We have come a long way toward workplace inclusion, but we still have further to go. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 17.9% of people meeting the federal definition of disability were employed in 2020, down from 19.3% the prior year. Forbes reported that 42 million people in the US have severe disabilities, and all but 4% go unseen.
The BLS reported a spike to 12.6% unemployment during the pandemic, compared to 7.9% of those individuals without a disability. Individuals with disabilities were more likely to be self-employed and/or part-time employees, older than 65, or have lower levels of education.
Accounting for the overall employment drop during Covid, it is apparent that Americans with disabilities are grossly underemployed. Consider a large (n=3570 survey respondents) landmark 2016 study by the Center for Talent and Innovation, which determined that nearly a third of the American white-collar workforce (30%) have a disability, but only 3.2% self-identify as having a disability.
Of those with a disability in the workforce, a whopping 62% reported having an invisible disability or one that is not apparent to anyone else. Few of disabled persons (39%) in the workplace have disclosed their conditions to management, their teams (24%), or human resources (21%). Forty-four percent of people with visible disabilities and 30% of those with invisible disabilities report having experienced discrimination or negative bias in the workplace, with the most significant overall category being misjudgment (42%).
What the numbers mean
A few things are worth considering in the numbers. First, a massive untapped talent pool comprises individuals who may want to work but have avoided doing so due to negative perceptions of workplace culture in the US. Persons with disabilities in the workforce are full of constructive ideas, with nearly 75% reporting that they have ideas that would ostensibly create value for their companies.
Second, there was an understandable drop in all employment during the pandemic, but the scarcity of disabled persons in the workforce predates COVID-19. There may be many reasons why a disabled person has not entered the workforce, some of which are evident. However, there is still a frightening degree of perceived stigma around disability disclosure in the workplace from the ones that have. The climate of tolerance needs work.
Nowhere is the stigma more evident than with disabled individuals who have a job but are not willing to disclose conditions to employers, their coworkers, or human resources. A 2019 Harvard Business Review Article attributes the unwillingness to disclose to a “fear of being discovered,” sadly, despite the significant protections of people with disabilities under multiple US laws.
Finally, the data unequivocally show that we need to work on workplace disability inclusion and acceptance in the US. The process of increasing compassion and awareness will no doubt require significant reinvestment of resources by existing companies into accessibility features and training and will demand vigilance from new companies in creating tolerant environments from the start.
How can we improve
A top-down approach to inclusive company culture will go a long way but can only address part of the problem and will likely involve a paradigm shift concerning how we look at disabilities. A shorter path will involve creating workplace allies for disabled individuals — remembering that over 60% of disabled coworkers may have an invisible impairment.
As coworkers, we would do well to understand how various conditions, both seen and invisible, might manifest in the workplace and beyond. We should abandon current assumptions, educate ourselves, and, when appropriate, ask coworkers with disabilities how we might be of help. Creating a community of empathetic and supportive allies will undoubtedly help those with disabilities feel safer and more productive in the workplace.