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People with Disabilities Twice as Likely to be Employed in Some States as Others

  • Wyoming leads nation with 57.1 percent of their working-age citizens with disabilities employed.
  • Pennsylvanians with disabilities experience the biggest jobs gains of any state in the nation with 13,763 more people with disabilities entering the workforce.
  • Wisconsin edges Nevada out of the top 10 states after investing in school-to-work transition programs for youth with disabilities.

Washington, D.C., Feb. 24 – As governors convene in Washington, D.C., for the 2017 National Governors Association Winter Meeting, Americans with disabilities are finding their economic outcomes vary greatly based on where they live. For example, 57.1 percent of working-age people with disabilities in Wyoming have jobs, while only 24.4 percent of people with disabilities in West Virginia are employed.

According to the newly released 2016 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, only 34.9 percent of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community nationally had a job in 2015, compared to 76.0 percent for people without disabilities. Out of almost 20 million working age people with disabilities, only 7.1 million people with disabilities have a job. Millions who would rather be working are living on government benefits instead.

However, looking at national statistics only tells part of the story facing millions of job seekers with disabilities who want to become independent and earn an income. Digging into the data compiled by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics (StatsRRTC) actually shows serious differences in employment outcomes at the state level. In fact, there are some states where people with disabilities are twice as likely to be employed as in other states.

Wyoming leads the nation with 57.1 percent of their citizens with disabilities employed. Wyoming is followed by the Dakotas where 51.7 percent of South Dakotans with disabilities have a job and 48.6 percent of North Dakotans with disabilities are employed. Other top 10 states include Nebraska with a 48.6 employment rate for people with disabilities, Minnesota (47.5), Iowa (46.3), Utah (45.8), Kansas (42.8), Alaska (42.6) and Wisconsin (41.2).

Minnesota under Gov. Mark Dayton, saw the biggest job gains for people with disabilities out of the top 10 states, with 12,652 Minnesotans with disabilities entering the workforce between 2014 and 2015.

Looking back at RespectAbility’s 2016 report on the best and worst states for workers with disabilities, Hawaii, Colorado and Nevada have since dropped out of the top 10 states. In fact, the number 10 spot has been claimed by Wisconsin, up from number 16 in 2016 and edging out Nevada by 0.1 percent.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker consistently has championed the issue of jobs for people with disabilities both in his past State of the State Addresses and in public appearances throughout the state. In particular, Walker consistently has worked hard to expand the number of highly successful Project Search sites in his state, providing youth with intellectual and development disabilities opportunities to successfully transition from school to work.

Top 10 States for Workers with Disabilities

Table 1 – Top 10 States for Workers with Disabilities
State Ranking State Total # of PwDs (Aged 18-64) # of PwDs
Employed
Total # Jobs Gained + or Lost – Percentage of PwDs Employed
1 WY 37,643 21,508 + 4,042 57.1 %
2 SD 51,131 26,419 + 339 51.7 %
3 ND 38,112 18,582 – 414 48.8 %
4 NE 101,734 49,485 + 2,194 48.6 %
5 MN 297,630 141,257 + 12,652 47.5 %
6 IA 180,139 83,391 + 1,280 46.3 %
7 UT 155,508 71,185 + 6,085 45.8 %
8 KS 184,791 79,132 + 2,570 42.8 %
9 AK 47,039 19,951 + 1,741 42.6 %
10 WI 351,787 144,815 + 4,327 41.2 %

Looking at the states with the highest employment rates for people with disabilities tells a necessary part of the story, but not the full story. In looking for answers about what policies and practices are driving these changes in disability employment patterns, it also is vital to look at the states where workers with disabilities have made the biggest gains and suffered the biggest loses in terms of job numbers. Those numbers reveal another surprising difference in the states.

In terms of raw numbers, one would reasonably expect Texas and California to dominate as they are the most populous states in the Union. However, comparing the number of working-age people with disabilities employed in 2014 to the 2015 numbers reveals that Pennsylvanians with disabilities experience the biggest jobs gains of any state in the nation with 13,763 entering the workforce. That number beats out California, which added 13,187 working-age people with disabilities to the workforce.

That means in the past year, Pennsylvania was the state where the largest number of people with disabilities were able to enter the workforce. Such results show the big difference a governor can make by prioritizing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. In fact, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has made jobs for people with disabilities a key part of the Commonwealth’s workforce development strategies.

