Job seekers with disabilities benefit less from federal unemployment
programs than their non-disabled counterparts. A recent study conducted by
researchers at the Center for Research on Learning, Division of Adult Studies
at the University of Kansas revealed that the discrepancy contributed to
feelings of low self-esteem among this population, as well as low overall
disability awareness among program staff members.
“Twenty years after passage of the
Americans with Disabilities Act, employment discrimination is
still a reality for people with disabilities,” Jean P. Hall, PhD,
associate research professor in the Division of Adult Studies, said. “If
program staff members are not aware of the specific rights and responsibilities
of job-seekers with disabilities, they are of limited help in placing people
with disabilities into meaningful employment.”
Hall, along with colleague Kathy Parker, conducted focus groups and
surveyed recipients of two federal assistance programs — the Temporary
Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which requires recipients to find
employment within 2 years, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which set
up “one-stop” centers to cluster services for the unemployed —
both those who have disabilities and those who do not.
According to the study, 63% of people with disabilities in the United
States are unemployed. Illustrating this point, data from the U.S. Government
Accountability Office shows that 29% of TANF benefit recipients nationwide have
physical or mental health impairments, as opposed to 11% of the population not
receiving these benefits.
Hall pointed out that the various generic unemployment programs designed
to assist people in securing employment offer little specific experience in
actually assisting those with disabilities. The ineffectiveness of these
programs is due in part to the fact that staff members in charge of running
these programs may not be aware of the unique barriers to employment that this
population encounters, she said.
The “self-service” nature of these programs, too, often is not
accessible or user-friendly for people with disabilities, Hall added. In fact,
researchers also used “mystery customers” to visit various workforce
centers, and found that many of these were not completely accessible to people
The current economy is another factor that continues to play a role in
the discrepancy between people with disabilities and people without, Hall told
O&P Business News.
“In August 2010, the percentage of people with disabilities in the
labor force was 22%,” she said. “By comparison, the percentage of
persons with no disability in the labor force was 70.2%.”
The unemployment rate, on the other hand, was higher for people with
disabilities — 15.6%, compared with 9.3% for people without disabilities,
according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In the time period since this research was conducted, the Department of
Labor has funded a Disability Program Navigator Initiative at many of the
one-stop centers across the country.
“Unfortunately, these were time-limited positions and, with
turnover of center staff, the program may not have a lasting effect on the
responsiveness of centers to job-seekers with disabilities,” she said.
Hall does not foresee a solution to this predicament in the near future.
Although disability advocates continue to fight for changes to the various
employment programs, the problem has many different aspects. Government
programs cannot fix everyone’s specific situations. On the other hand,
people with disabilities may feel suspicious of these new programs, without the
guarantee of success.
Time and necessity stand as the two factors that may have the most
effect on the situation.
“As the baby boomers age and disability becomes more prevalent, I
hope that federal programs will become more responsive to this
population,” she said. — by Stephanie Z. Pavlou
There is clearly a need for significant improvement in the capacity of
programs that assist individuals who are unemployed, to better respond to the
needs of people with disabilities. It is also critical that the federal
government better understand more about the performance and outcomes in terms
of these systems in terms of the disability population.
However, it should be recognized that this study focused on recipients
in one geographic area, and relied on focus groups as its primary means of
evaluation of the [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] (TANF) and
workforce development systems. To truly understand the performance of these
systems in terms of people with disabilities, it’s important to look at
the actual service delivery data and take more of a national perspective. For
example, in looking at the workforce development data nationally, what we see
is a more nuanced and inconsistent picture. Some states are actually serving a
significant percentage of individuals with disabilities within their one-stop
systems, while others are not. Additionally, each state’s public
vocational rehabilitation, mental health and developmental disability systems
spend significant resources assisting people with disabilities with their
employment needs. Not only do these systems provide additional service options
for people with disabilities, but we have seen that partnerships between these
disability systems and TANF and workforce development can be effective.
Research and experience has clearly shown that people with disabilities,
who were previously considered unemployable, can succeed with the right job
match and a bit of support and assistance — which is frankly no different
than why most people succeed at work. While the current workforce participation
rate for people with disabilities is unacceptable, on a positive note, we are
seeing increased focus on this issue at the both the federal and state level,
particularly in terms of focusing the available resources on supporting
individuals to find and succeed in employment, rather than having lives
characterized too often by dependence, poverty and segregation from mainstream
Similarly, we are seeing increased recognition by employers in terms of
valuing people with disabilities as an integral part of their workforce, which
will hopefully lead to people with disabilities being included within general
recruitment and hiring efforts as standard practice. The aging workforce and
looming labor shortages are helping to spur this interest by employers. We are
hopefully at a tipping point, where we will start to see these efforts have
impact in terms of actual employment outcomes.
— David Hoff
Senior technical assistance
specialist, Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts and
vice president, APSE