Disability and Employment in the Time of Coronavirus: The 30th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act

July 24, 2020

This Sunday, July 26th, marks a major disability rights milestone — the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The passage of the ADA in 1990 represented a landmark shift in the way the United States approaches opportunity for those with disabilities, reframing access and inclusion as matters of civil rights rather than charity. Among other things, the law set out to ensure more equitable treatment of “qualified individuals with disabilities” in matters of employment. It also established new physical and informational accessibility standards.  

The ADA’s 30th anniversary is set to take place during a period of crisis in the US. The coronavirus pandemic has decimated employment, with the employment-to-population ratio falling by 8.7 percentage points and the unemployment rate skyrocketing from 4.4 percent to 14.7 percent between March and April of 2020 alone. The public health crisis has also adversely impacted the disabled, who were already at a substantial disadvantage in terms of employment even with the ADA.

Table 1 shows the employment-to-population ratio, or EPOP, in April through June of 2019 and 2020 for 18 to 64-year-olds with various types of disabilities and with no disability. Table 2 shows the unemployment rate for these groups during the same time periods. The information in these tables is drawn from monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) data accessed through IPUMS-CPS.

Table 1: Employment-to-Population Ratio by Disability, Age 18-64
  Apr-Jun 2019 Apr-Jun 2020 p.p. change % change
All Disabled 31.4 28.1 -3.3 -10.5
Hearing 51.0 46.4 -4.6 -9.0
Vision 37.1 33.1 -4.0 -10.8
Cognitive 23.1 23.0 -0.1 -0.4
Ambulatory 21.3 17.4 -3.9 -18.3
Independent living 12.0 9.9 -2.1 -17.5
Personal care 10.4 8.3 -2.1 -20.2
No Disability 77.1 67.6 -9.5 -12.3

Source: CEPR Analysis of IPUMS extract of Current Population Survey, 2019-2020. Disability categories include those with more than one type of disability.

Table 2: Unemployment Rate by Disability, Age 18-64
  Apr-Jun 2019 Apr-Jun 2020 p.p. change
All Disabled 7.3 18.4 11.1
Hearing 5.3 14.0 8.7
Vision 5.5 17.5 12.0
Cognitive 12.6 23.8 11.2
Ambulatory 6.0 19.6 13.6
Independent living 11.2 25.7 14.5
Personal care 9.8 22.6 12.8
No Disability 3.3 12.5 9.2

Source: CEPR Analysis of IPUMS extract of Current Population Survey, 2019-2020. Disability categories include those with more than one type of disability.

Despite the promise of the ADA, the employment gap between those with and without disabilities persists. Table 1 shows that the majority of people ages 18 to 64 with disabilities were not employed between April and June of 2019, and the fraction who were employed was even smaller during the same three month period in 2020. By contrast, during both of these periods, the majority of those without disabilities in this age range were employed. 

The EPOP gap between those with and without disabilities continues to hover at around 40 percentage points, and it appears to have narrowed slightly during the pandemic of 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. However, it is important to remember that people with disabilities are not a monolith. The decline in EPOP during the pandemic has been much more pronounced among those with ambulatory (-18.3 percent change since last year), independent living (-17.5 percent change since last year), and personal care difficulties (-20.2 percent change since last year). This compares to a 12.3 percent slump in the EPOP for those who do not report any type of disability.

The picture remains troubling even when one considers only those between the ages of 18 and 64 who officially remain in the labor force (Table 2 and Figure 1). Between April and June of 2019, 7.3 percent of disabled people and 3.3 percent of nondisabled people in the labor force were unemployed. During the same three month period in 2020, 18.4 percent of those with a disability were unemployed, compared to 12.5 percent without a disability. Those who reported ambulatory, independent living, or personal care difficulties experienced the largest percentage point jumps in their unemployment rates compared to last year.

Figure 1

The estimates discussed thus far are limited in a few key respects. First, we exclude those younger than 18 and older than 64, but those 65 and older are less likely to be employed and more likely to report one or more types of disability. Additionally, though the monthly CPS is the primary source for up-to-date employment data, it counts fewer people as disabled than other surveys. There are many possible reasons for this, including the context in which the survey is administered, the mode of collection, population coverage (the CPS does not include institutionalized populations), and the survey questions themselves. The questions used to determine disability status in the CPS do not encompass the full spectrum of disability covered by the ADA, and are less comprehensive than those asked in the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) or the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).

Taking into account the limitations of monthly CPS data in this domain, these estimates clearly show people with disabilities continue to lag behind their nondisabled peers with regard to employment in the US. Though the ADA addresses many forms of employment discrimination against those with disabilities, significant systemic barriers persist. Affordable access to health care services is critical to enabling those with disabilities to continue engaging in the workforce. However, full workforce integration can jeopardize eligibility for many of the benefit programs that ensure long-term health and work support needs of the disabled are met without interruption. While severing the tie between employment and affordable health care access would serve the disabled and nondisabled alike, universal health care would be particularly beneficial for those who require long-term or specialized health and support services. This is borne out by international comparisons, which suggest that a more integrative approach to social welfare corresponds with smaller disparities in employment and inclusion between those with and without disabilities. Building a robust care infrastructure also requires additional investment in care workers and a more compassionate approach toward caregivers, including guaranteed paid family and medical leave. 

The pandemic has also shown that there is room to reinvigorate aspects of the ADA. Many industries have responded to the contagion threat by rapidly transitioning to remote work. While this has protected workers and helped slow disease transmission, it has been jarring for disabled workers who were previously told that such remote work accommodations were unfeasible. Expansion of remote work options has the potential to benefit all workers, but this development should also prompt policymakers and employers to reevaluate what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation. Additionally, subsequent amendments to the ADA have expanded and tweaked the way disability is demarcated, recognizing that people with disabilities are not a homogenous group. Beyond recognizing the diversity of disability itself, additional reforms should consider the way disability intersects with other demographic characteristics in complex and often compounding ways. Policies that seek to address disparities in employment and other forms of engagement must be similarly varied and mindful of these intersections. 

Finally, the financial security of those with disabilities may be especially vulnerable to cuts to existing safety net programs. Extending the extra $600 per week unemployment insurance benefit is crucial to maintain financial well-being for those who have lost jobs due to the pandemic. It is especially important given the outsize damage the crisis has inflicted on the disabled in the labor force. Other programs, such as those that provide food and housing assistance to low-income families, must be protected and expanded as well.

The ADA has played an important role in safeguarding the rights of those with disabilities for the past 30 years, and should continue to do so for decades to come. However, if the US is truly serious about inclusiveness and accessibility for people with disabilities, the ADA will need to be supplemented with further reaching changes going forward.

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