The COVID-19 pandemic continued to roil the U.S. labor market in 2021, but one group of workers has likely benefitted from the unprecedented disruption: people with disabilities. By December 2021, the labor force participation rate for working-aged people with disabilities had increased 3.5 percentage points to 36.7% compared with the same month of 2020. That rise represented a 10.5% increase in the number of working people with disabilities compared with only a 1.2% increase for those without, according to the National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE), a monthly report compiled by the Kessler Foundation in New Jersey and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. The report is based on statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which began tracking employment for people with disabilities in 2008.
At the end of last year, employment levels of people with disabilities were higher than they had been before the pandemic, in contrast to employment for people without disabilities. That group still hasn’t gotten back to where they were before February 2020. Still, the employment rate for people without disabilities stood at around 77% at the end of 2021, more than double the rate for people with disabilities.
“It appears the pandemic has created a labor market where people with disabilities, who are often characterized as resourceful, may be capitalizing on supply-side shortages,” said John O’Neill, PhD, Director of the Center for Employment and Disability Research at Kessler, a leading nonprofit in the field of rehabilitation research. “We also saw that people with disabilities who were participating in the labor market were staying employed at higher rates than people without disabilities.”
There are definitely more people with disabilities in the workforce these days.Robin Jones, Director of the Great Lakes ADA Center
Some disability advocates caution against reading too much into the numbers. “There are definitely more people with disabilities in the workforce these days,” says Robin Jones, Director of the Great Lakes ADA Center, which provides technical assistance and training on the ADA. “But the tricky thing is that a lot of people with disabilities were already working; they just hadn’t disclosed their disabilities before the pandemic. There’s been a lot more disclosure because people needed accommodations they didn’t need before.”
Disability advocates see two major factors at work. One is the shift to remote work during the pandemic, which removed the drudgery of commuting and forced companies to immediately change their policies about remote- and hybrid-work arrangements. “Remote work legitimately opens doors for so many more candidates with disabilities,” says Pat Maher, Director of Civic Engagement for SPR, a Chicago area-based technology consulting firm. Maher is a longtime advocate for opening the technology field to marginalized groups of job seekers, including candidates with disabilities. “It runs the gamut of challenges whether you have a physical disability or a condition like chronic pain where you may be fatigued in the middle of the day. If you’re remote, you can address that by taking a nap and making up the work when you have full energy.”
The other factor is simply the current acute shortage of U.S. workers in many fields created by a wave of early retirements and people leaving jobs either because of low pay or concerns about personal safety. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, there were 10.9 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. at the end of 2021, close to a record high and significantly above pre-pandemic levels. The Illinois Spina Bifida Association can attest to the heightened interest in finding workers. The nonprofit recently received a call from a large company asking if they knew of anyone looking for work, according to Robert Trierweiler, the group’s vocational rehabilitation counselor. “Part of it is the overall awareness of the benefits of including people from different backgrounds in the workforce,” he says. “Also, there’s just a really tight supply of workers out there.”
There is inherent creativity to managing disability, and that translates well to private sector competitiveness.Pat Maher, Director of Civic Engagement for SPR
The gains come after decades when the employment rate for people with disabilities appeared stuck at low levels even as educational attainment by people with physical and developmental disabilities increased substantially. Hopes for a big improvement after the passage of the 1990 federal Americans with Disabilities Act failed to materialize although people with disabilities were making slow gains in employment as the U.S. economy approached full employment in the years before the pandemic. Even with the recent gains, the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is only about half of that for people without them.
Now the question is whether the pandemic-related gains will have sticking power, disability employment experts say. There is reason to be cautious because previous economic recoveries benefitted people with disabilities more slowly than others, and they are often the first to be laid off during recessions. But O’Neill, for one, is optimistic this time will be different. “My fingers are crossed. My toes, too. There’s something about the ADA generation. The folks with college degrees have increased and they’re moving into leadership position in industries,” he says. “I’m as hopeful as I’ve ever been since we’ve been tracking employment for people with disabilities.”
SPR’s Maher, who has seen tech firms become more eager to tap into this potential labor pool, also thinks there is a profound change in attitudes and employment opportunities. He notes that many companies have changed or are changing their definition of a diverse, inclusive workplace to include disability along with race, gender and ethnicity, which wasn’t the case before. “If candidates with disabilities finally make inroads and demonstrate their productivity, which we know exists, that bodes well. There is inherent creativity to managing disability, and that translates well to private sector competitiveness. It’s a unique lens through which to see new challenges. I believe we’re finally at a point where this will stick.”