Removing Obstacles for Disabled Workers Would Strengthen the U.S. Labor Market


 MAY 24, 2022

Although disabled people saw increased employment rates in 2021, their rates continue to lag significantly behind those of their nondisabled counterparts, signaling the urgent need for policy reform across federal and state governments.

Source originally published: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/removing-obstacles-for-disabled-workers-would-strengthen-the-u-s-labor-market/


A worker in a cafe. (Getty/lisegagne)

Authors’ note: The disability community is rapidly evolving to using identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, prefer person-first language. In this report, the terms are used interchangeably.

Introduction and summary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its annual review of disabled people in the labor market, revealing that in 2021, disabled people made improvements, including increases in their employment rates and declines in their unemployment rates, but they continued to lag behind people without disabilities.1 This report builds upon that analysis to understand how the 2021 economic recovery affected disabled workers, including people of color and older workers.

While the COVID-19 health crisis and recession disproportionately affected people with at least one disability and likely led to many more people becoming disabled,2 the economic recovery continues to showcase the persistence of systemic ableism in the labor market, which existed long before the pandemic. A recent report by the Solve Long Covid Initiative estimated a $386 billion financial burden on the economy from 2020 to 2022 due to long COVID’s effects on employment, savings, and medical expenses.3 People with at least one disability who are also part of another marginalized group, such as disabled people of color or disabled LGBTQI+ people,4 tend to experience large employment gaps as they bear intersecting and compounding systems of oppression. Across gender, race, ethnicity, and age, disabled people are less likely to be employed and more likely to work fewer hours, earn lower incomes, and accumulate less wealth than their counterparts without at least one disability.


The United States Must Advance Economic Security for Disabled LGBTQI+ Workers


The United States Must Advance Economic Security for Disabled LGBTQI+ Workers

Nov 3, 2021

Caroline MedinaLindsay MahowaldThee Santos1 More

Within every demographic group, the disabled population faces the worst employment outcomes; therefore, investing in this population will have an outsize impact on the strength of the labor market and the economic stability of workers. Removing obstacles would reduce supply constraints and lift up economic growth, allowing millions of disabled workers to participate in a more equitable economy.

There is still a long way to go before disabled people are treated equitably in the labor market and have access to the work they want. Joblessness or underemployment can lead to poverty, which limits an individual’s capacity to weather financial shocks and contributes to poorer physical and mental health outcomes.5 If all people can equally participate in the economy and enjoy meaningful, well-paying, stable jobs, long-term productivity and economic growth will increase as more people provide their talents, skills, and experiences to the economy. Put differently, not addressing obstacles to the employment of disabled workers wastes a massive source of innovation at a point when the U.S. economy faces a wide range of challenges—including climate change, health care costs, and an aging population, among others.

The federal government must do everything in its power to increase the economic power of disabled people, including:

  • Increasing funding to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Making substantial improvements to the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and AbilityOne programs
  • Establishing universal paid family and medical leave
  • Raising the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour and eliminating Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which permits employers to pay disabled workers far less than the minimum wage
  • Updating social safety net programs
  • Expanding health insurance by providing a public option and expanding Medicaid
  • Developing specific Department of Labor (DOL) guidance regarding workplace accommodations to address long COVID and the pandemic
  • Strengthening employee protections by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and enhancing the DOL’s ability to enforce workplace classification laws

Labor market data show less employment and job-searching among disabled people

Two key indicators demonstrate the challenges for disabled people in the labor market: the employment and unemployment rates. In 2021, nearly 6 million people with at least one disability were employed in the labor market, an increase of 600,000 compared with 2020.6 This increase is likely, in part, a reflection of the fact that as more people became disabled during the pandemic, the makeup of the disabled population changed to include more people who already had jobs. There are also the implications of a tight labor market in which employers are lowering barriers for hiring.7 While 19.1 percent of people with at least one disability were employed in 2021, that number is more than three times larger for those without a disability.8 This gap has persisted since 2009—the first year for which annual data are available. (see Figure 1) If disabled workers experienced the same employment rate as those without a disability, nearly 14 million more disabled people would have been employed in 2021.9

Figure 1

If disabled workers experienced the same employment rate as those without a disability, nearly 14 million more disabled people would have been employed in 2021.

