Disability Underemployment in the United States: A Product of Structural Impairments


Issues of employment are of the utmost importance to disabled individuals in the United States as it determines the quality of life they will have. Whether a disabled individual is able to support a family and pursue their own dreams or lives a meager life in poverty often correlates with their place on the economic ladder. How will the disabled individual provide for their family? How will they afford to buy a house or purchase goods that they require for self-sustenance? How can they be valued for their abilities and not viewed just by their differences? How can communities be more understanding of their desires and integrate equality of opportunity in the workplace and the society? The significance of disability underemployment is demonstrated by the fact that

“the opportunity to participate in the economic life in their communities are indeed central to the quality of life lived by disabled people” (Albrecht, Seelman, and Bury).

Instead, disabled individuals face a systematic marginalization in the workplace and having a disability impairs an individual’s chances of receiving the opportunity to participate in the American economic life. While the main cause for disabled peoples’ lack of participation in economic life is commonly misattributed to their impairments, the core problem of disability employment rather stems from an amalgamation of structural impediments produced by the definitional, cultural, political and economic perspectives towards disability.

Definitional Schemes of Disability#

One of the most delicate problems in the study of disability unemployment is the definition of disability itself; definitional schemes from the medicinal perspective, which have been most prominent in the society have often failed to incorporate practicality and political correctness into the definition.

“The World Health Organization defines an impairment as a physiological ‘problem’; and disability as restricted functions or activities resulting from an impairment’”

conceptualizing disability as an illness or an injury and proposing to reduce its effects to a level of individual functioning (Russel & Malhotra 211). Another definitional scheme used by disability psychologists aims to define disability through its determiners: the time of onset, type of onset, functions impaired, severity of disability, visibility of disability, stability, and pain are described to be factors of disability that should be incorporated into its definition (Vash, Carolyn L., and Nancy M. Crewe 10). While this definition considers the various determiners of disability, distinguishing an individual with HIV AIDS — a severe but relatively invisible disability — and a person with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — a severe and visible disability — it still undermines the socio-environmental contribution to disability. There is a general agreement in modern disability studies that the definition of disability must incorporate interactions between individuals and their environments. In the emerging human variation model of disability, an emphasis has been placed on perceiving disability as a product of the individual and their relation to their environment. This emerging model defines disability

“as an extension of variability in physical and mental attributes beyond the present — but not the potential — ability of social institutions to routinely respond” (Scotch, Richard K., and Schriner 159).

Attributing the cause of disability to the social environment acknowledges that a spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis may be far more disabling to a carpenter struggling to provide for his family than a financially well-off college lecturer in the context of employment. Therefore, consideration of factors such as race, architecture, profession, gender, the social or economic class is significant in deciding what is disabling to an individual.

Economic Status of People With Disabilities#

In the United States, people with disabilities are amongst the most disadvantaged groups in the society. While governmental data on the socioeconomic status of the people with disabilities are not widely available, data concerning the employment conditions that is more present reflects a grim reality for disabled individuals. People with disabilities are persistently underemployed. Employment rates amongst working-age people with disability seem to be very low despite the anti-discrimination provisions and ‘reasonable accommodations’ of the ADA as well as the advancements in assistive technology and rehabilitation practices. While more than 80 percent of the American adult population is employed, only 30 percent of the same aged disabled people are employed (Louis Harris and Associates 172). Unemployment rates vary depending on various subgroups in the society; disabled individuals who are also African American or Hispanic are shown to have lower rates of employment (McNeil 1997). Additionally, individuals with disabilities are depicted to have fewer earnings than non-disabled individuals of working-age. Similarly,

“while the median income per month for the general population of age 21 to 64 in 1994 to 1995 was $2190, and those with a severe disability earned only $1,262. Similarly, non-disabled women in the same age group earned a median monthly income of $1,470, while women with non-severe disabilities earned $1,200. Women with severe disabilities earned only $1,000 per month” (McNeil 245).

