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The Best—and Worst—States for Workers with Disabilities

New Data Shows People with Disabilities In Some States Twice as Likely to be Working as in Other States

Washington, D.C., March 11 – New data from the Disability Compendium’s 2015 Disability Statistics Annual Report shows that nationally only 34.4 percent of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community were employed in 2014, compared to 75.4 percent for people without disabilities – a massive gap of 41 percentage points in the labor force participation rates. This leads to poverty, prison and poor health outcomes.

The new report shows a huge variation in the rates of employment for persons with disabilities between the states.

“The 2016 presidential campaign is largely a reflection of how much the American people are hurting economically. No group is hurting more than people with disabilities, whose gap in labor force participation rates from people without disabilities has increased dramatically,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility.

“Each year 300,000 young people with disabilities age into what should be the workforce. Sadly, however, in most states, the majority is sitting on the sidelines, despite the fact that most want to work. However, the Disability Compendium shows that were leaders to do the right things, people with disabilities would be twice as likely to be working than in other states.”

South Dakota ranks first in the nation for employment of people with disabilities as more than half the working-age people with disabilities (50.1 percent) in South Dakota have a job. Indeed, individuals with disabilities in South Dakota are TWICE as likely to be working as those in the worst performing state of West Virginia where only 25.6 percent have jobs. Rounding out the top five states in terms of best outcomes are North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming.

In the last years, with strong leadership from Gov. Terry Branstad and then Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa jumped the highest within the top ten from number seven to number three. In 2013, 44.8 percent of Iowa’s 169,300 working-age people with disabilities were employed. One year later, in 2014, 46.5 percent are employed. Recently, groups such as the Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services (IDVR) and the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council, in partnership with other organizations, have come together to establish the Iowa Coalition for Integrated Employment. Iowa uses Project SEARCH and other methods to successfully transition youth with disabilities into good jobs in their communities. The coalition also has strong partnerships with key employers including Kwik Trip, Winnebago, Manpower, Unity Point and other companies. Iowa also helps people with disabilities start their own companies, such as Em’s Coffee Company and Johnston Creek Farms.

The worst ten states with the lowest workforce participation rates for people with disabilities are West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

When looking at which states have the biggest gaps between the labor force participation rate (LFPR) of people with disabilities and without disabilities, the ten worst states are Maine, Kentucky, South Carolina, Michigan, West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Vermont and Alabama in that order.

Many have thought that racial issues predominately define employment outcomes. However, some of the best states (i.e. the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming) AND worst states (i.e. Maine and Vermont) in terms of gaps in labor force participation rates, are majority white states, showing that other key issues impact performance metrics as well.

