The Forgotten Workforce: How to level the playing field on the job for people with disabilities

By Guest Blogger Jill Thomsen 


October is Disability Employment Awareness Month, a fitting time to look at the workplace issues that people with disabilities face on a day-to-day basis. This blog explores the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), current workplace standards, and how to build a more inclusive workforce to address equitable treatment of people with disabilities.

What is the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Nearly thirty years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed landmark legislation designed to make the U.S. more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities. Among other requirements, the ADA mandates both nondiscrimination and reasonable accommodation in the workplace for the roughly thirteen percent of the U.S. population who report having a disability. Since 1990, legislation, executive orders, and court decisions continue to advance the cause of people with disabilities in the workplace, ultimately resulting in a more expansive definition of disability, increased disability employment litigation, and disability utilization goals for certain employers with federal contracts. The work continues. In July, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it would make $15 million in grants available to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Despite these efforts, much more needs to be done to make employment opportunities available and workplaces more inclusive.

People with Disabilities Face Excessive Unemployment Inequities

Employment is one of the greatest challenges facing Americans with disabilities. Unemployment rates for this population remain shockingly high. In 2016, more than ten percent of individuals with a disability were unemployed, almost twice that of those without a disability. (Unemployed individuals in this study were those who did not have a job, were available to work, and were actively looking for a job.)

Employees with disabilities were also far more likely than their non-disabled peers to work only part-time or become self-employed because their hours had been cut or they were unable to find full-time employment. Even those with college degrees are challenged in accessing employment as only one in four college students with disabilities can secure employment, leading to poverty rates twice the national average.

Those who do find employment also face lower earnings than their peers. When people with disabilities find work, their hourly, weekly, and monthly wages are substantially lower than those without disabilities. On average, employees with disabilities earn only 64 percent as much as those without disabilities.

Case in point: researchers at Rutgers University recently conducted an experiment by sending out job applications for more than 6,000 hypothetical accounting positions. Two-thirds of applicants disclosed a disability in their cover letters, one-third did not, and qualifications were otherwise equal. Appallingly, applicants with disabilities received 26 percent fewer responses from employers. Whether due to ignorance, stigma, or unconscious bias, employers are neglecting a vibrant, qualified, and available pool of talent.

Failure to Include Disability in Diversity Programs

Workforce inclusion efforts also tend to overlook disability. Philip Kahn-Pauli, the policy and practices director of the non-profit organization RespectAbility, states, “[Employers] think about race, gender and sexual orientation/identity . . . [t]hey do not think about disability. What they may not recognize is that disability is a natural part of the human experience and cuts across other barriers that divide us. . . . We are the only minority group that anyone can join at any time due to accident, illness or aging.”

Disbility cartoon

To combat these trends, a growing number of companies are implementing outreach and inclusion programs explicitly targeting workers with disabilities. Not surprisingly, early estimates reveal that disability-specific services are in fact delivering the results-oriented outcomes valued by employers.

Best Practices for Including Disability Services in the Workplace

How to build and implement disability-specific services and protocols in your organization:

  1. Centralize Your Accommodations Policy, Procedures, and Budget

Admittedly, the reasonable accommodation process might at times be time-consuming and complex. Managers also assume accommodations are costly and permanent even though research establishes otherwise. Given these variables and misconceptions, an internal resource specifically dedicated to disability compliance and inclusion ensures that accommodation decisions are appropriately personalized, documented, practical, and consistent.


  1. Hire a Specialized Disability Recruiter

Increasingly, companies recognize the intricacies involved in successfully recruiting, hiring, and onboarding people with disabilities. An internal company recruiter or external community organization dedicated to workers with disabilities not only helps to fill the employment pipeline with qualified talent, but also provides customized guidance and coaching to both applicants and hiring managers throughout the selection and new hire process.


  1. Develop a Disability Network or Dedicated Employee Resource Group

Approaches are varied, but most corporate disability networks count workers with disabilities and caregivers of those with disabilities amongst their membership. The types of disabilities represented run the gamut, from blindness, epilepsy, and autism to diabetes, cancer, and anxiety. Not only do disability networks provide both professional and personal support to their membership, but these groups also assist with larger corporate efforts on outreach and recruitment, mentorship, accessibility, and social responsibility.

  1. Assess Your Disability Inclusivity

To truly understand a company’s culture of inclusion – strength of current practices and ideas for improvement – a disability survey is imperative. A few national disability organizations have created and currently employ such tools, some of which are free of charge. In addition, these organizations provide expertise on implementing recommended next steps and developing successful inclusion programs in a practical and cost-effective manner.

In celebration of Disability Employment Awareness Month, I hope you are encouraged to strengthen disability inclusion at your own company by improving the way you engage workers with disabilities. Employment enables all of us to lead full and productive lives. Given nearly thirty years of ADA legislation as well as the currently competitive landscape in the war for talent, it is high time to incorporate innovative and proven methods of disability inclusion into corporate practice.

Jill Thomsen is principal and founder of the Equal Opps Collaborative, where she builds partnerships, programs, and policy recommendations for employers, community organizations, education professionals, unions, and government agencies to establish pathways to in-demand, meaningful, and sustainable careers for underutilized populations.

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