Looking closely at the disability statistics reveals two further surprises in terms of states where more people with disabilities are earning an income and becoming independent. Beyond Wyoming, which had a 23 percent change in employment rates between 2014 and 2015, Idaho and Vermont both saw big jumps in terms of their employment rates. The data shows that Idaho had a 17 percent gain in their employment rates for people with disabilities. In practical terms, that means 6,595 more Idahoans with disabilities the freedom, dignity, income and better health that come from having a job.

While a small state, Vermont also saw a big improvement their job numbers. The Green Mountain State jumped from being ranked 26 to number 13 in the nation by increasing its employment rates for Vermonters with disabilities to 41 percent. Likewise, Kansas saw a big jump in the employment rates from 39.8 percent of Kansans with disabilities employed in 2014 to 42.8 percent in 2015. That means Kansas has vaulted into the top 10 despite serious challenges in terms of disability services in the Sunflower State.

Disability Employment Rate Ranked by State, 2015

Table 2 – Disability Employment Rate Ranked by State, 2015
State Rank State Total PwDs (18-64) PwDs Employed Employment

Rate

1 WY 37,643 21,508 57.1
2 SD 51,131 26,419 51.7
3 ND 38,112 18,582 48.8
4 NE 101,734 49,485 48.6
5 MN 297,630 141,257 47.5
6 IA 180,139 83,391 46.3
7 UT 155,508 71,185 45.8
8 KS 184,791 79,132 42.8
9 AK 47,039 19,951 42.4
10 WI 351,787 144,815 41.2
11 NV 203,190 83,559 41.1
12 VT 47,744 19,575 41
13 CO 286,231 116,812 40.8
14 MT 71,852 28,960 40.3
15 ID 63,826 25,641 40.2
16 MD 328,697 131,573 40
17 NH 89,630 35,390 39.5
18 TX 1,624,438 626,445 38.6
19 IL 117,837 45,124 38.3
20 NJ 428,810 162,728 37.9
21 OR 320,586 121,155 37.8
22 VA 479,430 179,153 37.4
23 WA 483,334 177,921 36.8
24 RI 74,090 26,506 35.8
25 PA 885,256 316,361 35.7
26 CT 190,691 67,517 35.4
27 MO 463,157 163,574 35.3
28 OH 847,932 298,233 35.2
29 MA 393,251 137,985 35.1
30 IN 667,643 233,233 34.9
31 OK 320,480 111,672 34.8
32 AZ 418,062 143,168 34.2
33 DE 54,900 18,593 33.9
34 CA 2,017,962 682,393 33.8
35 LA 372,108 122,832 33
36 NY 1,098,072 362,397 33
37 NC 728,535 234,674 32.2
38 HI 657,996 25,641 31.6
39 FL 45,260 14,214 31.4
40 GA 1,186,644 369,205 31.1
41 MI 759,606 234,356 30.9
42 NM 156,118 48,139 30.8
43 AR 264,777 81,376 30.7
44 TN 550,696 167,179 30.4
45 ME 115,013 34,052 29.6
46 SC 370,744 106,350 28.7
47 AL 435,585 121,330 27.9
48 MS 259,265 71,339 27.5
49 KY 421,948 115,577 27.4
50 WV 187,077 47,517 25.4

The Bad News:

It also is important to look at states where workers with disabilities are losing ground and their jobs. Coloradans with disabilities saw a big drop in their opportunities with the state falling out of the top 10 with 8,202 people with disabilities dropping out of the workforce. People with disabilities in Connecticut and New York faced the biggest job loses in the country. In Connecticut, 9,274 people with disabilities are no longer employed, as are 9,486 working-age people with disabilities living in New York State.

Just as looking at the employment rates is a key part of the story of workers with disabilities, so too is the employment gap between people with and without disabilities.

Looking at the employment gap, which is calculated by comparing the difference in employment rates between people with and without disabilities, reveals how far behind people with disabilities are falling in a given state’s economy. The smaller the gap, the more inclusive a given state’s economy is, which translates into more opportunities for people to earn an income and become independent. The bigger the gap, the more catastrophic the employment outcomes experienced by people with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers. The table below shows the 50 states ranked from the biggest to smallest gaps.

Employment Gap Ranked by State, 2015

Table 3 –Employment Gap Ranked by State, 2015
State Rank State PwD Employ. Rate Non-PwD Employ.

