I am publishing a series of blogs on employment related to people with disabilities. This is the first of 4 posts. The Code of Federal Regulations states that the purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 is to prepare students with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living (CFR 300.1[a]). So what happens for students with disabilities once they either receive high school diplomas or complete their transition programs? Are they employed? Are they under-employed? What kind of incomes are they earning? We, and our children with disabilities or those students for whom we have advocated, have all worked too hard, exerted too much energy, and shed too many tears to have everything we’ve struggled for end when the school bus no longer picks up our children. We need to look at what we are preparing our loved ones for once they no longer receive special education services. With these thoughts in mind, we are exploring in different blogs what the employment outcomes are for persons with disabilities. Although some of the data is extremely discouraging, there are bright spots that we can all hope will translate to rewarding careers/work lives for our loved ones with special needs.
The cessation of special education services and the transitioning of our children into young adulthood and employment can be terrifying for parents, as depicted by NBC’s Dateline, which aired a program titled, “On the Brink,” in which parents of young adults with ASD contemplate the future for their children once special education supports end. The question I always ask is what happens when the bus no longer comes to your house? Parents know it may be an uphill battle because the cold, hard numbers are not particularly encouraging.
Overall, persons with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment than those without disabilities. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) compiles data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which provides a monthly survey sample of about 60,000 households. Relying on the CPS data, the June 2015 Economic News Release from the BLS reports that in 2014, 17.1% of persons with disabilities were employed, compared with the employment-population ratio for persons without disabilities of 64.6%. The unemployment rate for persons with disabilities was 12.5% compared to 5.9% for those without disabilities. The BLS defines unemployed as a person who does not have a job, is available for work, and is actively looking for work. The reality is that 8 of 10 persons with disabilities were not in the labor force (that is, neither employed nor looking for work) compared to 3 in 10 persons with no disabilities. Part of this difference may be explained by the fact that disability increases with age, and that up to 47% of persons with disabilities are greater than 65 years, who are by virtue of age alone less likely to be in the market place. Additionally up to 33% of workers with a disability were employed only part-time, and employed persons with disabilities were more likely to be self-employed (11.1%) than those without disabilities (6.2%).
Not surprisingly, persons with disabilities earn less than those without disabilities. According to data from the US Census Bureau, persons with disabilities earn 75 cents for each dollar others are paid. The median monthly income for all disabilities is $1,961 compared with $2,724 for those without disabilities. These disabled workers are in such service or administrative support positions as janitors, cashiers, dishwashers, and retail sales. Poverty rates are also higher for those with disabilities. Approximately 28.6% of persons with severe disabilities ages 15 to 64 and 17.9% of adults with non-severe disabilities live in poverty, compared with 14.3% of adults without disabilities.
But as we said, there are some bright spots in employment for the disabled. In an effort to increase employment rates for the disabled, the Labor Department enacted rules in 2014 requiring that disabled workers comprise at least 7% of the workforces of Federal contractors. Additionally, the Obama administration last February ordered that the estimated 250,000 workers under Federal contracts must receive a minimum wage of at least $10.10. Exactly what percentage of these workers is disabled is unclear, but given that the majority of disabled workers are in low-paying service jobs, the disabled are expected to benefit.
Another proposed change relates to revision in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. Section 14(C ) of the Act permits employers of the disabled to pay their disabled workers less than the minimum wage. The justification in 1938 was that persons with disabilities could never be competitively employed, which is how sheltered workshops even today can pay their workers as little as 22 cents an hour. However, this provision may be eliminated by the proposed “Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act ,” which was introduced this past January and is pending in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. As beautifully stated in the text of the bill, the justification for these wage waivers is no longer valid and that “employees with disabilities, when provided the proper rehabilitation services, training, and tools, can be as productive as nondisabled employees. Even those individuals that are considered most severely disabled have been able to successfully obtain employment earning minimum wage or higher.”
Despite these gains, some 40 years after the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1975, the original iteration of what is now knows as IDEA, too many Americans with disabilities are struggling to find satisfactory post-special education outcomes. Too many, and not just the severely disabled, are unemployed or failing to earn an adequate income. In an article entitled, “A Fair Shot for Workers with Disabilities,” staff from the Center for American Progress provide a checklist of policy changes to assist persons with disabilities, including raising the minimum wage, strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanding Medicaid, and many other thoughtful proposals. Thus, we need to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.