Written by Regan Price, MPA

Our new paper, “Leaving no one behind: Finding policy solutions to eliminate barrier to work for people with disabilities,” provides an analysis of the gaps in US workforce participation rates between people with and without disabilities. It also examines the greater disparities for women and/or Black persons with disabilities; the shortcomings of current incentive-based public policies to address these inequities; and potential policy solutions for state and federal governments to address the reasons why private sector companies do not hire more people with disabilities.  

Persons with a disability (PWD) in the US participate in the workforce at lower rates than those without a disability. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 17.9 percent of PWD were employed compared to 61.8 percent of those without a disability. Across all age and educational attainment groups, PWD are less likely to be employed than those without a disability. There exist further employment disparities between PWD according to their race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Of PWD in the U.S., Blacks are less likely to be employed than Whites, Latinx, and Asian PWD. Similarly, women with disabilities are less likely to be employed in the U.S. than men with disabilities, even if they have the same educational attainment.

Even with legal protections and government incentives in place, employment disparities by disability status persist. According to one study involving a survey of multiple private employers, more than 60 percent of respondents agreed with the following reasons for employers not hiring people with disabilities:

  • They are worried about the cost of providing reasonable accommodations, about the extra time that supervisors or co-workers will need to spend to assist workers with disabilities, increased health insurance or worker’s compensation premiums.
  • They don’t know how to handle the needs of a worker with a disability on the job.
  • They are afraid they won’t be able to discipline or fire a worker with a disability for poor performance, because of potential lawsuits.
  • They are afraid the workers with disabilities won’t work up to the same standards as other employees.
  • They believe that people with disabilities can’t do the basic functions of the jobs they apply for.
  • They discriminate against job applicants with disabilities.

Overcoming employer biases and resistance toward wanting to hire PWD is further complicated by the intersectionality of gender and race. This means that women with disabilities, Blacks with disabilities, and other marginalized groups with disabilities face further challenges than White men with disabilities­—although White men with disabilities are also disproportionately unemployed compared to White men without disabilities.

Closing employment gaps for people with disabilities underscores our country’s institutionalized values and shared democratic ethos. The US Federal Government has enshrined civil rights protections for PWD as they relate to employment in laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Evidentially, American democratic institutions have deemed equality in employment—regardless of disability status—as a national public right and a policy goal. This is a matter of values. 

However, there is also a solid business case for closing employment gaps for PWD: By excluding PWD—especially women and people of color with disabilities—employers are leaving an entire talent pool untapped. Due to slowing birth rates in the US, there is an increasing number of older workers. Some may begin to retire, and some may develop age-related disabilities. With fewer births, smaller numbers of young people are entering the labor force. To ensure sustained business productivity and innovation, employers must maintain the quality and robustness of their workforce. Excluding PWD because of a bias is a missed opportunity for American businesses. 

Smart Incentives is committed to finding improved incentive-based policy solutions to these complex public policy problems. Read the new Smart Incentive white paper to check out our overview of incentives intended to close employment equity gaps at the state and national levels and read more on the state of American employment inequities as it relates to disability, race, and gender. 

About the author 

Regan Price graduated with a Master of Public Administration degree from Virginia Tech in May of 2022. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy with a concentration in Ethics and Public Policy from Virginia Commonwealth University. Ms. Price is currently working as a Public Administration Intern at the United Nations (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs, where she collaborates with senior staff members to develop research materials and carry out institutional and governance capacity building to further the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Her research interests are in improving public service and public policy to achieve global gender equality and equality for people with disabilities. 

Email: reganvirginiaprice@gmail.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/reganprice1/