Figure 1. Disability Employment Rate by State, 2014. This image contains a table of information that ranks the states by the employment rate for thir citizens with disabilities. The states are ranked from 1 to 50 with the smallest number having the highest employment rate and the largest number having the worst employment rate. The state with the highest employment rate for people with disabilities is South Dakota where 50.1% of their citizens with disabilities are employed. The state with the worst employment rate for people with disabilities is West Virginia where only 25.6% of people with disabilities are employed. Read the full rankings below. # State % of PWDs Employed 1 South Dakota 50.1 2 North Dakota 49.9 3 Iowa 46.5 4 Nebraska 46.0 5 Wyoming 45.2 6 Minnesota 44.4 7 Utah 44.0 8 Hawaii 42.4 9 Colorado 41.6 10 Nevada 40.9 11 Alaska 40.8 12 Montana 40.5 13 Connecticut 40.2 14 New Hampshire 40.0 15 Kansas 39.8 16 Wisconsin 39.8 17 New Jersey 39.2 18 Maryland 39.1 19 Idaho 38.8 20 Texas 38.0 21 Washington 37.7 22 Virginia 37.6 23 Oklahoma 36.4 24 Oregon 36.4 25 Indiana 36.2 26 Vermont 36.2 27 Illinois 35.7 28 Delaware 35.6 29 Massachusetts 35.5 30 Ohio 34.6 31 Pennsylvania 34.5 32 Rhode Island 33.9 33 New York 33.6 34 California 33.3 35 Arizona 32.8 36 Missouri 32.8 37 Maine 32.5 38 Louisiana 32.1 39 North Carolina 31.3 40 New Mexico 30.4 41 Florida 30.1 42 Tennessee 29.9 43 Georgia 29.6 44 Michigan 29.6 45 Arkansas 29.2 46 South Carolina 29.0 47 Mississippi 27.4 48 Kentucky 27.3 49 Alabama 27.2 50 West Virginia 25.6 Figure 2. The Difference in the Employment Gap Between Disabled and Non Disabled Adults 2014 This image contains a table of information that ranks the states by gap in the labor force participation rate between people with and without disabilities. The states are ranked from 50 to 1with the largest number being the state with the biggest LFPR gap and the smallest number having the smallest LFPR gap. The state with the worst employment gap is Maine with a 47.4 point gap. The state with the smallest employment gap is North Dakota with only a 32.1 point gap. Read the full rankings below. 50 Maine 47.4 49 Kentucky 47.1 48 South Carolina 45.0 47 Michigan 45.0 46 West Virginia 44.9 45 Arkansas 44.6 44 Tennessee 44.5 43 Missouri 44.4 42 Vermont 44.2 41 Alabama 44.1 40 Rhode Island 43.8 39 Massachusetts 43.5 38 Georgia 43.5 37 Florida 43.3 36 Mississippi 43.1 35 North Carolina 43.0 34 Ohio 42.5 33 Pennsylvania 42.0 32 Wisconsin 41.4 31 New Hampshire 41.3 30 New Mexico 40.8 29 Indiana 40.7 28 Delaware 40.7 27 New York 40.4 26 Louisiana 40.3 25 Virginia 40.0 24 Illinois 40.0 23 Kansas 39.9 22 Arizona 39.7 21 Oklahoma 39.2 20 Maryland 39.1 19 California 38.9 18 Oregon 38.5 17 Minnesota 38.5 16 Washington 38.3 15 Nebraska 37.9 14 Connecticut 37.7 13 Colorado 37.4 12 Texas 37.3 11 New Jersey 37.3 10 Montana 37.3 9 Idaho 37.0 8 Wyoming 35.9 7 Iowa 35.7 6 Alaska 35.3 5 Hawaii 34.2 4 South Dakota 33.6 3 Utah 33.5 2 Nevada 33.4 1 North Dakota 32.1

In most states, the gap in labor force participation rate between men and women and people of different racial backgrounds is shrinking. However, the opposite is true for the gap in the labor force participation between people with and without disabilities. The gap remains massive and, despite good intentions, is growing in most states.

The data also shows that employment rates also vary by type of disability as well. Among people with disabilities, employment rates are highest for people with hearing disabilities (50.7 percent) and vision disabilities (40.2 percent). In the last decade, there have been major improvements in assistive technologies that enable people who are deaf to “hear” and people who are blind to use screen readers to access computers.  Outcomes are the lowest for people with self-care (15.4 percent) and independent living (15.9 percent) disabilities where there have been no recent breakthroughs.

However, for people with cognitive disabilities, there is a 24.2 percent employment rate, which is especially important because there are proven programs such as Project SEARCH that have achieved a 73 percent employment rate for their approximately 2500 participants each year. By dramatically expanding Project Search and other proven youth transition and assistive technologies programs, hundreds of thousands of people with intellectual and other disabilities could enter the workforce successfully. There also is a 24.2 percent success rate for people with ambulatory disabilities, an area where also outcomes could be significantly better if best practices were used by the government.


The lack of employment for people with disabilities correlates to many other issues. Almost thirty percent (28.1 percent) of U.S. civilians with disabilities of working-age in 2014 were living in poverty. Between 2007 and 2014, there was a four percent increase of Americans with disabilities who are living in poverty. For those without disabilities, the national poverty rate was less than half – 13.3 percent. People with disabilities have the highest poverty rate of any minority community in the United States.

Chart: Poverty rate by race, ethnicity, gender and disability in 2014. Whites: 10.10%, Women: 15.30%, African Americans: 26.20%, Hispanic Americans: 23.60%, People with Disabilities: 28.50%

A new study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 32 percent of all people in federal prisons and 40 percent of those in jail have a diagnosed disability. The U.S. rate for smoking for people with disabilities was 24.5 percent in 2014, much higher than the 15.3 percent rate for people with disabilities. Additionally, the U.S. obesity rate for people with disabilities was 41.1 percent. For people without disabilities the obesity rate was 25.2 percent.

Said Mizrahi, “Ending failed systems and replacing them with innovation and best practices is vital. Jobs and careers – especially youth employment for people with disabilities – must be a central part of any serious anti-poverty and workforce development strategy. This can be win-win-win for employers, taxpayers and people with disabilities alike.”

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email [email protected]

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