A Look at the Employment Landscape for People With Disabilities 

Stock art that shows a person in a wheel chair in the workforce
Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur, co-directors of the Rutgers Program for Disability Research, are bringing researchers together to discuss their work.

Getting a job is typically harder for people with disabilities, but a labor shortage and the rise of remote work are creating more opportunities, and new assistive technologies could throw the door open even wider.

On Oct. 24, the School of Management and Labor Relations and Rutgers Business School will co-host a hybrid seminar to highlight the latest Rutgers research in this growing field. The free event is open to the Rutgers community as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur, co-directors of the Rutgers Program for Disability Research, will convene six faculty members and Ph.D. students to share their work. Under Kruse and Schur’s leadership, Rutgers has produced more research on disability and employment than any other institution in the world, and they are leading a new federally funded initiative to improve employer policies.

Rutgers Today asked them to analyze the current employment landscape and preview next week’s event.

How many people with disabilities are working and how does that compare to 10 or 20 years ago?

Kruse: About one-third (35%) of working-age people with disabilities were employed in 2022, which is less than half the rate (74%) for people without disabilities. This overall figure has not changed greatly in the past several decades. However, there was higher employment growth for people with disabilities from 2015 to 2019 and in the last two years of the pandemic recovery.

How did Covid change the employment situation for people with disabilities?

Schur: People with disabilities were initially very hard hit by the pandemic since they are more likely to be in the types of service and blue-collar jobs that cannot be done at home. However, in the tight labor markets during the pandemic recovery, people with disabilities have had faster employment gains than people without disabilities, and most of those gains have been in home-based work. In fact, the pandemic may have had a “silver lining” for people with disabilities by making home-based work more acceptable.

Many Americans are still dealing with long Covid. How do they fit into this picture?

Kruse: The prevalence of disability has increased in the past two years, and this appears to be due to the effects of long Covid. We have colleagues at Rutgers (Yana Rodgers working with Jen Cohen) and Harvard (Nicole Maestas working with Ari Ne’eman) who have been exploring this. 

Some employers recognize long Covid as a disability, but it’s likely true that many do not. It will be a challenge for many people with long Covid to make a case for accommodations to recognize and account for the limitations they now face.

Why do people with disabilities face barriers to employment? Can assistive technologies help?

Schur: There are many obstacles to employment for people with disabilities, including physical factors relating to the types of jobs they can do, and attitudinal factors related to the stigma they face. In field experiments with actual employers, where productivity is not an issue, we have established that stigma is a factor in hiring decisions. 

Assistive technologies can help to reduce these obstacles. We’re working on an NSF study that examines the effects of a new “wearable robot” that enhances the strength and dexterity of people with upper body impairments. So far we’ve found that employers seem interested, but there are natural questions regarding who will pay for such technologies.

Do students with disabilities face challenges when applying for jobs?

Kruse: Students with disabilities face both physical and attitudinal barriers when they go on a job search.  Our colleague Mason Ameri of Rutgers Business School has been exploring which factors enable students with disabilities to become effective self-advocates, who are not afraid or reluctant to portray their strengths along with the types of accommodations they may need to work to their maximum potential. He will discuss these at the seminar next week.

Tell us more about the seminar.

Schur: It’s on Tuesday, October 24 at 12:00pm in Room 219 of the Levin Building on Livingston Campus. There’s also a Zoom option. We will have a one-hour presentation that includes short, five-minute summaries of six research projects we have been working on, including some of those referenced in this interview. It’s open to the public and the entire Rutgers community.