Rate

Gap % Pts
50 ME 29.6 79.7 50.1
49 KY 27.4 74.8 47.4
47 SC 28.7 74.3 45.6
48 TN 30.4 76 45.6
46 MI 30.9 75.4 44.5
45 MA 35.1 79.5 44.4
44 WV 25.4 69.7 44.3
43 AL 27.9 71.8 43.9
42 MO 35.3 78.8 43.5
41 NH 39.5 82.9 43.4
40 CT 35.4 78.7 43.3
39 DE 33.9 77.1 43.2
36 AR 30.7 73.7 43
37 FL 31.1 74.1 43
38 NC 32.2 75.2 43
35 MS 27.5 70.1 42.6
33 GA 31.6 74.1 42.5
34 OH 35.2 77.7 42.5
31 IN 35.6 77.9 42.3
32 RI 35.8 78.1 42.3
30 NY 33 74.9 41.9
29 IL 34.9 76.7 41.8
28 PA 35.7 77.3 41.6
27 OK 34.8 76.1 41.3
26 NM 30.8 72.1 41.3
25 WI 41.2 82.3 41.1
24 VA 37.4 78.1 40.7
22 LA 33 73 40
23 VT 41 81 40
21 WA 36.8 76.4 39.6
20 CA 33.8 73.1 39.3
19 MD 40 79.2 39.2
18 AZ 34.2 73.1 38.9
17 NJ 37.9 76.5 38.6
16 CO 40.8 79.3 38.5
15 OR 37.8 76.2 38.4
14 ID 38.3 76.6 38.3
13 HI 40.2 77.8 37.6
11 KS 42.8 79.9 37.1
12 MT 40.3 77.4 37.1
10 TX 38.6 75.5 36.9
9 MN 47.5 83.8 36.3
8 IA 46.3 82.4 36.1
6 NE 48.6 83.4 34.8
7 ND 48.8 83.6 34.8
5 AK 42.4 76.7 34.3
4 NV 41.1 74.8 33.7
3 UT 45.8 78.3 32.5
2 SD 51.7 82.6 30.9
1 WY 57.1 79.1 22

It is no surprise that with nearly two-thirds of their citizens with disabilities employed, Wyoming has the smallest gap of any state. What is surprising is the state with the biggest employment gap. According to the new data, Maine has a shocking 50-point gap in the employment rates between people with and without disabilities. Maine has been viewed by some as a model state because it has Employment First policies enshrined both in executive order and in state legislation. However, looking at the gap between the employment rate of people with disabilities and those without disabilities, Maine comes dead last in the country.

What that shows is that government action alone – through executive orders, legislative decisions, and regulatory oversight – is insufficient. The necessary condition for achieving greater competitive, integrated employment for individuals with disabilities is engaging employers and meeting their talent needs as seen in states like Wyoming and South Dakota.

These patterns of job gains and job losses are all too familiar to many in the disability community. Even now, nearly ten years after the Great Recession, American workers with disabilities still are struggling to reach pre-Recession employment levels. The experience of being “The Last Hired and the First Fired” is all too common among working-age people with disabilities. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 did much to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Physical barriers have been removed, but too many barriers remain when it comes to entering the workforce.

In recent years, while employment opportunities have improved for African Americans, Hispanics and women, sadly the labor force participation rate (LFPR) for people with disabilities has decreased between 1980 and 2015. Given the shifting data documented in the annual Disability Statistics Compendium and by the monthly Trends in Disability Employment reports, there is cause for hope in the future.

In some states, committed leaders are making a big difference. At the state level, leaders have incredible new resources at their disposal in order to understand and implement best practices to support people with disabilities who want to work. The Coalition of State Governments (CSG) recently launched an extensive report on workforce development and people with disabilities.

The Work Matters Report was designed to be a comprehensive guide for state legislators to support people with disabilities entering the workforce. CSG’s report mirrors many of the recommendations made by RespectAbility and its partners, both in their Disability Employment Planning Tool and in their WIOA testimony in all 50 states. Many governors are continuing to carry forward the leadership shown by former Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware. The former Governor worked for years to make disability employment a national issue.

“At the end of the day, our nation was founded on the principle that anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life,” RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi said. “People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else.”

For more information, or to conduct an interview with one of RespectAbility’s policy experts, contact Communications Director Lauren Appelbaum at laurena@respectability.org or 202-591-0703.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to stand up against ableism and other prejudice – while promoting positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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