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Disparities in Employment Outcomes in the US for Individuals with Disabilities

National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month provides an opportunity to contemplate the progress of workers with disabilities in the labor market. Individuals with disabilities face many potential barriers to career progress. However, they also bring valuable opportunities and talents to employers, and represent an underutilized segment of the workforce. Measuring disparities in employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities is a crucial step in fostering a more equitable and inclusive workforce. In a new research note, my colleague Kory Kantenga and I examine these disparities within the United States (US). We find meaningful disparities across employment outcomes, and in some cases these trends are worsening. Our top-level findings are that members who report disabilities are 3.8 percentage points more likely to not have a current job listed compared to members who report no disabilities. This gap has remained consistent over the last five years. We also find members with disabilities are 5.5 percentage points less likely to work in senior positions, a gap that has increased over the last five years. They also show more interest in remote work and have different industry and occupation representation than members reporting not having disabilities. Below I describe these findings with more detail.

The study draws on data from LinkedIn members who choose to self-identify as having or not having a disability, offering a real-time glimpse into labor outcomes across these groups. Self-ID is a LinkedIn feature that allows members to self-identify certain attributes about themselves. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are inherent limitations. The likelihood of underreporting disability status and the self-identification bias may influence the measured disparities in uncertain ways. Additionally, the population opting into self-identification may not fully represent the broader US LinkedIn membership. Overall membership on LinkedIn will likewise not be fully representative of the US workforce. Nevertheless, with millions of self-identified members included in this analysis, it provides an opportunity to quantify these disparities in support of better mitigating these gaps in the future.

Gaps in leadership roles

One important disparity we found is that members with disabilities are less likely to work in positions of seniority within their companies. Members who reported disabilities were 5.5 percentage points less likely to be working in a senior position (manager or higher) in July 2023 than members who reported no disabilities. This represents a 33% expansion of the gap from five years prior, as the gap stood at 4.1 percentage points of worker in July 2018. Put another way, nearly half of members who reported having a disability hold entry-level positions, that’s nearly 7 percentage points higher than for members who reported not having a disability. On the other hand, only 10.5% of members who report disabilities were in director or higher positions, compared to 13.6% for members who reported no disabilities.

Representation within industries and occupations

Not only are there gaps in employment and leadership, but workers who have disabilities have different representation in industries and occupations than those without disabilities. Members reporting disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to work in the Consumer Services sector. They are also 1.4 and 1.3 times as likely to work in Government Administration and Education, respectively. Conversely, they are 40% less likely to work in industries such as Real Estate, Oil, Gas, and Mining, Construction, and Wholesale. In terms of functional areas (occupations), workers who report having disabilities are 1.7 times more likely to work in Military and Protective Services compared to those without disabilities. They are 1.5 times as likely to work in Media and Communication and 1.3 times as likely to work in Community and Social Services, as well as Education. They are only 0.6 times as likely (almost half as likely) to work in functional areas such as Real Estate, Product Management, Accounting, Finance, Purchasing, and Sales when compared to those without disabilities. 

Interest in remote work

Members with disabilities face different barriers that may make remote work more enticing. Our research found that members who report disabilities exhibit a greater interest in remote positions. In August 2023, 53.9% of job applications from members with disabilities were for remote positions, while 45.6% of applications from members without disabilities were for remote roles. 

These findings underscore the importance of continued efforts to address disparities in employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. By understanding the nuanced challenges they face, we can work towards a more inclusive workforce that empowers all individuals to thrive in their chosen fields. 

Policy implications

In examining LinkedIn self-identification data, our research uncovers significant disparities in representation between members with disabilities and those without, spanning industries and seniority levels. The widening gap in senior positions demands urgent attention. The pandemic-driven surge in interest for remote work among members with disabilities suggests it could be a pivotal tool in reducing these disparities, improving accessibility, and creating equitable opportunities. To address these issues, we recommend implementing the following policies: 

  • Remote work accessibility initiatives: Encourage and support remote work options, providing necessary resources and accommodations to ensure accessibility for individuals with disabilities. 

  • Inclusive hiring practices: Promote inclusive recruitment and hiring processes that actively seek out and accommodate individuals with disabilities, ensuring they have equal access to job opportunities. 

  • Professional development programs: Establish targeted training and development programs that provide skill-building opportunities for individuals with disabilities, preparing them for leadership roles and higher-level positions. 

  • Accessibility infrastructure: Invest in infrastructure improvements to enhance physical and digital accessibility in workplaces, ensuring all employees can perform their duties effectively. 

As we face economic challenges, it is imperative that policies prioritize inclusion to empower individuals with disabilities in the workforce.