Before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the country was a very different place for people with disabilities, who had to navigate hurdles such as inaccessible public buildings. Yet when it comes to the workforce, the hurdles may not look much different than they did 27 years ago.
The share of adults with disabilities who are working by some measures hasn't improved since the ADA was passed in July 1990. When the law was signed, about half of disabled Americans were employed, a share that declined to 41 percent by 2010, according to Census data.
Ironically, some economists suggest the ADA may have made it less likely for employers to hire people with disabilities because of the costs they might incur for providing accommodations. Yet disability advocates point out that Americans with disabilities face a host of complex issues such as stigmas, typically lower education rates and higher rates of poverty, which add to the difficulties of finding a job while disabled.
"My organization has been collecting data on disability going back to the mid-1980s when we did our first so-called gap survey, which reports on quality of life for people with and without disabilities and looks at the gaps," said Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability. "A number of gaps have been closing. Unemployment, unfortunately, is one thing that hasn't improved appreciably since we started measuring."
The ADA was a civil rights law that improved physical access to schools, public spaces and other buildings, while also guaranteeing legal protections, noted Philip Kahn-Pauli, the policy and practices director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit that works to advance opportunities for people with disabilities.
He added, "What the law did not do was to remove attitudinal barriers. You can make explicit discrimination illegal, but you can't change people's hearts and minds."
Unconscious bias may play a role, as Rutgers University researchers found in a field experiment when they sent out job applications for more than 6,000 fictional accounting positions. Two-thirds of the applicants disclosed their disabilities -- a spinal cord injury or Asperger's Syndrome -- in their cover letters, while one-third didn't mention a disability. While those disabilities wouldn't interfere with the accounting work and the applicants were otherwise equally qualified, the applicants with disabilities received 26 percent fewer responses from employers.
Aside from lower employment rates, workers with disabilities also typically earn less, which Kahn-Pauli noted is linked to educational attainment for disabled people. About 16 percent of adults with a disability have earned a college degree, or roughly half the rate of those without disabilities. Higher education levels are linked with higher earnings.
"Despite significant improvements in the access to education, people with disabilities still face barriers to receiving the quality education that they need to succeed in the workforce," Kahn-Pauli said. "Nationally, only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school each year compared to 86 percent of student without disabilities."
When it comes to the workforce, pushes for greater diversity often overlook disabilities. Part of the issue may be stigma, but another factor is the complexity of disability, which can range from cognitive and mental disabilities to physical disabilities.
Businesses "think about race, gender and sexual orientation/identity," Kahn-Pauli pointed out. "They do not think about disability. What they may not recognize is that disability is a natural part of the human experience and cuts across other barriers that divide us."
The aging of America's workforce may push the issue into the forefront: About one out of three Americans age 65 to 69 have a disability, compared with one out of 10 for people 25 to 44.
Already, those trends are noticeable, with the ranks of people with disabilities increasing by 2.2 million people between 2005 to 2015, or a rise of about 4 percent, the Census found.
Geography is yet another component, with higher disability rates found among less-educated adults in the Midwest and South, according to research from Brookings Institution fellow Martha Ross. Almost four out of 10 prime-age workers without a college degree report some level of disability in Johnson County, Kansas, the greatest share of any of the 130 large U.S. cities and counties she examined.
Many of those locations with high disability rates among the less educated are also dealing with aging workforces, as well as fewer economic opportunities.
The links among education, age, poverty and disability can be complex. Economists such as Princeton University's Angus Deaton and Anne Case are probing whether a lack of good jobs for middle-aged, less-educated white Americans is leading to, as well as higher death rates, which they call "deaths of despair."
"There's plausible story here, in a context of decreased demand for workers with less than a bachelor's degree," Brooking's Ross said. "Health problems and the 'deaths of despair' that Case and Deaton talk about are increasing because of a lack of ability to find family support and work. That has cascading effects."
Older workers who develop disabilities may experience different outcomes in the labor market depending on their education attainment and whether their jobs will accommodate them. Some companies are designing programs to reach out to workers with disabilities, such as accounting firm Ernst & Young, which has a disability network and inclusiveness program, Glazer said.
As Kahn-Pauli noted: "We are the only minority group that anyone can join at any time due to accident, illness or aging."