Similarly, in 2021, the unemployment rate—reflective of those actively looking for but unable to find work—among those with at least one disability continued to be twice as high as it was for those without any disabilities.10



Unemployment rate among those with a disability in 2021

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Unemployment rate among those without a disability in 2021

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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The persistent, significant gaps in employment and unemployment rates for disabled people not only showcase the difficulties they experience in the labor market when searching for a job but also speak to the level of discouragement they experience in searching in the first place. While the unemployment rate reflects the difficulties that disabled people actively searching for work face in finding it, the employment-per-population ratio showcases a larger gap that points to a broader issue: Many more within the disability community likely have been discouraged from searching for work. This means that there is a large group of disabled people who may want to work but are not currently counted as unemployed or in the labor force.

Disabled workers are also more likely to be self-employed and work fewer hours when employed compared with those with no disabilities.11 In 2021, 29 percent of employed disabled workers worked part time, compared with just 16 percent of nondisabled workers12—a statistic that has been relatively constant since data collection began. (see Figure 2) Part of the quantity of part-time work hours is attributable to occupational segregation, with people with at least one disability more likely to be employed in part-time jobs. In addition, the asset limits set within the benefits system, particularly around Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, and the earned income limits around SSI, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Medicaid cut off support13 or result in penalization14 if even the most basic economic security is reached. In 2021, the second-most-common reason—after health—that disabled people reported working part time was “Retired or Social Security limit on earnings.”15 Put another way, disabled workers may have to seek out only part-time hours—even if, all else being equal, they’d prefer to work full time—in order to avoid nearing asset or income limits.

Figure 2

People with disabilities, regardless of other demographics, experience employment gaps

Disabled people are less likely to work than nondisabled people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, or age. (see Appendix) Within the disability community, however, older people and workers of color tend to experience even more acute employment gaps. This analysis demonstrates that within each subpopulation, disabled workers have the worst employment outcomes. (see Figure 3) Disability lies at the center of labor market disparities, exacerbating every other inequality. The intersectional identities of workers point to ways to improve the labor market, and addressing the challenges and barriers that disabled workers face will have significant impacts for disabled workers, all other workers, and the stability and growth of the labor market overall.

Figure 3


In 2021, the overall U.S. employment story was one of a continued gap between men and women. Surprisingly, the gender gap in labor force participation among disabled workers decreased. (see Figure 4) While both men and women with at least one disability, ages 16 to 64, saw increases in their participation and employment rates and declines in their unemployment rates, disabled women saw larger gains.16 In fact, women with at least one disability ages 16 to 64 are now employed at their highest levels on record—though a slight employment gender gap still remains within the disability community. However, both men and women with at least one disability remain employed at significantly lower rates than those without a disability.17

Figure 4


People ages 65 and older account for half of the population with a disability and 17.9 percent of employed disabled workers.18 As previously documented by the Center for American Progress, people ages 65 and older accounted for only 35 percent of the 1.2 million increase in the number of people with a disability in the civilian noninstitutional population in 2021.19 Put another way, younger people accounted for a disproportionate amount of the increase in disabled people, showing that the rise is not solely a consequence of an aging population.

Workers with a disability continue to experience employment gaps across age groups—and have since data began to be collected.20 Employment gaps grow by age, with the oldest disabled people experiencing the largest employment gaps, in relative terms, even within the 25- to 64-year-old age group, likely a reflection of ageism. (see Figure 5)

Figure 5

During 2021’s employment recovery, there were nearly 500,000 more disabled people in the labor force,21 but the entire increase is among those less than age 65.22 In contrast, aggregate declines in labor force numbers for those without a disability have been driven largely by declines among those ages 45 and older,23 suggestive of early retirements that have been documented for the broader labor market.24 The fact that people ages 45 to 64 within the disability community did not drop out of the labor force in the same manner as those without a disability25 is not surprising; income and wealth gaps compound over time to limit their economic security in older age. People with at least one disability experience income26 and wealth gaps.27 For example, disabled workers earn 66 cents for every $1 earned by those without a disability.28 Income and wealth gaps are caused by:

  1. Occupational segregation, with a concentration of disabled people in low-paying occupations, such as janitors, building cleaners, and personal care aides29
  2. Fewer hours worked, with a concentration of disabled workers in part-time work,30 which itself is partially attributable to asset limits on SSI and earned income limits on SSI, SSDI, and Medicaid
  3. Direct discrimination, including the formal underpaying of disabled workers through the Section 14(c) of the FLSA, as well as employers simply paying disabled employees less than their nondisabled counterparts in specific areas of the market31

Therefore, it is likely that while some nondisabled workers could have decided to retire early when faced with an uncertain labor market in 2020 and 2021, many disabled workers were financially unable to make that choice.

