The Current Labor Market for Workers with a Disability

November 23, 2021

People with a disability who are out of the U.S. labor force or unemployed represent a pool of up to 24.8 million potential workers from which employers could draw. Yet, those who want to work face a variety of structural and attitudinal barriers to gainful employment. As shown in the figure below, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double the rate for all workers.

Unemployment Rate

Unemployment Rate

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics and Haver Analytics.

NOTE: Data are seasonally adjusted.

October was National Disability Employment Awareness Month, with the theme of “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.” Therefore, we wanted to highlight the employment recovery for those with a disability in the October jobs report, the latest available.See this Bureau of Labor Statistics report for more information on the employment recovery for people with a disability. Our analysis is part of a broader effort by the Institute for Economic Equity (IEE) to monitor the employment situation of vulnerable workers.IEE has identified the following as key vulnerable groups: teenagers (16 to 19); adults with no more than a high school diploma (25 years and older); Black men; Black women; women of all races; Latinos, both men and women; and people with a disability. While not covered here, we are also monitoring other groups and communities that face systemic and structural hurdles. They include out of school youths, American Indians, Alaska Natives and residents throughout the Eighth Federal Reserve District, particularly those in the Mississippi Delta.

It is important to monitor the progress of these vulnerable groups because the ongoing labor and skills shortages represent an opportunity for employers to expand their payrolls and meet consumer demand with these groups.

Employers have the opportunity now to take innovative and inclusive steps to expand the recruitment pool, which will provide these groups with opportunities to be pulled further into the labor market.

Workers with a Disability: Untapped Talent

The increased use of remote work and assistive technologies can reduce some of the barriers that make it harder for people with disabilities to participate in the job market. In fact, prior to the pandemic, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that people with a disability are more likely to work at home.

In the report, the majority of those not working (79.0%) cited their own disability as a barrier to employment. Unemployed workers with a disability also cited a lack of education or training (12.2%), a lack of transportation (10.6%), or the need for special features at the job (9.9%).

There are other workplace factors that serve as drags for people with disabilities.

  • Most disabilities are invisible, so this can lead to a narrow definition of disabilities that focuses on physical disabilities. Omitting other important factors such as mental health and neurodiversity limits the ability to make accommodations.
  • Mask requirements disadvantage those who need to see the mouth to communicate.
  • While accessibility efforts may focus on the physical workspace, the inaccessibility of an employer’s website may inhibit applicants at the outset of the talent pipeline.
  • Relief and recovery packages at the federal level provided few employment-related resources to reduce the pre-pandemic barriers to work.
  • Disabilities become more common as individuals age, and the workforce is getting older. The current structural barriers to work for those with disabilities may become more impactful.

The figure below shows the rebound in employment-to-population ratios from April 2020 to October 2021 for all respondents who are 16 and older and for respondents who belong to vulnerable groups. The ratio for those with only a high school diploma, women, and Black men track the overall pattern of recovery. In contrast, the employment-to-population ratios of Latinos and teenagers have recovered faster than the overall ratio.

The ratio for people with a disability rebounded slowly but recovered the losses seen during the pandemic. However, their low initial employment-to-population ratio highlights, in part, the structural barriers that limit the recovery from being more broadly shared.Only 19.9% of those age 16 and older with a disability were employed compared with 58.8% for all people age 16 and older.

Rebound in the Employment-to-Population Ratio for Vulnerable Groups during the Current Jobs Recovery

Rebound in the Employment-to-Population Ratio for Vulnerable Groups during the Current Jobs Recovery

NOTES: High school graduates are adults whose highest level of educational attainment is a high school diploma. Month 1 of the jobs recovery is April 2020, which marks the business cycle trough as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

SOURCES: Bureau of Labor Statistics and authors’ calculations.

Working Toward Inclusion

There are a variety of actions that employers can take to assist with the jobs recovery for people with disabilities, which would simultaneously help address the widespread labor and skills shortages and keep the economic expansion more robust. Employers can partner with subject-matter experts such as the Starkloff Disability Institute, which assisted us in developing this article, to devise a personalized plan towards greater inclusion.

