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Disability: Workforce Trends

Defining Disability

Disability Prevalence by Age

Disability Prevalence By Age Graph: For ages 21-24, 5% have a disability; for ages 25-34 6% have a disability; for ages 35-44 8% have a disability; for ages 44-54 13% have a disability, and for ages 54-64 19% have a disability.

Source: Estimates based on analysis of 2009 American Community Survey (ACS) Data

While laws, organizations and researchers define disability in many different ways, the most basic definition of disability is simply "a condition that makes it difficult for an individual to function or participate in some activity in the home, workplace or other setting." Disability can include sensory, cognitive, physical, and psychiatric conditions as well as chronic diseases.

Understanding disability prevalence in the workforce can be helpful to employers as they consider diversity initiatives, and recruitment and retention strategies.

Disability Prevalence

Approximately 12% of the non-institutionalized U.S. population, or 36 million people, report a disability, making persons with disabilities one of the most prevalent minority groups in the country and the only one that anyone can join during any point of life regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or education level. 



More than 40% of those Americans who report a disability are of working age (defined as 18-64). According to the Council for Disability Awareness more than 1 in 4 20 year-olds today will become disabled before they reach retirement age.

The following statistics describe the demographic variation of disability in the U.S. and highlight the need for employers to have an awareness of disability and to adopt inclusive workplace strategies.


Working Age Disability Prevalence Rate

Chart: Working Age Disability Prevalence Rate Across the U.S.

Source: Estimates based on analysis of 2009 American Community Survey (ACS) Data

Among the working age population (21- 64 years of age), the incidence of disability increases with age; older individuals are more likely to have a disability than are younger counterparts. The proportion of employees with disabilities is expected to grow as "Baby Boomers" age. Visit EARN's Aging Workforce page to learn more about why age and disability are important considerations for employers.


The prevalence of disability among working age individuals varies a great deal by state. The lowest rates of disability are in Hawaii, New Jersey, Colorado and Illinois. The highest rates are in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.

Employers in these states may want to consider the overall percentage of people with disabilities within their state as compared to the non-disabled population as they develop diversity recruitment benchmarks. For more information about disability and diversity, visit EARN's page on Diversity and Inclusion.

Disability and Employment

Employment Rates

Employment of People with Disabilities

Chart: Employment of People with Disabilities across the U.S.

Source: Estimates based on analysis of 2009 American Community Survey (ACS) Data

Employment rates for individuals with disabilities also vary by state. Rates are highest in North Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska and lowest in West Virginia, the District of Columbia and Kentucky.

Employment Gap

Individuals with disabilities are significantly less likely to be employed than are those without disabilities; this is called the "employment gap." This gap varies by state and educational levels of individuals with a disability.

  • The employment gap is approximately 43% (e.g., 27% of working age people with disabilities are employed, while 70% of working age individuals without disabilities are.)
  • The employment gap exists for people with disabilities at all educational levels, though it is smaller for those with higher levels of education

Employer Awareness

Employees with disabilities have the same professional development potential and job skill capabilities as employees without disabilities. Despite great progress

By understanding the frequency of disability among the U.S. population and labor force, employers may gain a better sense of the need to incorporate disability inclusive policies in the workplace. through awareness campaigns on the benefits of recruiting, hiring, and retaining employees with disabilities, many myths and stereotypes persist, resulting in missed opportunities for both employers and job seekers with disabilities.

Disability Prevalence by Sector

Graph: Percent of Workers with a Disability by Sector.  Private for profit: 5.2%; Private not-for-profit: 6.3%; Local government: 5.4%; State government: 6.0%; Federal government: 6.8%

Source: American Community Survey,2009. Adapted from Table S1811, Survey 1-Year Estimates: Selected Economic Characteristics for the Civilian Noninstitutionalized Population By Disability Status.



Other Resources

Disability Statistics<>
Disability Statistics, a Cornell University resource, provides well-documented disability statistics and rehabilitation data sources in a user-friendly and accessible manner to facilitate evidence-based advocacy, decision-making and research. The site allows for customized searches on topics in disability statistics and staff are available to conduct special analysis to answer user questions.

Office of Disability Employment Policy: Research<>
This Department of Labor page provides information on the Current Population Survey (CPS), historical disability employment data and answers to frequently asked questions about disability and employment statistics.

Page last updated on Tuesday, September 10, 2013