Ableism intersects with racism to the detriment of disabled people of color

Disabled people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, experience lower employment rates than their counterparts without a disability. (see Figure 6) However, people of color with a disability, particularly Black disabled people, face compounding oppression within the labor market.32 (see Figure 3) Black people with at least one disability have had the lowest employment-per-population ratio among all racial and ethnic groups, including within the disability community, since annual data began to be collected. (see Figure 6)

Figure 6

While Hispanic or Latino disabled people experienced the highest employment-to-population ratio among the disability community in 2021, they also faced high unemployment rates—and higher rates than white people with at least one disability, meaning that they are often looking for work without success.33



Unemployment rate among white disabled people in 2021

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Unemployment rate among Black disabled people in 2021

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Unemployment rate among Hispanic or Latino disabled people in 2021

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Further, older male disabled workers of color experienced the largest percentage increase in employment in 2021, compared with women with at least one disability by race and age and other men.34 Although this is a welcome step as these groups look to fulfill their employment goals, it is likely a reflection of an increase in the number of older male disabled workers of color and the fact that some of these workers have to work longer to make up for past losses in income and wealth due to biases and discrimination based upon intersecting factors, namely race and disability. Racism and ableism make it hard for disabled men of color, particularly Black men,35 to build careers that allow them to retire with financial security. And employment gaps remain; for example, older white men have an employment-per-population ratio that is twice as high as the rate for older Black men. (see Figure 3)

Policy recommendations

With the continued disparities between disabled and nondisabled people, it remains obvious that one of the best ways to increase the eligible worker pools and improve the economy is through aggressive comprehensive federal policy changes that directly address employment issues for disabled workers. Recommended policy changes are outlined in this section.

Increasing funding to the EEOC

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been significantly understaffed and underfunded for at least eight years.36 Meanwhile, disability-related complaints have risen significantly over the years, starting at 22.4 percent of all charges in 1997 and rising to 36.1 percent of all charges in 2020.37 Yet funding for the EEOC has basically stalled, with the budget in 2020 being smaller than the budget 40 years ago.38 The workforce at the EEOC has dropped 40 percent since 1980, resulting in complaints that the agency allegedly refused to provide support for valid complaints and was sending too many cases outside to be settled privately.39 More funding must be allocated to allow the agency to hire field staff for both the private and federal sectors. It also needs more staff to provide research and IT support. As the agency looks to redo its strategic plan, it must make it a priority to more fully address the increase in disability complaints. The increase of disabled people in the working population40 may mean that the agency will need to contend with more complaints. With almost 80 of disabled people reporting employment barriers stating barriers were due to disability,41 the EEOC must be primed to help enforce Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes providing more support to directly address disability complaints in a speedier manner.

Making substantial improvements to disability employment programs

There are two major federal disability employment programs—Vocational Rehabilitation and AbilityOne—and both programs need substantial improvements to address the growing needs of the disability community. Vocational Rehabilitation, a federally mandated program that is housed in the Department of Education and run by states, has reportedly had significant problems for years, with high staff turnover and unwieldy caseloads.42 Yet states continually send back formula grant funds, which are noncompetitive grants that require the state to match funds based on a specified percentage. Last year alone, states returned $167 million,43 reportedly because they did not want to fund the maximum state percentage.44 Thus, increasing federal funding to the states will likely not lead to improved services without full state investment.

The federal government must find ways to encourage states to increase funding. One of the ways to do that is to continue to increase transitional services that help disabled students move from educational settings to workplace settings. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), signed into law on July 22, 2014,45 amended rules around Vocational Rehabilitation services, requiring at least 15 percent of funds to be utilized for pre-employment transition services.46 Pre-employment transition services can include postsecondary training, workplace readiness training, self-advocacy training, internships, and more. Current law also requires states to pay 21.3 percent of total program costs, with the federal share being 78.7 percent.47 Yet states are paying 85.4 percent of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) services for prekindergarten, primary, and secondary education.48 IDEA ensures that disabled students from prekindergarten to secondary education receive free and appropriate education and ensures students can access special education and related services. The federal government should encourage states to increase their funding of Vocational Rehabilitation to cover services for disabled high school and college students. This will end up being more cost-effective for the states due to the higher federal formula rates as states continue to need more funds to support special education services.49

