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Disability will touch most Americans at some point during their lives either through firsthand experience or acquaintance with someone who has a disability. Census figures indicate that in 2018, more than one in five Americans had a disability involving limitations in seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, learning, or undertaking other major functions of daily life.

In broadest terms, the road to economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities often is long and winding. Attitudes about disability begin in the home as children grow up. They are further shaped by the paradigms held by parents, siblings, relatives, and others who comprise their original and most immediate support system. As the years pass, available services expand. Through the Looking Glass (TLG), an organization that has pioneered research, training, and services for families where a member has a disability, takes a life cycle approach which integrates perspectives gained from personal and family disability experience. Whether parents or other caregivers have disabilities, the fundamental expectations they hold about what is truly possible have a direct bearing on perceptions, choices, and advocacy. This paves the way for a well-rounded development in preparation for participation in service learning, internships, competitive integrated employment, career advancement and ultimately inclusion in every aspect of community living.

Consider the following staggering statistics:

High School Graduation Rates

  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “…the status dropout rate was 12.1% for youth with a disability versus 5% for youth without a disability in 2017.”
  • During the 2017-2018 school year RespectAbility, citing the NCES, reports that “…only 66% of Black students with disabilities, 71% of Hispanic students with disabilities, 77% of white students with disabilities, and 79% of Asian-American students with disabilities completed high school. This compares to 87% of students without disabilities overall. Furthermore, just seven percent of students born with a disability graduated from college pre-pandemic.”
  • College Entry Rates: The Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) reports that, in 2017, national college entry rates for young adults with disabilities was 25.4% in contrast to the overall enrollment rate of 40.9%, representing a gap of 15.5%. For an overview of college enrollment rates and a detailed state-by-state comparison between youth with and without disabilities, read IEL’s 2021 Youth Transition Report: Outcomes for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities.[1]

College Graduation Rates

  • The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2015, “[T]he percentage of those who had completed a bachelor’s degree, or more was about twice as large for those without a disability compared to those with a disability. Thirty-five percent of adults without a disability held at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 17% of adults with a disability.” In California for example, the state had an overall graduation rate of 83% in 2016, but only 66% of the students with disabilities graduated — placing students with disabilities behind other minority students who graduate high school at far higher rates. As Philip Kahn-Pauli, Director of Federal Policy at RespectAbility has reported, “Educational attainment is critical to the success of youth with disabilities because the jobs of the future require technical education and skill training.”

Employment Rates

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “…between 2008 and 2016, people with disabilities were employed at an average of only 18%, while people without disabilities were employed at an average of 65%.”[2] By the term “employed” the figures are referring to the number of individuals with disabilities who are newly hired. This would explain the difference in statistics as reported by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) in 2019. Pre-pandemic, there has been incremental progress. “In 2017, 18.7% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 65.7% of people without disabilities; in 2018, 19.1% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 68.4% of their nondisabled peers. In 2019, 19.3% of people with disabilities were employed in contrast to 66.3% of people without disabilities.”[3]
  • RespectAbility, citing the 2019 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, states that in 2018, “…38.9% of working-age white people with disabilities have jobs compared to only 29.7% of working-age Black people with disabilities, 39.4% of working-age Hispanics with disabilities, and 43.2% of working-age Asian Americans with disabilities.”

Given these figures, and to help community members with disabilities and their allies know what is available to them at different stages of their journeys, this comprehensive national resource document was developed to share as much practical information as possible. Supplementing the 2016 report, Work Matters: A Framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities, as well as a 2018 report by the National Governors Association, States Expand Employment And Training Opportunities For People With Disabilities, this document will facilitate a deeper understanding of existing systems and programs. Utilizing the hundreds of linked resources and citations, you can delve more deeply into each subject area to educate yourself and those who advocate on your behalf. You’ll learn about ways to attain gainful employment and/or entrepreneurship, progress in your careers, and secure more solid futures of growth and success. Further, when employers from all sectors play a proactive role in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and promoting qualified individuals with disabilities, we will all benefit from this infusion of new talent into more diverse workplaces. The National Organization on Disability has prepared two publications geared toward supporting effective recruitment approaches: Best Practices for Recruiting Students with Disabilities and Strategies to Support Employer-Driven Initiatives to Recruit and Retain Employees with Disabilities.

Many people in the public and private sectors are dedicated to empowering students, job seekers, and entrepreneurs with disabilities to maximize economic opportunities available to them. Career and guidance counselors, vocational rehabilitation professionals, social service providers, career placement organizations, federal government officials, governors’ committees on people with disabilities, and disability rights advocates all seek to raise awareness about the many paths to employment or self-employment. As people with disabilities themselves are armed with the tools they need to succeed in the workplace, it’s critical that they fully understand both the social context within which members of the disability community must be viewed and the various support networks that can enable them to reach their full potential. A working comprehension of these concepts [4] will allow stakeholders to utilize a myriad of approaches which can lead to successful employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

By regularly referring to this resource document and remaining on the look-out for the latest editions, stakeholders from all sectors will be optimally armed in their efforts to make employment and entrepreneurship in the disability community a reality!

[1] IEL conducted a custom analysis of youth and young adults at both national and state levels. The estimates in this report may be slightly different from the estimates presented in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder. Key population, education, employment, and opportunity youth indicators are derived from the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) population file (2013-2017 ACS 5-year estimates). IEL defines youth as ages 14 to 17 years old and young adults as ages 18 to 24 years old. This report explores descriptive status of education and employment for youth and young adults at national and state levels. This report also includes calculated data from the NCES and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) website. IEL will incorporate longitudinal analysis and statistical tests in future reports.

[2] See “Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics – 2019,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,

[3] Id.

[4] The U.S. Department of Education does not necessarily endorse the views expressed or the facts presented on any website or other resources mentioned in this article that fall outside the federal government. Further, the Department does not endorse any commercial products that may be advertised or otherwise available on such sites or through such cited resources.

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