Disability and the Public Workforce System

By Robert Bartolotta, Ph.D.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). NDEAM celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and educates about the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents.This year's NDEAM theme "Inclusion Drives Innovation" reflects the important role that different perspectives play in workforce success. 

Individuals find meaning, identity, and community through their work. Work also brings freedom and independence through financial security. Nationally, people with disabilities have higher unemployment (the percentage of individuals who are jobless, actively seeking work, and available to take a job) and lower labor participation (percentage of individuals who either have a job or are actively seeking work) rates than people without disabilities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in July 2017 that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 9.6% and 4.4% for people without disabilities. The labor participation rate for people with disabilities was 20.8% and 69.2% for people without disabilities. In other words, only about one in five people with disabilities are either employed or actively seeking employment. They are also more than twice as likely to not have a job.

The government wants all capable Americans to work and has many programs that support this aim. The Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 first established a national network of public employment offices. The network currently benefits from the colocation of public support services requirement of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA). Sites within the network are known as American Job Centers, or sometimes One-Stops.  

WIOA’s Title IV amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to authorize and integrate vocational rehabilitation employment services for people with disabilities into the American Job Center system. This is designed to make the American Job Centers’ sites better at providing support to these individuals in preparing for and finding employment.

Due to the impact of disability on employment, the Federal government supports several programs and systems to increase the employability of people with disabilities. The aforementioned WIOA Title IV provides money to states to provide services and supports to qualifying people with disabilities that may include funded education or training, case management, and/or assistive technology. Many states – due to demand that exceeds available funds – are required to initiate Orders of Selection, a system that necessitates that individuals with the most significant disabilities receive services first.

People with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 who receive Social Security Insurance (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are eligible for the “Ticket-to-Work.” program Individuals can assign their tickets to an Employment Network who will then coordinate services and supports to help them find and maintain employment. Individuals who assign their Tickets maintain their SSI or SSDI payments and Medicaid while transitioning to work. If an individual cannot continue with employment, benefits can be reactivated.

Businesses can also access tax credits to encourage the hiring of people with disabilities. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) provides a wage reimbursement of up to $2,400 to a business for hiring an individual with a disability – and up to $9,600 if the individual is a veteran with a service related disability. The Disability Access Credit (DAC) allows for a small business with gross receipts not exceeding $1 million dollars in the previous year to deduct up to $15,000 of the cost for making publicly used facilities, including workspaces, more accessible to people with disabilities. Many states offer similar tax credits to encourage businesses to hire and accommodate people with disabilities.

Guaranteeing successful employment, regardless of disability, is impossible. Whether an individual can work is often a challenge to ingenuity and perception. However, WIOA’s Title IV supports vocational rehabilitation, a service that identifies needed work supports and provides training and case management to qualifying individuals who want to work. Ticket-to-Work also provides additional support during this transition. Tax credits, such as the WOTC and DAC, also encourage businesses to hire and accommodate people with disabilities by using financial incentives to overcome perceptional barriers around employability and physical access to spaces for this population.

These initiatives, as well as similar state ones, are efforts to improve the labor participation and employment rates for people with disabilities. When successful, the government experiences reduction in benefits payments to people with disabilities and increased tax payments from them. People with disabilities gain the opportunity to find meaning, identity, and community in addition to their new incomes. Those of us without disabilities are educated and enlightened by our coworkers with disabilities on the capabilities of people with disabilities. Alone, any of these benefits would be considered worthwhile to pursue. Together, we, as a community of American workers, all benefit from public efforts to improve the employability and employment outcomes of people with disabilities.