Providing increased transition services for disabled students is extremely important because it will help them obtain better-paying jobs. Students with disabilities are much more likely to not graduate: 85.8 percent of nondisabled students graduated high school during the 2018-19 school year compared with 68.2 percent of disabled students.50 They are also much more likely to drop out of postsecondary education: In the 2011-12 school year, 25.1 percent of disabled students dropped out after one year with no certificate or degree, compared with 13.5 percent of nondisabled students.51 Disabled people who had a bachelor’s degree were significantly more likely to obtain employment than those with a high school diploma and no postsecondary degree—26.1 percent vs. 14.3 percent, respectively.52

The AbilityOne program is outdated and needs significant reforms in order to at least meet the current federal standards of integrated employment created by the WIOA. Around 40,000 disabled people are employed through the program, making it one of the biggest employers of disabled workers.53 It achieves this number by providing priority contracts to nonprofit organizations that fulfill orders while ensuring that 75 percent of direct working hours are completed by individuals who are blind or have significant disabilities.54 While this program was intended to help disabled people obtain greater access to employment opportunities, it resulted in numerous nonprofit organizations segregating disabled employees into sheltered workshops that paid subminimum wages utilizing 14(c) waivers from the FLSA.55

Sheltered workshops are technically nonprofit, state-, or local-government-run areas intended to help workers with significant disabilities prepare for more integrative settings.56 Most of the employees have significant disabilities, while management and trainers often do not have significant disabilities. A U.S. General Accounting Office report found that only 5 percent of disabled workers in sheltered workshops transitioned to community-integrated employment settings, meaning that many remained stuck in segregated settings.57 Further research indicated that disabled workers, when tracked into either sheltered workshops or supported, community-integrated employment, were no more likely to be employed in either track.58 However, they were paid more in supported employment.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act defines “integrated employment” as:

Work that is performed on a full-time or part-time basis for which an individual is: (a) compensated at or above minimum wage and comparable to the customary rate paid by the employer to employees without disabilities performing similar duties and with similar training and experience; (b) receiving the same level of benefits provided to other employees without disabilities in similar positions; (c) at a location where the employee interacts with other individuals without disabilities; and (d) presented opportunities for advancement similar to other employees without disabilities in similar positions.59

In order to rectify some of the issues, the AbilityOne Commission has submitted a new strategic plan for fiscal years 2022 to 2026 to the Federal Register for a public request for information60 and proposed a new rule to prohibit usage of 14(c) waivers for nonprofit organizations under contract rules.61 Unfortunately, both the new rule and strategic plan do not go far enough in restructuring such an outdated program. The new rule allows nonprofit organizations to continue utilizing 14(c) waivers for parts of their labor force not under an AbilityOne contract. The U.S. government could go further in requiring any organization to be ineligible for an AbilityOne contract if some of its workers fall under a 14(c) waiver. In addition, the current statutory framework of AbilityOne still maintains an outdated, segregated model of employment for workers with disabilities. Workers with disabilities under AbilityOne contracts are also frequently denied recognition of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act,62 creating a segregated system of labor law.

Congress must act to ensure AbilityOne is retrofitted to the current WIOA integrated employment standards. It can do this through several different provisions, including:

  • Amending the label of socially and economically disadvantaged businesses in the Small Business Act to include small businesses owned by individuals who are blind or have significant disabilities
  • Amending the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act to allow AbilityOne to contract with for-profit companies, particularly those owned by disabled people, provided that workers with disabilities are spread throughout the company’s larger business, such that no more than 25 percent of workers at a single site have significant disabilities
  • Providing the opportunity for current AbilityOne contractors to gain preferential treatment to provide supported employment training to other businesses. Require AbilityOne to utilize WIOA-integrated employment standards as articulated by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, including applicable guidance and regulation. This includes reducing the percentage of direct working hours— from 75 percent to between 15 percent and 25 percent—and providing disabled workers opportunities to gain promotions
  • Increasing funding for the AbilityOne program’s Office of Inspector General to improve data tracking and compliance monitoring
  • Adopting as a matter of policy, consistent with the commitment to competitive integrative employment, that workers with disabilities employed by AbilityOne contractors are employees entitled to the full protections of the National Labor Relations Act and other applicable labor laws and regulations, including the right to form a union, collectively bargain over terms and conditions of employment, and act concertedly for mutual aid or protection

Establishing a universal paid family and medical leave program

Congress must pass a comprehensive universal paid family and medical leave program. Disabled workers are much less likely to receive paid family and medical leave through their employers, particularly since they disproportionately work in lower-wage positions, are self-employed, or work part time. A report published by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) indicated that from 2017 to 2018, only 26.5 percent of workers with disabilities had comprehensive paid family and medical leave, compared with 37 percent of nondisabled workers.63 The report also found that only 52.3 percent of disabled workers had any type of paid family or medical leave, compared with 63.7 percent of workers without disabilities. Providing universal paid family and medical leave ensures disabled people can take time off from work for medical concerns and have family take time off to help care for them.