While the reasons these differences in economic standing are questions that need to be addressed, it is evident that people with disabilities stand on the bottom of the economic ladder socio-environmental factors like race and gender having a direct correlation to their standing.

Employment Programs and ADA#

A primary influence on the rates of disability unemployment has been the prominence of culturally insensitive employment programs. As a cultural perspective is a fundamental part of the social understanding of disability, illumination of cultural biases is of the utmost importance to counter social biases towards individual differences. Cultural influences towards disability employment can be understood through an analysis of the portrayal of disabled individuals in media, literature, film and other parts of culture. As a society’s culture designates social roles upon a person (Groce 54) it is important to understand how disabled individuals’ efforts to fulfill these roles affects their behaviors towards employment. Throughout the history of the United States, in order for people with disabilities to be respected as worthy Americans, they have been instructed to ‘overcome’ their disabilities.

“They must display continuous cheerful striving toward some semblance of normality. The evidence of their moral and emotional health, of their quasi-validity as persons and citizens, has been their exhibition of the desire to become like non-disabled people" (Longmore 27).

This is a priori what a disabled person cannot do. The effect of this culture has not just permeated in the general population but also affected figures like the president of the United States. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt paralytic illness caused by polio bounded him to a wheelchair, his later statues depict him standing; the president has been described to have consistently concealed his disability from the public, viewing it as a weakness when it had actually made more emphatic, and as a result better at his job (Fleischer, Zames and Zames 2). This persistent push for disabled people to be non-disabled systematically marginalizes people with disabilities in the workplace, setting unrealistic and unobtainable outcomes for disabled individuals. By understanding the culture-specific factors that make disability a problem, we can assess our successes and failures in addressing disability employment issues and improve on future approaches.

The United States government has a significant role in affecting the likelihood for disabled individuals to participate in the economy. Governments, regardless of whether they choose to represent the disabled populations in their public policy or not, can actively influence people with disabilities; this will depend on how they categorize their citizens and what provisions they allow for each of these categories. The American public policy has been made in many iterations and often the problems caused by one policy has been attempted to mitigate by the addition of another. As Edward Berkowitz states,

“the only avenue of reform [has been] to add another program to existing programs and cope with the resulting confusion (Berkowitz 227)”.

This has produced an increasingly complex system of policies to navigate for a disabled person to receive benefits of welfare. As a result, American public policy produces numerous disincentives for disabled people to work, one of the reasons being that welfare income is attached to the reception of healthcare. In 1996 as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was enacted to replace the Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which

“serves as a safety net and a way station for families with disabilities” (Nadel, Mark, Steve Wamhoff, and Wiseman 14).

However, with the continuing poverty among the disabled population and the requirement to be below a certain income bracket to receive TANF benefits, TANF recipients with disabilities were substantially less likely to be working than those without disabilities (Nadel, Mark, Steve Wamhoff, and Michael Wiseman 18).The complexity and the public policy requirements regarding disability have created many problems that pose challenges to employers, policymakers and disabled individuals who try to coordinate with publicly funded programs and policies. Although public policy intends to provide support to needy individuals, the complications one must go through to receive this support is inherently lengthy in process. One example of such public policy is the Americans With Disabilities Act.

ADA Effects on Disability Employment#

While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 aiming to make American Society more accessible to people with disabilities and prohibit disability discrimination, it has been associated with a decrease in the number of disabled people employed. The ADA aimed to “broaden the definition of disability” and provide “reasonable accommodations” to disabled individuals in their place of employment such as restructuring jobs, making work sites and workstations available, modifying schedules, providing services such as interpreters and sponsoring medical examinations (Vote, Senate, and House Vote). A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research notes a negative trend between employment of people with disabilities after the legislation of the ADA.

