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Women With Disabilities Face Barriers to Employment

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Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, RespectAbility recognizes the contributions made by women to the United States. It is important to note this includes more than 20.9 million women living with a disability in the U.S., more than 10.2 million of whom are working-age (18-64). Therefore, we would like to reflect on the realities and challenges that continue to shape the lives of women with disabilities.

Only 34.6 percent of working-age women with disabilities (3.5 million) are employed in the U.S. compared to 82.5 percent of working-age women without disabilities. This is in line with the rest of the country. With fully one-in-four American adults having a disability, just 37 percent of those who are working-age are employed, despite polls showing that most of them want to work. This leads to approximately 22.6 percent of women with disabilities living in poverty compared to 14.7 percent of women without disabilities.

According to the newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, in total, 111,804 people with disabilities entered the workforce in 2017. Yet 3,736 women with disabilities left the workforce in 2017. These losses occurred even as other segments of the disability community continued to see job gains.

“People with disabilities of all backgrounds and genders deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else,” said RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has dyslexia and knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities.

Further analysis by the nonpartisan advocacy group RespectAbility shows that opportunities to enter the workforce very much depends on where a person lives, as some states have higher employment rates for people with disabilities than others. South Dakota leads the nation with 53 percent of its female citizens with disabilities employed and is followed by North Dakota with a 49.8 percent disability employment rate. Compared to last year, Alaska and Kansas dropped out of the top 10 states and were replaced by Vermont and Colorado.

The data behind South Dakota’s first in the nation status tells an interesting story about the evolving place of women with disabilities in the workforce. Even as others with disabilities lost jobs, women with disabilities cemented their place in the Mount Rushmore State’s workforce. Last year, South Dakotan women with disabilities had a 42.7 percent employment rate and that rate has now increased to 53 percent. Likewise, in Rhode Island, women with disabilities saw their disability employment rate dramatically rise from 30.2 percent to 38.3 percent.

Women with disabilities gained jobs in only 21 out of 50 states. Illinois saw the biggest job gains among women with disabilities with 17,089 working-age women with disabilities entering the workforce, though has just 38.4 percent disability employment. California saw the second biggest gains with 15,869 new jobs for women with disabilities, though has just 34 percent disability employment.

However, in far too many states, women with disabilities are leaving the workforce, experiencing discrimination and being denied the opportunity to earn an income. North Carolina saw the biggest job losses of any state with 12,142 women with disabilities leaving the workforce. Likewise, 8,409 women with disabilities left the workforce in Oregon.

Women of Color Face Additional Barriers

The 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium Supplement does not have female employment disaggregated by race. However, with more than 7,500 African Americans with disabilities leaving the workforce last year, it is likely that women of color with disabilities face additional barriers.

“About two and a half decades ago, Eddie Glenn called attention to the disparate treatment of African-American women with disabilities, suggesting that a triple jeopardy syndrome put them at a further disadvantage because they were victims of race, gender and disability bias in our society,” said Donna Walton, Ed.D. “The impact of the triple jeopardy syndrome cannot be overstated, as an African-American with a disability can never be quite sure if their race, gender or disability is hurting their chances for advancement.”

“My experiences — being denied employment and facing financial planners who make false assumptions about my income status and earning potential because of my disability, for instance — prompt my suspicions that triple jeopardy is working against many African-Americans with disabilities,” added Dr. Walton.

Employment rates only tell part of the story. Looking across the intersection of disability and race, there are serious gaps in outcomes. Only 28.6 percent of African-Americans with disabilities have jobs compared to the 38.6 percent of Hispanics with disabilities and 41.2 percent of Asian-Americans with disabilities who have jobs.

Women With Disabilities Leading the Way

Some celebrities and business leaders are using their voice to share their stories, educating people about both visible and invisible disabilities. They are defying the statistics and have remained highly successful with their disabilities. These role models make a big difference in setting high expectations for youth with disabilities.

People with disabilities of all backgrounds can be amongst the highest achievers on earth. Haben Girma became the first Deafblind person to graduate from law school when she earned her degree from Harvard Law School in 2013. Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, performer Selena Gomez lives with lupus, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Barbara Corcoran is dyslexic and gymnast Simone Biles has ADHD. They are perfect candidates for RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign, which is shining a light on individuals with disabilities who are succeeding in their chosen careers, as well as companies that employ people with disabilities:

Our nation’s economy is strongest when it is inclusive of the value diverse talent brings to the workplace. These celebrities are making a difference in how audiences perceive disability. However, brand-name companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, UPS, Ernst & Young, IBM, Walgreen’s, Starbucks, Walgreens and the software corporation SAP exemplify these values and have specific programs to hire, cultivate and promote people with disabilities. They show that people with disabilities are successful employees and also improve businesses’ bottom lines.

According to Vincenzo Piscopo of the Coca-Cola Company: “People with disabilities bring a unique skill set that is very valuable for companies. As it relates to employment and competitiveness in the workplace, we have to stop thinking of disability as a weakness and start thinking of it as an asset.”

According to the Census Bureau, more than 56 million Americans are living with some form of disability. This includes visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, visual impairments or hearing loss and invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health conditions or autism.

Originally published: March 27, 2019
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