Raising wages

As stated earlier, disabled workers in the United States are concentrated in some of the lowest-paying jobs.64 This doesn’t even account for individuals who work under FLSA Section 14(c) waivers, who average around $2.15 per hour.65 Congress should pass the Raise the Wage Act, which raises the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and adjusts it automatically for annual inflation. This would help not only disabled workers but also all workers, including workers who provide support and care for disabled people, who earn an average of $13.52 per hour.66

Section 14(c) has helped continue wealth inequity for disabled people. Yet at least 14 states have modified, phased out, or eliminated the provision.67 As previously stated, the federal government has also proposed ending the allowance of preferential contracts through the AbilityOne program for nonprofits that utilize 14(c) waivers for direct contract work hours. The general trend in using 14(c) waivers has gone down significantly, with a 56 percent decrease in active certificates and a 42 percent decrease in individuals served from 2016 to 2019.68 The Biden administration should continue to look for other administrative avenues through which to decrease the usage of 14(c) waivers. And the president should pressure Congress to pass a law to phase out 14(c) waivers and provide small-business grants to states to give out to businesses to move to more integrative models. Businesses could also partner with local and state Vocational Rehabilitation programs and home and community-based service programs to find ways to better support disabled employees in more integrative working environments.

Updating social safety net programs

Social safety net programs have been left to wither on the vine, making it harder for individuals, particularly disabled individuals, to access programs as the funding dries up. Administrative burdens, which are meant to reduce fraud and abuse, more likely just keep eligible individuals from receiving their benefits.69 Supplemental Security Insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, and other programs need to reduce their administrative burdens by fully implementing President Joe Biden’s executive order on “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.”70 That includes fully utilizing the “no wrong door” application process,71 which uses a single application process to access multiple programs.

Congress should pass legislation that increases asset limits on programs such as Medicaid and SSI and increases benefits for SSDI and SSI recipients. Currently, SSI recipients can only have $2,000 worth of “resources,” which include cash on hand, stocks, life insurance, and personal property.72 Medicaid asset limits vary by state but often require individuals to spend down their assets to be able to gain coverage.73 SSI benefits remain significantly below the federal poverty level,74 with maximum payments equaling $841 per month.75 The average monthly SSDI payment in 2022 is $1,358,76 which is slightly above the federal poverty level. With programs set like they are, disabled workers continue to hit the ceiling in terms of savings and wealth, requiring many to work well past normal retirement ages.

Expanding health insurance coverage

Access to health insurance in the United States is mostly dependent on an individual’s employment status. The Affordable Care Act loosened that tie by creating an insurance exchange marketplace and supplementing many individuals’ insurance premiums, while eliminating the ability for health insurance companies to discriminate against those with preexisting health conditions.77 It also increased coverage in states that adopted Medicaid expansion. Yet many are still uninsured due to high premiums, and 29 million people remained uninsured during the third quarter of 2021.78

In order to provide more coverage opportunities for disabled workers, which may increase entrepreneurship,79 the United States should move toward a more universal system for providing health care. To do that, policymakers should create a bill that provides a public buy-in option, which would help cover individuals in states that have not expanded Medicaid and others who do not have affordable health insurance coverage options.

Developing workplace accommodations around long COVID

On April 5, 2022, President Biden issued a presidential memorandum on Long COVID directing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to draft an interagency national research action plan on long COVID.80 Up to 20 percent to 30 percent of individuals who have gotten COVID will end up with long COVID symptoms—from 7.7 million to 23 million people, as of February 2022.81 In 2021, 1.2 million more adults were identified as disabled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics82—more disabled people that could be affected by workplace policies impacting their ability to obtain and maintain employment.

The Department of Health and Human Services should work in coordination with the ODEP and the Job Accommodation Network to develop workplace accommodations based on current long COVID symptomology and communicate it to both employers and long COVID groups. ODEP should also put its dollars toward funding research on stay-at-work or return-to-work programs to better understand the needs of workers with long COVID, and it should work with other departments to develop a long COVID federal government resource website.