“The significant negative effect of the reasonable accommodations requirement on disabled employment in the period just after ADA’s enactment may reflect the fact that many accommodations … impose obvious but often one-time costs on employers” (Jolls, Christine, and Prescott 49).

Requiring employers to provide additional accommodation to people with disabilities even with the incentive of tax cuts for these organizations reduces the profits of the employers. Although the ADA increases the equality of opportunity in the workplace, the cut in profits for the employers does more harm than good for the rate of employment of disabled individuals and in some cases led to more disability discrimination. While this trend after the legislation of the ADA represents may fault to the government’s lack of anticipation for the market’s response with the enactment of the ADA, it could also be a reflection of the values of a capitalistic society. Then again, the results of the study could also be different on what they characterize as a disability or an impairment.

Effect of Impairment in Employment#

As with the claim of this post being that impairment only plays a fraction of the part in causing disability unemployment, the role of impairments itself in the persistent underemployment of disabled people is under heavy debate. While there is no significant research associating the impairment of individuals to their rate of employment, this debate is a dichotomy, however a false one: While some scholars argue that viewing one’s impairment as a factor for employment leads to discriminatory behavior, others deem it a significant necessity.

“The question of whether impairments matter, requiring us to choose between societal-level factors such as discrimination and individual level factors, sets up a false dichotomy” (Stone 632).

Instead of questioning the role of impairment in a disabled person’s likeliness to be employed, we can question why there is a dichotomy in this debate in the first place. Why do some people cite their impairment to be the primary factor that prevents them from working while some people argue against them? The answer is that the categorization of disability includes those who are impaired in terms of their physical, social, mental, emotional differences from the general population. In the United States, the percentage of disabled people varies from 6 percent to 10 percent depending on how we define disability (World Health Organization 153). Inherently,

“the very purpose of the disability category [is] to separate [disabled individuals] out of the workforce” (Stone 642).

By qualifying as ‘disabled’, the US government excuses people from being part of a work-based system of merit and rather a need-based system which includes disability insurance programs and welfare grants. This removes the obligation amongst disabled people to work and partake in economic life. While it not wrong that some physical or mental disabilities may require work in places like that factory line that requires

“discipline, time-keeping .. [and] workers to produce at ever increasing speeds” as opposed to the slower, more self-determined and flexible work pattern into which many disabled people had been integrated” (Russell, Marta, and Ravi Malhotra 213)

represents a lack of effort in part of the society and industry to form disability sensitive programs which focus on the strengths of disabled individuals instead. The disability category in public policy and in society has evolved in a way that promotes disabled individuals as the “deserving poor” and the oppressed minority, dis-incentivizing employment for disabled individuals altogether.


In this post, I argue that although disability underemployment rates are commonly attributed to the impairment of the disabled individual in the workplace, issues of disability unemployment are a more complex and nuanced being a product of various structural impediments used to view disability. By using the human variation model to define disability we can take into account the idea that disability can also be the result of factors like race, profession, gender, social and economic class. The United States’ grim history of disabled individuals have caused culturally incompetent programs, dis-incentivizing a merit-based work-system for disabled people by providing welfare only on the receipt of healthcare. While there is a dichotomy on the debate on what role an impairment plays in the disabled person’s likeliness to be employed, this dichotomy is a false one as it forces us to take the side of societal factors like disability discrimination or individual level factors such as impairments in a world where the existence of both factors is certain and steps taken by the government to relieve the stigma are politically conservative methods that continue to marginalized disabled people. While there is a dire need for reform in culture, public policy, and programs for the disadvantaged and disabled, we could begin solving the problem of disability underemployment by researching the economic utilization of the unique characteristics that are learned from the experience as a disabled person. I conclude this paper by emphasizing that it is possible to create social justice through the cultural, political and social reforms. Although it will take strength and perseverance, those who care about disabled people can shape this world by making it more accommodating communities stigmatized and marginalized in the past.

Works Cited#

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© Swopnil Shrestha 2021