involved employees who risked losing their jobs or were dismissed from their jobs because of disability.  Even federal programs supporting those with disabilities cite “Work Incentives” targeted to benefices so they are “encouraged to return to work”, without mention of supporting people who are trying to enter the work force.

Federal Funds Support Assistance, Not Employment A primary source of income for those with disabilities is Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability (SSDI).  Federal costs have been increasing over time as more and more people with disabilities qualify to receive benefits.  Since 1990—interestingly, the same year that the ADA was passed—the number of disabled workers receiving benefits has increased by 84 percent.  While one can debate about the reasons for this increase and the challenges of how to deal with the increasing number of recipients, the more important issue is the fact that there is much more federal and state funding for income assistance than for training, hiring, and employment supports for people with disabilities.  Many people with disabilities would prefer to work than to rely on Social Security, but the current system supports the latter much more than the former.

Employers Practice Direct Discrimination Putting policies, statutes, and funding aside, the most disconcerting reality about disability employment, as highlighted by the NEBR study, is direct discrimination.  The study purposely used two disabilities—spinal cord injuries and Asperger’s—that are unlikely to impact work performance and are not linked with developmental or cognitive issues.  But even with these relatively non-work related disabilities, discrimination was clear and present.  Legal cases also point to employers who quite intentionally limit employment of people with disabilities.

The day after the New York Times published the NBER employment findings, the Boston Globe did a profile on Daniel Koh, the Chief of Staff to Boston’s Mayor Walsh.  Demonstrating exceptional vulnerability and honesty, Koh shared his own struggles with ADHD.  While ADHD is considered a “disorder” and not a learning disability, the fact that this 30-year-old high-achiever only recently felt comfortable sharing his story says a lot about how our society looks at disability and difference.  If someone who has had such a successful career and two degrees from Harvard was hesitant about sharing his challenges, one can only imagine how the millions of other Americans with disabilities must feel.  The unfortunate reality is that too many people equate disability with inability.  Many assume that people with disabilities are less capable of working, living, and operating like the rest of society. History has shown us that statutes and lawsuits alone will not solve the employment challenge for people with disabilities.  More effort must be put into combating real discrimination, changing the mindsets of employers and recruiters, and supporting work-force entry.


* Micaela Connery is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School focusing on disability and housing policy. She is the founder and former CEO of Unified Theater, a national organization fostering inclusion through the arts.  She’s passionate about inclusion in decision making, policy design, and service delivery.

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