Jobless for a long time after a car rear-ended hers, Smith was able — with training from Goodwill and a special one-handed keyboard — to get back into the workforce, joining millions with disabilities who are increasingly part of working America.
About 34.1 million Americans above the age of 16 have some disability. Only 8.3 million of them are in the workforce — but that’s up 38% in a decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment numbers would likely be higher but for obstacles like lack of transportation or the need for special on-the-job equipment — and for many, what advocates say is a historical reluctance of employers to hire them.
If a person with a disability can do the job, federal law requires most employers to make reasonable accommodations for them. Employers cannot discriminate against them. For the employee, job security doesn’t come from having a disability, just legal protection from being singled out because of it.
There is also a financial incentive for employers, tax credits up to $9,600, according to the Internal Revenue Service. A branch of the Georgia Department of Labor vets applications for the credits.
Disabilities run the gamut — physical, cognitive and psychological. Some are debilitating, but many people with disabilities can work, requiring just an accommodation such as a special parking spot, a ramp, Braille instructions or a magnified computer screen.
“We customize tasks in the job to adjust to a person’s disability,” said Scott Parry, vice president of facilities services at Goodwill, which offers training, hires disabled people for its stores and provides workers for many local organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.
Like a staffing agency, Goodwill currently has placed about 250 people, Parry said.
The share of people with disabilities working has historically been far lower than for those without disabilities.
At its ebb during the 2007-09 recession, just 9.3% of people with disabilities were in the workforce, meaning they either had a job or were actively seeking one. By 2014, that had increased to 18.2%, closer to the historical average.
That was still far below the workforce rate of 68.3% for those with no disability.
But the trend was positive, and in the next few years, employers’ acceptance of people with disabilities grew. By 2020, the participation rate of those with disabilities was up to 20.4% — and it jumped during the pandemic, thanks partly to the increased willingness of companies to let people work from home.
Moreover, the “worker shortage,” that is, the struggle of many companies to find the workers they needed, compelled many employers to drop arbitrary requirements and broaden their hiring horizons.
The latest government statistics show that the share of people with no disabilities working has not changed from 2014. But the share of people with disabilities has jumped to 24.2%, which represents 2 million more people working than in 2014 and 5.1 million more working than at the 2008 rate.
But what happens if employers continue their push for a return to the office? And what if an economic downturn creates a larger pool of potential workers? Advocates fear that the trend could quickly reverse.
“I think there is still some stigma about the willingness to hire people with disabilities,” Parry said. “What people don’t understand is the attachment to work that the majority of people with disabilities have. They put their heart and soul into their job. Once they get through the door, they tend to be with us for a long time.”
Other Atlanta organizations also fight the stereotypes, connecting employers to people with disabilities.
The Bobby Dodd Institute in Atlanta offers training, support and counseling to people with disabilities and their families. It also serves as a kind of staffing agency, with about 375 people currently working for governments and other organizations, said Joe Paolini, vice president of the institute. The employees do different jobs, including custodial work, landscaping, warehousing, call center operations and mail room sorting.
The institute has seen evidence that a significant number of people are coming off the employment sidelines, part of the long trend toward more employment for people with disabilities.
“We see a good percentage of people who were not working before,” Paolini said. “I think the environment in corporate cultures seems to have changed.”
Government statistics support that: in the past decade, the unemployment rate has fallen almost 50% for people with disabilities, from 13.1% to 7.3%.
What is worrisome is the change may not yet be engrained, so companies could start to screen out more people with disabilities, Paolini said. “If there’s a downturn in the economy, I expect we’ll start to see companies put very weird things in job requirements that do not need to be there.”
In the meantime, Lisa Smith keeps going to work. She’s back at Goodwill in Decatur as administrative coordinator. Eight to five. Five days a week. It’s not just the paycheck, she said, it’s satisfaction and recognition. Because she talks to so many people, it gives her a special kick to be recognized when she’s out I the community.
“I drive myself to work every day,” she said. “I can do what I want to do. I feel normal. And it makes you feel good when you are out and you see someone and they say, ‘Hey, aren’t you Miss Lisa from Goodwill?’”
Disabilities* and work, Georgia
Total number, people with disabilities: 1.4 million
Share of population: 12.9%
Share of working-age: 11.2%
Employment rate,** people with disabilities: 39.6%
Employment rate,** people without disabilities: 78.4%,
Median earnings, full-time, people with disabilities: $46,600
Disabilities* and work, U.S.
Americans with disabilities: 34.1 million
Americans with disabilities in workforce: 8.3 million
Share of people with disabilities who are in workforce: 24.2%
Share of people without disabilities in workforce: 68.3%
Unemployment rate, with disabilities: 7.3%
Unemployment rate, without disabilities: 3.4%
Unemployment rate, pre-pandemic high, with disabilities: 16.9% (Sept. 2009)
Unemployment rate, pre-pandemic high, without disabilities: 9.3% (Sept. 2009)
Total labor force: 167.9 million
Labor force, people with disabilities: 8.3 million
Total population, people with no disability: 233.3 million
Total population, people with disabilities: 34.1 million
State with highest share** people with disabilities: Mississippi, 17.1%
State with lowest share** people with disabilities: New Jersey, 8.0%
*All data for people aged 16 and over
**For working-age adults
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. U.S. Census Bureau, Disability Statistics