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Fading obstacles: Disability unemployment falls to its lowest rate in years

Project hire participant Todd Gensheimer along with Panera team members.

Disability unemployment in the United States hit a series low in 2018 at 8 percent, according to recently released data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Additional unpublished data from the BLS show that numbers in the Middle Atlantic region, which includes New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, are slightly higher at 9.9 percent.

The BLS data series goes back to 2008.

According to BLS Regional Economist Bruce Bergman, the disparity is due in part to conditions in the regional labor market. Nonetheless, the rate represents a marked improvement in recent years. In 2011, disabled unemployment hit 15 percent and came in at 13.1 percent in the Middle Atlantic region.

A 2012 BLS survey found that barriers to employment of disabled people included a need for special features at the job and lack of transportation. In the current labor market, Bergman said, some of these barriers have been lowered.

“It could be that improvements have since been made in some of those areas, such as workplace accommodations,” Bergman explained. “Some work arrangements that earlier survey identified as more common among workers with a disability, such as flexible schedules and work at home, have become much more common in the economy.”

Inclusivity spreads

Employing people living with disabilities isn’t only good for individuals but also the overall economy, said Adam Kubler, director of Project HIRE at the Arc of New Jersey in North Brunswick.

“Working individuals rely less on public assistance and live healthier and happier lives which reduces medical expenses,” Kubler said. “The employment of persons living with disabilities creates an entire customer base that regularly supports businesses in the community in which they live.”

Not all non-working people are considered unemployed, in part due to the high instance of disability among senior citizens or people not of working age. While 64.5 percent of adults without disabilities are employed in the Middle Atlantic region according to unpublished BLS data, 16.6 percent of adults with disabilities in the region are employed.

Working individuals rely less on public assistance and live healthier and happier lives which reduces medical expenses.

-Adam Kubler

The most common occupations for disabled folks are office jobs, followed by sales and management occupations, according to BLS. This pattern generally tracks that of the overall population, with some exceptions. Workers with disabilities are more likely to work in service occupations, as well as production, transportation and material moving. They’re also proportionately less likely to be found in management and professional occupations.

According to Lauren Goldner, outreach coordinator at the Occupational Training Center in Burlington Township, more businesses are becoming inclusive by creating and considering positions for individuals with disabilities.

“In the news, you’ll regularly see restaurants or retail stores with the mission to employ individuals with disabilities. It’s definitely a positive trend that we are thrilled to see,” she said. “There are also a number of major corporations that have been recognized for their inclusivity efforts, such as Starbucks, IBM and Ernst & Young. We hope that more businesses can follow in their footsteps.”

Above the national average

Still, the disability unemployment rate is more than twice the national average. A variety of hurdles make finding employment challenging for disabled people.

Employers’ increased reliance on electronic applications have very much impacted the employment seeking process, according to Kubler.

“Applying for a job in 2019 requires a knowledge or understanding of how electronic applications are submitted and received. Very often employers are missing out on terrific candidates because applying online is not always the best way to find the best employees for every job,” Kubler said.

Project Hire participant Chris Berry restocking product at Dollar Tree.

Many employers won’t accept in-person applications. Supported employment services such as Project HIRE and OTC, can help individuals with disabilities identify his or her preferred field, create a resume, apply for jobs, participate in interview and job training, and offer long-term follow along support.

The lack of transportation options presents another issue for the unemployed disabled community.

“These limitations automatically disqualify many individuals from obtaining competitive employment, not to mention prevent companies from hiring qualified and valuable candidates,” Kubler said.

He suggested that employers adjust shift schedules to fit around public transit schedules, opening up their ability to hire those who rely on buses and trains.

Employers who choose to work with individuals who live with disabilities are in luck. According to Kubler, compared to the average employee, people with disabilities tend to use less sick and vacation time, stay employed longer and require less training over all.

In addition to available tax incentives, employers who hire disabled folks also experience an elevation in community status.

“Diversity brings in new business, increases the customer base and enhances the public’s image of the company,” Kubler said.

Disability isn’t always considered a diversity issue, Goldner said.

“It’s fairly common to hear business owners talk about creating a culture of diversity and inclusiveness, but that needs to go beyond just gender, ethnicity and age,” she said. “That inclusiveness also needs to include workers of varying abilities.”

Employees with disabilities have been found to help enhance creativity, improve employee morale and increase productivity, she said.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at

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