Could digital equity help people with disabilities close the workforce gap?

An interesting Twitter thread from economist Kathryn Anne Edwards takes an historical look at the workforce participation rate in the US going back to 1948. So much to glean from it but what caught my eye was a chart on who isn’t part of the workforce – persons with disabilities tops the chart. Even considering every other characteristic – having a disability seems to be a strong determinant for unemployment.

That seems like a role for technology especially in a world that has recently (still is?) experienced a global quarantine. People got used to working remotely; people got used to other people working remotely. A recent report from the Department of Labor (Employment of Persons with a Disability: Analysis of Trends during the COVID-19 Pandemic), indicates that this might be true. Here are some of the highlights that help build the case:

  • Due to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, from February to April 2020 the employment-population ratio plummeted from 19.1% to 16.1% for persons with a disability, and from 66.5% to 55.9% for persons without a disability, with 25 million jobs lost combined.
  • Two-thirds of this employment loss was reversed by October 2020. Thereafter, more gradual but still historically rapid improvement further restored nearly a fifth of this prior employment loss by December 2021. For persons with a disability, a record high employment-population ratio was reached in November 2021.
  • Although both employment and labor force participation rates improved for persons with a disability in 2021, people with a disability continue to experience significantly lower rates of employment and labor force participation than those without a disability.
  • From 2019 to 2021, persons with a disability experienced similar employment declines to those without a disability in high contact-intensity occupations but had a much smaller decline in medium contact-intensity occupations and had a much larger increase in employment in low contact-intensity occupations.

One of the employment characteristics they track is ability to telework…

Occupations are assigned to a binary categorization of displaying ability to telework or lacking ability to telework, based on a number of factors.10 In 2019, 36.1% of jobs had the ability to perform via full time telework, and 63.9% of jobs did not have that feature.

Figure 10 below displays change in employment by ability to telework and disability status from February to April 2020. The short-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was much greater for occupations that could not be performed from home, with employment losses of 20-21%, than on occupations that could be performed at home, which had employment losses of around 9%. The longer-term change in employment from 2019 to 2021 by ability to telework and disability status is displayed in Figure 11 below. For persons without a disability, there was moderately lower employment loss in occupations conducive to telework relative to occupations that could not be performed via telework. Persons with a disability, however, experienced considerable employment gains among telework-ready occupations, while employment loss in other jobs was similar to persons without a disability. This is a possible indication that because the COVID-19 pandemic made access to telework more standard, new doors to opportunity may have been opened for people with disabilities by removing certain barriers to employment relating to commuting, the need for social distancing, and workplace accessibility.

And here is their conclusion…

Over the past two years, the United States has experienced historically unprecedented declines and recovery in employment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. As detailed in this report, there have been substantial differences in how COVID-19 has affected industries and occupations, with contact intensity and ability to telework being major drivers of this variation, and also in employment levels for persons with and without a disability. As of the end of 2021, there has been a greater recovery in the labor market for persons with a disability, which might be attributable to an overall increase in access to teleworking, which allows for social distancing and helps to mitigate other barriers to workplace accessibility and employment, including transportation, that individuals with disabilities commonly face. Despite these more recent gains, it is important to note that persons with a disability continue to experience higher unemployment and lower labor force participation compared to those without a disability and chronic disparities between the two groups persist. Therefore, continued vigilance is needed to build upon these gains to address the disparities and improve the labor market conditions for persons with a disability.

I might add that these benefits will only help people with disabilities who have access to devices, broadband and the skills to use them. Recently I created MN County Digital Equity profiles, which included percentage of population with disabilities. For some communities, reaching out specifically to that demographic could be a game changer in seeking funding but also in local economic development and quality of life for people with disabilities it the community.

And as my friend and colleague Bill Coleman says – we’re all just temporarily able-bodied. As we age, we need all sorts of help from glasses to more! This is a demographic that will increase as life expectancies do.