Confronting disability discrimination in employment
Last year the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) launched the Disability Equality Index (DEI) Survey, a benchmarking tool aimed at the nation’s largest employers – Fortune 1000 companies.
The DEI Survey is a good educational tool; the process of completing it requires thinking through a series of specific questions about recruiting and accommodating employees with disabilities. Comments from business leaders who participated reflect this. One said the survey helped them “think about things differently and in a holistic way.” Another noted, “Some of the questions were truly eye opening and challenged us to make some important changes.”
Just 83 of America’s top 1000 companies took the DEI Survey in this, its second year. That’s an admittedly small number. And judging by their decision to participate and by the fact that the vast majority scored highly on the “Best Places to Work” scale, these are clearly businesses that are ahead of the curve.
Still, conducting the survey and publicizing the handful of huge employers with universal name recognition that are leading the way in disability inclusion – names like AT&T, American Airlines, General Motors, TD Bank and Starbucks – has real potential to raise the bar for and help educate the rest of the nation’s largest employers. That’s really important because ending workplace discrimination against people with disabilities remains a huge challenge in the 21st Century, even though demands for equal employment helped launch the Disability Rights movement decades ago.
Unemployment Numbers Show the Gap
Each month the US Department of Labor publishes employment data based on surveys conducted the previous month with people of working age. This provides a snapshot of the labor market that investors, economists, politicians and the general public look to for important indicators of the nation’s economic health.
The Department of Labor’s monthly survey includes questions on age, certificates and licenses, education, family and marital status, race, ethnicity, immigration status, volunteering, and gender, among other factors. It was only in 2008, however, that questions were added to the survey to identify whether the person being surveyed has a disability – a fact I personally found quite shocking – and that data was not included in the Department’s monthly employment reports until 2010 – just six years ago.
When the data did finally come to light, it was a discouraging picture. In June of 2010 the unemployment rate for jobseekers with a disability was more than 50 percent higher than for those without a disability: 14.4 versus 9.4.
What really surprised me, though, is that today, while the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has dropped a bit as the economy has created more jobs, the gap in unemployment between jobseekers with disabilities and those without has actually increased.
In June of this year the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 12.1 percent – 2.3 percent lower than it was in June of 2010. While that is an improvement, people without disabilities saw a much larger drop in unemployment during the same time period; for this group the unemployment rate shrank to just 4.8 percent – a 4.6 percent drop since 2010. In other words, the drop in unemployment for people without disabilities was exactly twice as large as what people with disabilities experienced. Another way to look at it is that while six years ago unemployment was more than 50 percent higher for people with disabilities than for people without disabilities, today that disparity has grown to more than 60 percent.
It is truly disturbing that while unemployment has decreased dramatically for jobseekers overall since 2010, the gap between those with and without disabilities has actually grown – it’s exactly the wrong trajectory.
In July the National Disability Institute (NDI) launched Disable Poverty, a public education campaign that aims to raise awareness about the stubborn link between poverty and disability. According to NDI, nearly a third of Americans with a disability are poor. In fact, as NDI executive director Michael Morris points out, people with disabilities are both the nation’s largest and poorest minority.
One of the campaign’s goals is to help reduce the number of people with disabilities who are poor by 50 percent over ten years. If that’s to be achieved, closing the gap in the unemployment rate will have to play a major role – probably the major role.
Why focus on the unemployment rate?
Focusing on the unemployment rate is useful because it reflects people with disabilities who are in the job market. There can be many reasons why someone with a disability is unemployed and not looking for work: they may still be in school; their disability may prevent them from getting the skills or education to obtain a job; they may have a history of participating in the “sheltered workshop” system that has left them unprepared for a mainstream job; they may be worried about losing disability-related income or health benefits; or they may have health problems related to their disability that render them unable to work.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities excludes all of these people; it represents only those who are seeking jobs but have not yet found one.
So it seems that one of the most effective ways to “disable poverty” is to put the focus squarely on creating more opportunities for this subset of people – those already in the job market who face barriers based on their disability. The key to that lies in educating employers, while persuading them to create more welcoming, inclusive workplaces and to deliberately include qualified people with disabilities in their candidate pools, which is exactly what the DEI survey aims to do.
The bottom line is that, regardless of whatever carrots and sticks government deploys to incentivize the hiring of people with disabilities, ultimately large, private-sector employers are going to have to embrace this cause if employment equality is to be achieved. And that means enlisting the board members and business leaders who make that world go round.