Editor’s Note: This blog was cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Labor’s blog.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Here at the U.S. Department of Labor, this means an opportunity both to celebrate the countless contributions workers with disabilities make to our economy every day and reflect on the work still needed to ensure that all have the opportunity to put their skills and talents to work.
One important tool that assists us in measuring how far we’ve come and assessing the challenges ahead is data. However, it is important to note that labor force data on people with disabilities present some unique analytical challenges. Over-time comparisons are limited because these data first became available in 2008, and they are not seasonally adjusted, which means we must look at rolling 12-month averages. Yet they provide a crucial picture.
As illustrated in the graph below, the unemployment rate for workers with disabilities rose rapidly during the Great Recession and its aftermath, hitting a 12-month peak of 16.6 percent in the fall of 2011. As the economy and job opportunities have steadily improved over the last five years, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has declined, now standing at 11.9 percent.
While this is still far too high and there is significant room for improvement, the population of workers with disabilities has made substantial progress in recovering from the effects of the worst recession of our lifetimes.
It’s worth noting that the slight increase in the unemployment rate over the last year was not for bad reasons; the share of individuals with disabilities who are employed did not fall. Rather, the labor force participation rate ticked up, as more workers with disabilities were pulled into the labor force — meaning they are either employed or unemployed but looking for jobs and available for work. This is certainly welcome news.
However, there is still a great deal of ground to make up when it comes to the labor force participation rate of workers with disabilities. Over the last year, it averaged 30.9 percent for individuals age 16-64 with disabilities, compared with 76.3 percent for workers without disabilities.
Closing this gap is central to the mission of the Department of Labor and its Office of Disability Employment Policy, the only non-regulatory federal agency that promotes policies and coordinates with employers and all levels of government to increase workplace success for people with disabilities. Among its key policy priorities is effective implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, in order to ensure job seekers with disabilities can access the training and employment services needed to effectively enter or reenter the workforce.
The department is also focused on increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities with federal contractors, and helping all employers — public or private, federal contractor or not — ensure that diversity efforts include inclusion strategies for employees with disabilities in hiring and career development, and when employees face new disabilities throughout their careers. Now more than ever, this is essential to ensuring that applicants and employees with disabilities have equal opportunity to optimize their potential and performance.
It’s all part of advancing the important message that #InclusionWorks — for workers, for employers and for America’s economy. This month and every month, ODEP and the department at large are committed to closing the employment gap between people with and without disabilities, and to ensuring effective analysis of data in order to measure both progress made and still to come.
Jennifer Sheehy is the deputy assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy. Dr. Heidi Shierholz is the department’s chief economist.