Ready, Willing, and Able

by Felicia Bechtoldt and Erik Knoder

June 26, 2018

On July 26, the United States celebrates the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, education, transportation, state and local government services, public accommodations, telecommunications, and commercial facilities.

In Oregon there were about 578,000 people with disabilities on average from 2012 to 2016 according to the American Community Survey. This represented roughly 15 percent of Oregon’s civilian noninstitutionalized population. Among the population of working age, those 18 to 64, about 303,000 had disabilities.
Older people are more likely to have a disability. In Oregon, 53 percent of individuals ages 75 years and older have a disability and about 6 percent of the population ages 5 to 17 have a disability.

Although the frequency of most types of disabilities increases with age, ambulatory (walking), hearing, and independent living difficulties showed the most dramatic increases for people over age 65. Twenty-three percent of seniors reported an ambulatory difficulty and 18 percent reported a hearing difficulty.

Whites are the largest group of people who are disabled. Non-Hispanic whites were 77 percent of all Oregonians, but accounted for 83 percent of Oregonians with a disability. Hispanics and Latinos accounted for 7 percent of Oregonians with a disability. African Americans, Asians, and American Indians each represented about 2 percent of Oregonians with a disability. Men and women have about the same rates of reporting a disability.

Employment of People with Disabilities

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 9.2 percent nationally in 2017, more than twice that of those with no disability (4.2%). The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was higher than for persons with no disability for African Americans (13.8% vs. 7.2%), Hispanics (10.2% vs. 5.0%), whites (8.5% vs. 3.6%), and Asians (6.6% vs. 3.4%).

Among the population ages 18 to 64, about 111,000 Oregonians with disabilities were employed and 23,000 were unemployed on average between 2012 and 2016. About 170,000 were not in the labor force. There is a big difference in the employment rates between Oregonians with a disability and those without a disability. About 37 percent of Oregonians with disabilities were employed versus 75 percent of those with no disabilities. People who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force. About 56 percent of Oregonians with disabilities were not in the labor force versus 19 percent of those with no disabilities.

Oregonians with disabilities hold a variety of jobs. The relative popularity of occupations is fairly similar for people with and without a disability, except relatively fewer people with a disability work in management, business, science, and arts occupations and relatively more work in service occupations and production, transportation and material moving occupations.

This may be a reflection of different educational outcomes for Oregonians with disabilities. About half as many held a bachelor’s degree or higher; 17 percent of people with a disability had a bachelor’s degree or higher versus 35 percent without a disability. Sixteen percent of people with a disability didn’t graduate high school versus only 9 percent of people without a disability.

Occupational differences also portend the smaller proportion of people with disabilities in higher income groups. About 29 percent of people ages 16 and over without a disability earned $50,000 or more in the 12 months prior to answering the 2012 to 2016 surveys versus only 18 percent of people with a disability.


Earnings for people with disabilities are lower than for those with no disabilities. Oregonians with disabilities had median earnings of $19,771 compared with median earnings of $30,085 for Oregonians without disabilities. Women with disabilities had lower earnings than men with disabilities. From 2012 to 2016, women’s earnings ($15,716) represented about two-thirds of men’s earnings ($23,029).
Barriers to Optimal Employment

We interviewed Erik from Corvallis, Oregon who shared with us the challenges of finding a job. He has Down syndrome and feels fortunate to work at Oregon State University’s McNary Dining Hall for the last four years. He is a dishwasher and loves his job. It took him nine to 10 months to get employed. Prior to being employed at McNary Dining, he sent dozens of resumes without a response. A family friend learned about this job opportunity and worked with a local agency to help Erik get this job. Previously, Erik worked at a local pizza restaurant and when he was in high school, he worked at a senior center where he learned how to use a commercial dishwasher. When Erik was in elementary school he started volunteering clearing tables after events at a local church.   

Erik’s mother, Jennifer, is a former special education teacher who worked with students with disabilities in the Young Adult Skills program. She said that the best way to help people with disabilities find a job is to approach successful well-established businesses that are willing to give back to their community. “It is harder to get a job at businesses that are struggling financially.”
When looking for jobs, she highlighted that it’s important to look at what the person likes to do, what skills they are good at, and what jobs can fit them. Erik likes water sprinklers and he developed the skills needed for dishwashing with his previous volunteer and work experience. Jennifer said that people with disabilities are consistent workers once they know the job and employers don’t have to worry about them coming late to work. When we asked about barriers to employment of people with disabilities, Jennifer said that lack of interpersonal, behavioral, and hygiene skills are a barrier to many people with disabilities.

She advised parents who try to find a job for their children with disabilities to keep trying, use their personal connections, and ask people in their community. “It’s possible for anyone with a disability to find a job. It takes creativity, a lot of walking around and talking to people.”

A 2015 study on disability, the Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey, examined how people ages 18 to 64 with disabilities strive to work. It showed that 68 percent of this group did strive to work, 43 percent did so by being employed, 7 percent had worked since the onset of a disability and were actively looking for another job, and 17 percent had worked since the onset of a disability, but weren’t actively looking for work. About 61 percent of all respondents said that work was very important to them, and 41 percent of those employed said that they wanted to work more hours per week.

The Kessler survey also looked at barriers individuals with disabilities faced in gaining employment. Some challenges were common to any job seeker, such as lack of education or transportation (although getting suitable education or transportation may be a challenge), but a major barrier was employers’ assumption that the person couldn’t do the job because of their disability. It was also a hard barrier to overcome; only one-third of the job seekers were able to do so. Other barriers, such as family discouragement, were easier to overcome.
The survey uncovered a variety of strategies that people with disabilities used for preparing for jobs. The most common was obtaining medical treatment or rehabilitation, with 73 percent reporting using it. Getting help from friends and family was used by 62 percent, volunteering was used by 29 percent, and getting an assistive device or special equipment was used by 23 percent. In all, the survey reported on 11 techniques used in job preparation.

People with disabilities also searched for jobs using a variety of approaches. The most common ways were searching online and using friends and relatives. Only 23 percent used a government agency to look for work, and only 15 percent used a state vocational rehabilitation specialist. These percentages suggest room for improvement by agencies in serving people with disabilities.
Gateways to Employment

Several Oregon businesses offer specialized training and job coaching services to people with disabilities. Besides helping disabled workers find and keep jobs, these services can reduce company costs associated with new hires. To find out more about the benefits of hiring workers with disabilities, visit:

For assistance in hiring people with disabilities, visit the Employer Services site of the Office of Vocational and Rehabilitation Services and the Services for Employers site of the Oregon Commission for the Blind.

What Is a Disability?

Definitions of “disability” and “disabled” vary. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which governs many state and federal programs, defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Other programs have different definitions. The American Community Survey asks respondents if anyone in the home had difficulty with hearing, vision, remembering, walking, dressing, eating, or doing errands.

Many conditions can be disabling. While functional limitations from physical and sensory disabilities may be the more obvious barriers to employment, many other conditions can make it difficult to find or keep a job. Reading disabilities, mental health problems, chemical sensitivities, and medical conditions may not be as noticeable, but they can be just as limiting.

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