Feb 28, 2024 - Business

Employment rate for Americans with disabilities reached record high in 2023

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

A record share of people with disabilities were working last year, finds a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why it matters: These are people who face huge obstacles in landing jobs; that more of them are employed is a sign of a strong labor market, post-pandemic changes, and the rise of remote employment.

Zoom in: BLS classifies someone as disabled if they're deaf or seriously hard of hearing; blind or seriously vision-impaired; or have difficulty doing things like walking, dressing or bathing; or have severe issues concentrating or remembering, among other things.

The big picture: The ability to work from home has been a boon to many disabled workers, who no longer need to contend with an arduous commute and have more flexibility to configure a work set-up that accommodates their needs.

  • The shift happened at the same time there's been an increase in the overall share of Americans who are disabled. 12.5% of Americans were disabled in 2023, up from 11.7% in 2019, according to BLS data cited in a report from the National Partnership for Women and Family.
  • Labor force participation rates, the share either working or looking for work, for disabled men and women have gone up a lot since 2019.
  • For men aged 16-64, the rate was 41.5% in 2023, up from 36% in 2019 — participation rates for nondisabled men fell over the same period.
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Between the lines: There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. It's not clear whether more workers have become disabled — or more disabled workers have entered the workforce.

  • It's likely a combination of both, says Marissa Ditkowsky, disability economic justice counsel at the National Partnership for Women & Families, which advocates for worker rights.
  • COVID was a "mass disabling event," she says. But some workers who became disabled, particularly those with long COVID, may have been better able to hang on to their jobs because of remote work.

Reality check: People with a disability are still far less likely to be working. They're also more likely to work part-time and earn lower wages.

  • The unemployment rate for disabled workers was 7.2% in 2023 about twice what it was for nondisabled workers. For Black workers with a disability, the jobless rate was more than 10%.

What we're watching: Whether the recent gains hold depends a lot on how the labor market holds up and if more employers insist on folks returning to the office.

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