An Untapped Talent Pool: The Opportunity in Employing People with Disabilities

Nov 3, 2017 · 4 min read

An Untapped Talent Pool: The Opportunity in Employing People with Disabilities

Ever wonder why in many states unemployment rates hover at or below the national rate of 4 percent but employers still struggle to fill the more than 6 million open jobs across the country?

The answer is an increasing need for a highly skilled workforce, one that meets the needs of businesses and workers, to help drive economic growth.

Governors are working to ensure that education and training programs prepare people for in-demand jobs, but they are also looking to engage people who often experience high rates of unemployment despite being able to — and interested in — work.

One such talent pool: people with disabilities.

Last month, in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), proclamations that stressed the importance of improving access to training and employment for people with disabilities were issued by governors of 26 states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Several also launched or expanded new initiatives in recognition of this issue’s importance. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, for example, established a new position for an accessibility coordinator within state government, and Oregon Governor Kate Brown supported special activities across the state, including career networking events and job fairs.

Roughly 1 in 5 American adults, or around 53 million, live with some type of disability, and their employment prospects post-recession have been grim. Today the unemployment rate for people without disabilities is 3.9 percent; it’s nearly double — 7.5 percent — for people with disabilities. Labor force participation among working-age people with disabilities is just 21.2 percent, which is less than a third the rate of participation among people without disabilities. Also, twice as many Americans with disabilities fall below the poverty line than those without disabilities. But this often is not by choice — at least two thirds of people with disabilities are striving to work, whether they are already working and want more hours or are unemployed but want a job.

For those who do find employment, often their prospects are limited and their potential often unfulfilled. Job opportunities vary widely by state. Some states with the highest employment rates for people with disabilities rely on segregated, disability-only work settings such as sheltered workshops, where workers earn almost three times less and are less happy at work than those who work in integrated, competitive environments.

People with disabilities are twice as likely to work part-time, often in service occupations that do not pay as well as professional occupations. A worker with a disability who has a high school diploma earns $6,505 less per year than his or her peers; though the gap widens as their education level increases, people with disabilities are also less likely to attain a college degree.

These problems are expensive. Pay disparities result in $6.5 billion per year in forgone state tax revenue ($25 billion at the federal level), while supporting unemployed working-age people with disabilities costs states at least $71 billion a year ($350 billion in federal dollars). In contrast, supported employment — when a person with disabilities receives assistance obtaining and maintaining employment in a competitive, multiple-ability work setting — yields a $1.21 return to taxpayers for every public dollar spent.

Many employers have found that employing people with disabilities is not as challenging or expensive as they may have assumed. For example, a DuPont employee performance survey found, when graded on the same scale as regularly-abled employees, 90 percent of workers with disabilities receive performance ratings of “average” or “above average.” Other research has found similarly strong on-the-job performance by workers with disabilities. And most don’t need special accommodations. Fifty-seven percent of accommodations for workers with disabilities cost nothing, and most typically cost around $500. Some companies even see improved productivity when they are more inclusive of people with disabilities: Walgreens saw a 120 percent productivity jump at a distribution center once it was made universally accessible, where more than 50 percent of the employees have a disability.

As our working population continues to age, the percentage among us living and working with a disability is expected to double in the next two decades.

To support and expand these efforts, governors, through the National Governors Association, recently joined the State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED) project. SEED is a collaborative of state-level organizations that work together to help get laws on the books that facilitate increased employment for people with disabilities.

Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell led on this issue when in 2012 as chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), he chose to focus on how his colleagues could help spur employment of people with disabilities.

The National Governors Association continues to examine challenges states face in encouraging, supporting and increasing employment among people with disabilities. NGA will work with SEED to provide educational webinars and a policy workshop for governors’ staff and leaders in the states.

As Gov. Markell’s initiative illustrated, a better bottom line can be achieved for all when policies are in place that allow for opportunities for all workers.

Rachael Stephens is a senior policy analyst with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Economic Opportunity Division.

NGA Economic Opportunity

The NGA Center Economic Opportunity division focuses on…

NGA Economic Opportunity

The NGA Center Economic Opportunity division focuses on economic development and innovation; workforce development; pathways to employment and populations with special needs; and human services.


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The National Governors Association (NGA) is the collective voice of the nation's governors. Follow NGA at @NatlGovsAssoc

NGA Economic Opportunity

The NGA Center Economic Opportunity division focuses on economic development and innovation; workforce development; pathways to employment and populations with special needs; and human services.

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