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Research Finds New Reasons for Unemployment Among People With Disabilities

African american disabled woman at an office holding an iPad

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Key Takeaways

  • Employment rates among people with disabilities are significantly lower than other workers and have fallen during the pandemic.
  • New research has found nine meaningful reasons that prevent people with disabilities from seeking work.
  • Perceptions about medical conditions, functional limitations, and disabilities were the most commonly cited reasons why people with disabilities did not see themselves working soon.

Employment rates are chronically low among people with disabilities. Prior to the pandemic, only 19% of people with disabilities had a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That rate has since fallen even further.

Discrimination and biases make it difficult for workers with disabilities to find work. But there are other factors that prevent people with disabilities from seeking employment in the first place, and a new study has taken a look at what those factors are.

Research recently published in the journal Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin analyzed responses to employment-related survey questions from more than 1,200 people with disabilities who were unemployed or not looking for work. It narrowed down nine meaningful barriers that prevent members of this community from seeking employment.

The answers provide valuable insights the government and employers need to create more accessible employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Study

The data for this study came from the 2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey, which included responses from more than 3,000 working-age adults with disabilities across the country.

The researchers specifically focused on responses from 1,254 people who self-identified as being unemployed or not seeking a job. Almost three-quarters of participants said their “most limiting disability” was either mobility issues or cognitive conditions, but others had vision, hearing, and other disabilities. About 60% of the respondents were women and the majority were white. More than 90% said they had previously worked.

After analyzing the participants’ answers to open-ended survey questions, the researchers found a broad range of reasons why people with disabilities did not have plans to seek employment in the near future.

The most common reasons that made people feel they wouldn’t be able to find work or hold down a job were their perceptions about their medical conditions, functional limitations, and disabilities. For example, one participant felt that they wouldn’t be offered a job because of certain medications they were taking, while another said their physical motor skills caused them to fall down often.

These findings didn’t come as a surprise to Diane Winiarski, MEd, director of Allsup Employment Services, which is authorized to help people receiving federal disability insurance prepare for the workforce through the Social Security Ticket to Work program. She works exclusively with people with receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

Diane Winiarski, MEd

Many of our potential clients will often discuss how restricted they are in terms of what they can lift or carry, as well as limitations on standing or walking.

— Diane Winiarski, MEd

“Many of our potential clients will often discuss how restricted they are in terms of what they can lift or carry, as well as limitations on standing or walking. Unfortunately, we often find that beneficiaries receive a lot of misinformation about returning to work and that influences their confidence in their ability to return to work successfully,” she says.

Other Barriers to Employment

Around 15% of respondents said they weren’t seeking work due to “workplace engagement issues,” such as limited transportation, negative experiences in previous jobs, and employer biases. Likewise, some participants who previously worked said that challenges related to their disability made it impossible for them to return to their old job at the same capacity. 

Retirement was the fifth most common reason for unemployment, affecting about 9% of participants in the study. Some said they retired due to age, while others cited their disability. 

Socioeconomic issues were another reason why participants did not see themselves working soon. Public assistance benefits come with income limitations, and if a recipient earns more than that amount, their benefits could be cut. 

The last three reasons why respondents were not looking for work had to do with household responsibilities (like taking care of an aging parent), focusing on education, and age-related issues.

Making Work More Accessible

With one in four adults in the U.S. living with some type of disability, understanding what precludes members of his community from seeking employment can help make the workforce more accessible. The findings of this study suggest that mental health support could play a role in curbing negative perceptions, which were among the top reasons some people with disabilities didn’t see themselves working.

“When discussing reasons why people with disabilities don’t seek employment, mental health is often ignored. Mental health is the silent factor which needs to be addressed,” says Michael Ceely, LMFT, a therapist and owner of Ceely Counseling in the San Francisco Bay area. He has worked with clients who have disabilities and faced career challenges.

He continues: “For people who are able-bodied: Imagine if you suddenly had a disability that impacted your capacity to work. Of course your mental health would be affected, and the longer you were out of work, the greater the tendency for depression to set in. Mental health counseling should be a standard resource offered to anyone out of work due to a disability.”

Michael Ceely, LMFT

Mental health counseling should be a standard resource offered to anyone out of work due to a disability.

— Michael Ceely, LMFT

That’s just one piece of the problem, though. People with disabilities often face practical barriers—like a lack of reliable, accessible transportation or inflexible workplace policies—that make it extraordinarily difficult to have a job. These workers may also face discrimination from employers.

“Regrettably, some employers still assume that accommodating individuals living with a disability will be more costly to the business. Many studies reveal this assumption to be false,” says Winiarski. “Most accommodations, such as allowing for a flexible work schedule or modifying the layout of a workspace, cost nothing. Other accommodations, including screen reader software or sit-stand desks typically cost less than $500.”

Building awareness of the value that people with disabilities can bring to the workplace could help break down these stigmas and encourage policymakers to devote more resources to improving employment rates in this group. 

“Hiring individuals living with disabilities is a win-win situation. Studies have shown that hiring workers living with a disability increases profitability, improves employee motivation and retention, reduces turnover, and adds to the overall diversity of the workplace,” says Winiarski.

“Individuals living with a disability returning to the workforce also see definite benefits, including increased annual income, access to health care, better sense of self, and being able to contribute to the overall productivity of the family household.”

She adds: “If we can move beyond the disability stereotype, businesses will have an even greater applicant base of qualified workers with disabilities and businesses will set themselves up for long-term success.”

What This Means For You

Disabilities—which affect one in four U.S. adults—often lead to people dropping out of the workforce. Now, new research has uncovered the main reason why some people with disabilities don’t seek employment. It has to do with their perceptions about their medical conditions, functional limitations, and disabilities. 

Providing additional mental health support could help people with disabilities cope with their conditions and change negative perceptions that might keep them from the workforce. However, providing practical support (like reliable transportation) and breaking down stigmas against disability are just as important in making the workforce accessible. Experts say understanding what precludes people with disabilities from seeking employment is just the first step in solving a much larger problem of inequality.

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Article Sources
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  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Persons with a disability: labor force characteristics—2020. Published February 24, 2021.

  2. Fyffe DC, Lequerica AH, Ward-Sutton C, Williams NF, Sundar V, O’Neill J. Understanding persons with disabilities’ reasons for not seeking employmentRehabil Couns Bull. Published online April 15, 2021. doi:10.1177/00343552211006773

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disability impacts all of us. Updated September 16, 2020.