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Labor Market Opportunities and Barriers: Individuals with Disabilities

Individuals with disabilities are an important source of workforce talent but have historically experienced poor labor market outcomes. This article uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) to describe the workforce outcomes and employment barriers of individuals with disabilities in North Carolina.

Author: Jonathan Guarine

Individuals with disabilities are an important source of untapped talent in North Carolina. However, those with disabilities have historically fared worse in the labor market relative to their peers without disabilities. Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), this article takes a closer look at the labor market outcomes of those with disabilities over the past decade and their barriers to employment.

Approximately one out of every nine working-age adults[1] in North Carolina has a disability, ranging from cognitive to physical impairments. Cognitive difficulty—trouble remembering, concentrating, or making decisions—is the most prevalent type of disability among the working-age population, affecting nearly 329,000 individuals (see Figure 1).[2]

Ambulatory difficulty—serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs—is the second most common disability type in the state, impacting more than 300,000 individuals. Independent living difficulty—the inability to perform daily tasks due to physical, mental, or emotional challenges—rounds out the top three. Other reported disabilities include self-care, hearing, and vision-related difficulties.

Figure 1

Among the working-age population, cognitive disability is most common

Employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities generally improved following the Great Recession as the economy expanded and the labor market tightened. From 2009 to 2019, the employed share of the working-age population with disabilities increased from 35% to 36% (see Figure 2). Following a brief decline in 2020, corresponding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the employment share rose sharply, reaching a series high of 42% in 2022.[3]

Despite progress over the past decade, those with disabilities continued to fall behind their peers without disabilities. Between 2009 and 2022, the employment-population ratio for those with disabilities was, on average, 41 percentage points below those without disabilities (see Figure 2). The gap has narrowed somewhat in recent years but remains sizeable.

Figure 2

Employment disparities persist despite an improving labor market

A similar story emerges when comparing the unemployment rate between those with and without disabilities. Excluding a pandemic-induced blip in 2020, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities has been on a downward trajectory for over a decade, falling from 23% in 2010 to 8% in 2022 (see Figure 3). However, despite this improvement, unemployment has remained more prevalent for working-age individuals with disabilities compared to those without disabilities.

Figure 3

Unemployment has fallen but remains higher for those with disabilities

What factors contribute to the worse labor market outcomes for those with disabilities? In line with previous LEAD research, some of the disparities appear linked to differences in educational attainment. One-third of working-age individuals with disabilities only attained a high school diploma, compared to 24% of those without disabilities (see Figure 4). Furthermore, those with disabilities were twice as likely to have dropped out of high school and less likely to have attained a bachelor’s degree.

Individuals with disabilities also cite other barriers to employment, including a lack of training, transportation challenges, the need for special workplace accommodations, and employer/coworker attitudes. Overwhelmingly, most non-employed individuals with disabilities view their disability as the main barrier to employment. Despite federal protections, labor market discrimination against jobseekers with disabilities still presents a major impediment to gainful employment.

Poor workforce outcomes also contribute to a lower standard of living for individuals with disabilities. Those with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty than those without disabilities (see Figure 4). Individuals with disabilities are slightly less likely to be uninsured; however, this is primarily because a large share receives public health insurance through Medicaid (35% versus 9% of those without disabilities).

Figure 4

Education and health-related disparities

Across North Carolina, various public programs exist to support those with disabilities across all age groups. Individuals with disabilities can receive career guidance, training, and education services through local NCWorks career centers. Our state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation provides many programs to help individuals with disabilities achieve economic independence. Within the K-12 system, the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) Exceptional Children Division ensures the provision of individualized education programs for students with disabilities. The LiNC-IT Collaborative has also provided numerous employment and internship experiences to neurodivergent students and professionals across the state.

North Carolinians with disabilities have seen encouraging progress in their labor market outcomes over the past decade: unemployment has fallen alongside increasing employment opportunities. However, much work remains to reduce disparities and bolster workforce outcomes for this population.

[1] Throughout this article, “working age” includes those ages 18-64. In 2022, there were 727,435 working-age North Carolinians with a self-reported disability according to the latest ACS data.

[2] The ACS asks respondents about six disability types: hearing difficulty, vision difficulty, cognitive difficulty, ambulatory difficulty, self-care difficulty, and independent living difficulty. The categories are not mutually exclusive. Respondents reporting any of the six disability types are considered disabled.

[3] Although not the focus of this current article, researchers have offered several possible explanations for the recent rise in employment among those with disabilities: (i) Long COVID affecting those in the workforce, (ii) remote work opportunities, and (iii) the continued tight labor market.

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