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Disability and Unemployment in COVID-19

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Katie Leigh Robinson
November 1, 2020

It has long been known that Americans with disabilities have a higher rate of unemployment than those without disabilities. This can be due to a variety of reasons. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of the noninstitutional civilian population with a disability is over 65, compared to only 16% of the noninstitutional civilian population without a disability. This, of course, increases the percentage of unemployed people with disabilities. Another possible cause of the higher rate is that certain disabilities preclude people from certain jobs. For example, someone who is legally blind would not be able to become a pilot, and someone with a significant mobile disability may not be able to do a job that requires the employee to be able to lift and move 40 pounds. Finally, people with disabilities are less likely to have a bachelor’s degree, and therefore have fewer opportunities for employment. Additionally, about 80% of people between the ages of 16 and 64 who have a disability are not part of the labor force at all; that is, they do not work nor do they collect any sort of unemployment. Comparatively, 30% of people without a disability between the ages of 16 and 64 are out of the labor force.

Fortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics avoids the age discrepancy by separating the workforce into two age groups: 16-64 and 65 years and over, and they separate the people in and out of the labor force in the statistics. Additionally, technological advancements consistently allow more people with disabilities to have the same options as people without disabilities and helps to close the margin between the unemployment rates. As of 2019, the unemployment rate of people 16-64 with a disability was 8.0% and the unemployment rate of people 16-64 without a disability was 3.6%. It is worth noting that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities has been steadily decreasing over the last decade. Disability unemployment rate peaked in 2011 at 15% but has decreased to 7.3% in 2019. The pandemic seems to have caused an uptick in all unemployment, as disability unemployment has increased to 13% and non-disability unemployment has increased from 3.5% in 2019 to 8.5%. Based on current monthly downward trends in unemployment, we expect to see the unemployment rate continue to fall as people with and without disabilities are able to find meaningful work again.

One might assume that people with disabilities have a much higher level of unemployment. After all, many people with disabilities only work part time and many work in positions that are more readily filled, as they require less specialized skills. These include jobs such as grocery bagger or data entry clerk, which may seem to be more expendable by management. I find it important to note here that anyone who has worked with someone with a disability recognizes an extreme level of determination and diligence that can be found in people with disabilities. I have no data to back this up, but many people who have worked with people with disabilities have stories about the work ethic they see in these employees. However, data has shown that people with disabilities have a higher level of adaptability and a greater ability to cope with change. Santilli, Nota, Ginevra, and Soresi study this exact topic in their article, “Career Adaptability, Hope and Life Satisfaction in Workers with Intellectual Disability.” They conclude that the ability of people with disabilities to adapt to change and difficulty creates in them a greater level of hope and a higher level of life satisfaction. This seems to have allowed for a greater level of resilience in people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another possible reason for the resiliency of people with disabilities during this pandemic is that people with disabilities are often accustomed to having to take extra steps or precautions in their jobs. Deaf employees may need interpreters or captioning to fully participate in meetings. Blind employees may need braille keyboards or screen readers to use their computers to their full potential. Mobility impaired employees will need ramps or elevators to navigate the building. All these accommodations are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are quite commonly implemented —even discretely. Similarly, employees with intellectual or developmental disabilities may be accustomed to working harder to receive approval from managers and coworkers. Because of this, it might be easier for employees with disabilities to adapt to wearing a mask, gloves or face shield during their workday.

Overall, it seems that disability has not affected an employee’s likelihood to lose their job during this pandemic. This is encouraging for disability policy scholars and beneficiaries. This also bodes well for the future of Americans with disabilities and their advocates.


Author: Katie Leigh Robinson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Dallas. She studies accessibility policy, education policy and social equity in the policy process. Twitter Handle: @batbrarian

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