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Disability and Unemployment
July 21, 2017

By: Adara Kimbrough, '18

One of the biggest concerns facing the disabled community is unemployment. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there were over one billion people globally who lived with a disability, which is about 15 percent of the world’s population (Harper, Hartnett, Hirsh, Lech, Rubin, & Tower, 2014). In the United States, there are 19.5 million individuals with disabilities who are of the working-age (18-59) that have the capacity and ability to work. However, about 12.7 million of them are unemployed (Harper et al., 2014). In 2013, data showed that the poverty rate for working-age disabled Americans is at 34.5 percent compared to 12.2 percent of working-age Americans who were not disabled (Ekman, Fremstad, & Vallas, 2015).
The high unemployment rate in the disabled community is a contributing factor to the high poverty rates. In fact, workers with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed than their nondisabled counterparts (Ekman et al., 2015). The high rates of unemployment are caused by factors such as discrimination and employers unwilling to hire disabled workers (Ekman et al., 2015). Furthermore, the number of people with disabilities who participate in the workforce is significantly low. In 2013, it was estimated that there were only 31.1% of people with disabilities in the workforce compared to 81.3% of people without disabilities (Ekman et al., 2015).  Moreover, even when a disabled person is employed they often earn less. With every dollar a nondisabled person makes a disabled person makes 63 cents, on average (Ekman et al., 2015).
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 26 years ago to ensure equal rights and treatment to disabled individuals. According to the ADA, a disability is a form of physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a person’s functioning in one or more major life roles (Harper et al., 2014). Title I of the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to people who are disabled and are applying or working at a job. Reasonable accommodations refer to having adjustments made in the work environment tailored to the disabled individual needs, in order to give them an equal playing field in the workplace (Harper et al., 2014). Examples of reasonable accommodations include hiring an interpreter for a deaf or hard-of-hearing employee during meetings or modifying or purchasing equipment for those with physical and/or cognitive impairments such as installing a ramp for wheelchair accessibility to a building. Even though disabled persons can request accommodations, if it is seen as not reasonable it can be denied. The term reasonable accommodations in the ADA specifies that an accommodation can be denied if it causes hardship to the employment establishment and its workers (Harper et al., 2014). An example of a hardship would be the cost of the accommodation being too expensive for the establishment to afford (Repa, 2017).
Although the ADA gives people with disabilities the right to work, they still face discrimination and employers remain reluctant to hire them (Harper et al., 2014). Employers may deny a disabled workers accommodation request because they believe the individual may not actually have a disability and, therefore, is not eligible for accommodations (Harper et al., 2014). Research shows that one of every three employees with a disability is unaware of laws that protect them against discrimination and, as a result, employers can interpret the ADA based on their interests (Harper et al., 2014). Additionally, some employers do not want to provide their workers with accommodations because they do not want to pay for them (Repa, 2017). Moreover, a study has shown that disabled employees felt that their employer was insensitive and negatively evaluated them (Harper et al., 2014). The workers in the study also felt that their employer was ignorant and faced discrimination associated with a disability in the workplace (Harper et al., 2014). 
Due to possible discrimination, many disabled employees feel reluctant to disclose their disability to their coworkers, and employer (Harper et al., 2014). They also feel that they do not want to request accommodations because they may be viewed as a “complainer” or someone who is lazy and just wants to get out of working, or risk losing their job (Harper et al., 2014). In fact, many disabled individuals who admit to their employer that they have a disability later regret it (Harper et al., 2014).
I can relate to many of the findings that studies have concluded. I struggle with a condition called auditory processing disorder (APD), which causes me to have difficulties with processing oral information. APD is not a hearing problem, but a problem that mainly lies in the hearing process. It is almost like listening to someone with a heavy accent. You hear them clearly; however, you cannot quite understand what they are saying. Because of this disorder I have trouble in noisy environments and following verbal instructions. I do a lot better in quiet environments and follow instructions better if they are written down. I fear asking for accommodations because it might make me appear incompetent for a job; therefore, I feel I should not disclose it to employers. However, as a result I found myself encountering difficulties in the workplace. This is a dilemma that millions of disabled Americans face when having a job.
The profession of social work is particularly concerned with social justice, the representation and support of vulnerable or oppressed individuals of a certain population, and direct action strategies to bring about positive change for the marginalized. The disabled community has been hard hit by poverty largely due to unemployment, which is due in part from discriminatory attitudes and unfriendly work environments. Having addressed the issues, I propose that the ADA reforms its policy on requiring the employer to pay for accommodations. Instead of solely laying the financial burden on the employer, the state should offer financial assistance if the employer proves they are unable to afford accommodations. This would be much more cost-effective than a disabled person relying on programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance for the rest of their lives.
The ADA should also put in more provisions that enables disabled individuals to take on more responsibility for themselves, in order to fully acknowledge and fully experience their rights. This would require disabled individuals to contact professionals who typically work with the disabled (social workers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and healthcare professionals) before applying and working at a job. Through these professionals the disabled can be referred to resources to help make the accommodation process easier as well as educate them on their rights, and inform them on what to do if they feel they have been discriminated against.
As part of the HBSE: Poverty, Inequality, Discrimination & Public Policy course, students wrote blog posts about important policy issues. Over the course of the summer, these posts will be shared both through the Rutgers Social Work Policy newsletter and here, on the school's blog. To sign up for the newsletter, please email


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