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Commentary

Good News for Disabled Workers

Jan 11, 2017

Hi, I’m Jeremy Quittner, a writer for Fortune.com’s Venture channel. Ellen McGirt will return to raceAhead tomorrow.

In a week that saw a horrific attack against a disabled man posted to Facebook, and an impassioned reminder from actress Meryl Streep that our President-elect once openly mocked a disabled news reporter, there was some good news for people with disabilities: they’ve made important inroads in the workforce.

December marked the ninth straight month of employment gains by people with disabilities, according to a report released this week by the Kessler Foundation and University of New Hampshire. That’s the longest stretch of gains seen since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began tracking employment of the disabled in 2008.

In December alone, the employment-to-population ratio for working age people with disabilities rose to 28.7% from 26.6% the same month a year ago, according to the report. For working age people without disabilities, the ratio was mostly flat.

If you’re wondering whether the rise has something to do with the fact that more people are continuing to work in their later years, when disability is more prevalent, it’s not. To get the clearest picture of what’s going on, the researchers behind the monthly report crunch the BLS data in such a way that they avoid having a sample dominated by older workers. They also combine the statistics for men and women of working age (16 to 64).

In any case, while the disabled have an unemployment rate that is roughly twice the national average of 4.9%, the gains seen this year reflect a changing view among employers. In a job market where employers are struggling to find qualified workers, businesses are becoming more open-minded.

“Employers are looking for alternative sources of labor, and they are more willing to overcome potential concerns about disabilities,” says Andrew Houtenville, an associate professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, who co-authored the report.

In fact, more than a few large corporations have made hiring employees with disabilities a priority. Professional services firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young), for example, launched a program recently to hire accounting associates with autism. In so doing it joined the ranks of Microsoft and SAP, which have similar programs.

Yet if we look to the future, it’s small businesses that may have some of the greatest impact in hiring disabled workers. The Small Business Administration points out that entrepreneurs can benefit from tax credits, built into the Americans with Disabilities Act, for hiring and accommodating workers with disabilities. And because businesses may individually lack the wherewithal and knowledge of how to best serve their disabled employees, programs such as Add Us In, launched by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, encourage local community groups to work with small businesses to provide guidance.

Baby steps, yes. But all in the right direction.

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