Employment for Americans with Disabilities

by John O’Neill, Ph.D., and Andrew Houtenville, Ph.D.

Accommodations are an important factor in the successful hiring of people with disabilities, and in the retention of employees who develop new disabilities. Employers that are open to providing accommodations and have the capability to provide them, will have greater success in meeting their need for staffing. 

In the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Jobs Report released in August, the employment-to-population ratio for working-age people with disabilities decreased from 29.7 percent in July 2017 to 29.3 percent in July 2018. For working-age people without disabilities, the employment-to-population ratio increased from 74.1 percent in July 2017 to 74.7 percent in July. The employment-to-population ratio, a key indicator, reflects the percentage of people who are working relative to the total population.

The labor force participation rate — the percentage of the population that is working or actively looking for work — for working-age people with disabilities decreased from 33.1 percent in July 2017 to 32.4 percent in July 2018. For working-age people without disabilities, the labor force participation rate also increased from 77.6 percent in July 2017 to 77.7 percent in July 2018. 

February 2016 to May 2018 saw steady improvement in the employment situation for people with disabilities. There have been slight declines in their employment-to-population ratio and labor force participation rate, as chronicled above, but, while this downturn is disappointing, it is over too short a time to imply a trend, and the tight labor market may spur further improvement for Americans with disabilities.

Working-age people who sustain a disabling illness or injury face major decisions about staying in their jobs or returning to the workforce after treatment and/or rehabilitation. The availability of accommodations may be a major influence in their decision to return to their current job or seek new employment. In 2017, Kessler Foundation released survey findings that revealed useful data about workplace practices for accommodating employees with disabilities. 

According to the Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey: Supervisor Perspectives, 66 percent of employers have implemented a process to provide requested accommodations. Of the 3,000 supervisors surveyed, 96 percent found these processes effective. The 34 percent of employers who lack an accommodations process clearly have an opportunity to improve their hiring and retention of people with disabilities by implementing a process for requesting accommodations. The majority of supervisors (96 percent) also responded favorably to having access to a centralized accommodations fund to help them provide requested accommodations. Only a small percentage of employers — 16 percent — have such funds, however — which highlights another opportunity for employers, as setting up such a fund would facilitate the provision of accommodations, and help supervisors keep employees in their jobs.  

PwD (People with Disabilities) in the Workforce

Survey involved 3,085 supervisors from across the country

Supporting PwD learning the job: Very Somewhat Not very Not at all
Upper management commitment 





Importance to supervisor


18% 3%



Providing requested accommodations: Very Somewhat Not very Not at all
Upper management commitment





Importance to supervisor






Training Practices — Job Shadowing: Effective Effective with PwD
Among the 27% who practice this sometimes



Among the 61% who practice this as standard




Accommodation Practices — Flexible Work Schedule: Effective Effective with PwD
Among the 52% who offer this sometimes



Among the 25% who offer this as standard



Source: Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey: Supervisor Perspectives 

John O’Neill, Ph.D., C.R.C., director of employment research at Kessler Foundation, is a national expert in employment of people with disabilities, with more than 30 years of experience in vocational rehabilitation research. Dr. O’Neill’s research focuses on analyzing trends over time, specifically how physical and cognitive function, government benefits, and healthcare coverage impact utilization of vocational services and job seeking by people with disabilities.  


Andrew Houtenville, Ph.D., is an associate professor of economics in the Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire and the research director of the UNH Institute on Disability. Dr. Houtenville’s research focuses on (a) the design of survey questions to identify people with disabilities, (b) analyzing time-trends and geographic dispersion in disability and the employment of people with disabilities, (c) and identifying economic, social, programmatic, and workplace barriers and facilitators to the participation of people with disabilities in the labor market.

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