Employers can pursue actions that reduce barriers to finding a job:

  • Utilize principles of universal design to make physical and digital environments more inclusive. Make sure the job postings can be accessed by all.
  • Implement inclusive recruiting and interviewing techniques. For example, provide salary information on the job posting and provide a guide to help candidates prepare for their interview.
  • Only specify physical requirements in job postings if they can’t be worked around with an accommodation.
  • Ensure applicants are informed that accommodations are available throughout the interview process by providing contact information for accommodation requests on job postings and during interview scheduling.

In terms of creating more inclusive workplaces to empower workers, possibilities include the following:

  • Make physical spaces compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Adopt universal design principles to make work environments accessible to all. Doing so will often benefit all employees, not just those with disabilities.
  • Work towards a culture of inclusion, challenging implicit bias and deeply ingrained stereotypes.
  • Help employees feel more comfortable talking about their disabilities at work by encouraging leaders to share their experiences and model inclusive behavior.
  • Offer flexible work schedules and locations, and don’t require mandatory socialization that may be difficult for neurodiverse workers.
  • Provide a wellness benefit program that goes beyond Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or mental health benefits.

There are benefits to destigmatizing mental health issues and improving access to mental health support regardless of employment status. Our analysis of the most recent (Sep. 29-Oct. 11, 2021) Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey reveals that anxiety and depression rates for respondents who indicated they didn’t work because they were sick (not with COVID-19) or disabled are significantly higher than those for the general population. Almost 69.8% of nonworking people who were either sick or reported a disability described feeling down or depressed, while 81.4% of those individuals reported feeling anxious. In contrast, 46.5% of respondents who didn’t report being sick or disabled described feeling depressed, while 55.7% reported feeling anxious.

Employers Can Do More

Based on their continued rapid gains in employment, Latino and teenage workers have been important drivers of the labor market recovery. While they have also seen gains, people with disabilities remain a large untapped pool of potential employees.

The increased use of remote work and assistive technologies can help reduce some of the barriers that make it harder for people with disabilities to participate in the job market. However, several factors are contributing to new or existing workplace challenges.

Employers can adopt numerous practices that may help them attract and retain workers with disabilities. Doing so would not only address labor shortages in the short term but also foster a more inclusive labor market.

Scott Lamar and Naomi Pusch, co-chairs of the Disability Employee Resource Group at the St. Louis Fed, and Jason Hartsfield and Lori Becker at the Starkloff Disability Institute contributed to the blog post.

Notes and References

  1. See this Bureau of Labor Statistics report for more information on the employment recovery for people with a disability.
  2. IEE has identified the following as key vulnerable groups: teenagers (16 to 19); adults with no more than a high school diploma (25 years and older); Black men; Black women; women of all races; Latinos, both men and women; and people with a disability. While not covered here, we are also monitoring other groups and communities that face systemic and structural hurdles. They include out of school youths, American Indians, Alaska Natives and residents throughout the Eighth Federal Reserve District, particularly those in the Mississippi Delta.
  3. Only 19.9% of those age 16 and older with a disability were employed compared with 58.8% for all people age 16 and older.
About the Authors
William M. Rodgers III
William M. Rodgers III

William M. Rodgers III is vice president and director of the St. Louis Fed's Institute for Economic Equity. Read more about the author and his work.

William M. Rodgers III
William M. Rodgers III

William M. Rodgers III is vice president and director of the St. Louis Fed's Institute for Economic Equity. Read more about the author and his work.

Lowell Ricketts
Lowell Ricketts

Lowell R. Ricketts is a data scientist for the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. His research has covered topics including the racial wealth divide, growth in consumer debt, and the uneven financial returns on college educations. Read more about the author and his research.

Lowell Ricketts
Lowell Ricketts

Lowell R. Ricketts is a data scientist for the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. His research has covered topics including the racial wealth divide, growth in consumer debt, and the uneven financial returns on college educations. Read more about the author and his research.

This blog offers commentary, analysis and data from our economists and experts. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.


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