Strengthening misclassification and labor law protections

Congress must work to strengthen worker protections. Because disabled people are disproportionately classified as self-employed, there is potential for misclassification. A report by the National Employment Law Project indicated that from 10 percent to 30 percent of employers misclassify their employees as independent contractors, subjecting those employees to losses in benefits and worker protections.83 For example, independent contractors are not typically entitled to minimum wage protections, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance.

Some states have worked to combat this issue by codifying the ABC test into some of their employment laws. The ABC test, which is a method to gauge whether an employee is truly an independent contractor, includes three provisions:

  • Is the worker free from the employer’s control or direction in performing the work?
  • Does the work take place outside the usual course of business of the company and off the site of the business?
  • Is the worker engaged in an independent trade, occupation, profession, or business?84

However, more resources must be dedicated to increasing enforcement and protecting more workers. The National Employment Law Project estimated that states generally audit fewer than 2 percent of employers each year, and at the federal level, there were not even half as many Department of Labor Wage and Hour investigators in 2020 than there were during the Carter administration, despite the significant growth of the U.S. workforce.85 Congress must provide the Wage and Hour Division and the Office of the Solicitor with more funding to hire additional officers to help with investigations. Congress could also pass a law that allows the enforcement structure to expand and funds community partners to help educate workers, enforce the law, and be intermediaries.

Congress should also pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act86 to give private sector workers the ability to exercise their right to come together in strong unions; this would be the most significant improvement to U.S. labor law in more than 80 years. In particular, the law increases workers’ access to fair union elections; introduces enforceable penalties against corporations that violate workers’ rights; and closes legal loopholes that frequently allow corporations to stop workers from unionizing through stalling tactics, harassment, and scare tactics. It also codifies the ABC test into bargaining law, providing greater protections for workers who are often misclassified, and strengthens joint employer protections that empower workers to bargain with all the companies that control the terms and conditions of their employment.


Disabled people struggled during the pandemic and ensuing economic fallout, and they continue to struggle as the economy rebounds. More must be done to reduce the employment and wage gaps between disabled and nondisabled workers, which often leave disabled people at severe economic disadvantages. Labor market analysis of 2021 demonstrates that disabled people have the worst employment outcomes within all demographic groups. To build a more stable and higher-growth U.S. labor market, the federal government should center employment outcomes of disabled workers in order to reduce gaps across other demographics—as workers of all genders, races, and ages are also disabled. The government should utilize its vast resources to help the disability community by strengthening disability and safety net programs that help disabled people obtain and maintain economic stability.

Appendix: How is disability assessed?

The data used in this report are from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series-Current Population Survey.87 The Current Population Survey (CPS) is a monthly survey of households that is used to assess the labor force. In 2021, more than 31 million people, or 11.9 percent, within the civilian noninstitutional population were identified as having a disability88—an increase of 1.2 million people compared with 2020.89 Since 2008, the CPS has included questions to identify people with a disability:90

This month we want to learn about people who have physical, mental, or emotional conditions that cause serious difficulty with their daily activities. Please answer for household members who are 15 years old or over.
  1. Is anyone deaf or does anyone have serious difficulty hearing?
  2. Is anyone blind or does anyone have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses?
  3. Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does anyone have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?
  4. Does anyone have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs?
  5. Does anyone have difficulty dressing or bathing?
  6. Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does anyone have difficulty doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping?

Other estimates of disability prevalence in the United States find that 1 in 4 Americans have a disability.91 Given the focus on the civilian noninstitutional population, the CPS is not intended to provide an accurate representation of the entire disabled population—by definition, it excludes those who are active-duty members in the U.S. armed forces, or those in carceral settings or residential care facilities.92 However, the framing of the CPS questions likely underestimates the prevalence of disability even within the civilian noninstitutional population. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics explains that “the relatively small number of disability-related questions in the CPS could fail to identify some people with disabilities.”93 This issue is likely to be particularly acute among some communities of color. For instance, 5.7 percent of Asian people within the civilian noninstitutional population were identified as having a disability;94 this is likely an undercount, reflective of cultural norms, stigma, and data collection issues.95

While collecting data on people with disabilities in the labor force is a welcome and necessary step, the Bureau of Labor Statistics must work to improve its methodology.

The authors would like to thank Nicole Lee Ndumele, Aurelia Glass, Christian E. Weller, Karla Walter, Marquisha Johns, Arohi Pathak, Emily DiMatteo, Ari Ne’eman, and Glenn Adler for their input.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Mia Ives-Rublee

Director, Disability Justice Initiative