January 2003, Vol. 126, No.1
Disability and employment
Low-wage labor markets
Précis from past issues
Disability and employment
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) brought the employment of persons with disabilities to the forefront both of policy—there is now an Office of Disability Employment Policy headed by an assistant secretary within the Department of Labor—and of academic research. Douglas Kruse and Thomas Hale lead off a research symposium on disability and employment in this month’s Industrial Relations. The symposium focuses on the effect of the ADA and the significant conceptual and measurement issues such evaluations raise.
Kruse and Hale, in addition to summarizing the other papers in the symposium, summarize the conceptual definition issues and measurement approaches. The traditional definition of disability, they point out, is basically a medical diagnosis of a physical or mental abnormality. The remedies such a definition suggests are also medical—correct the condition, or therapeutic—help the person adapt.
A second conceptual basis Kruse and Hale identify for defining a disability is economic. The economic concept of disability stresses an incapacity for work. Such definitions are often found in the implementation of income support programs on the policy side and in survey questionnaires on the research side. Kruse and Hale point out, however, that the economic definition falls short of a general definition of disability because it excluded limitations on aspects of living outside of the labor market.
A broader sociopolitical or social definition of disability has become more important recently as new perceptions of disability rights have sought to change the treatment of persons with disabilities. Sociopolitical definitions emphasize the interaction between an individual’s characteristics and the environment as a whole.
After Kruse and Hale’s survey of the conceptual and measurement issues, three articles examine specific aspects of the disability-employment nexus. Barbara A. Lee briefs research on the case law that has resulted from the Americans with Disabilities Act. She finds that the Act has not resulted in significant employment gains for persons with disabilities nor has it led to many legal findings of discrimination. The latter finding is, according to Lee, often the result of narrow judicial interpretations of the ADA definition of disability as "a physical or mental impairment that ‘substantially limits’ one ore more ‘major life functions.’"
Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur review and refine the academic literature on the effect of the ADA on the employment of persons with disabilities. The majority of studies seem to indicate that there was little or no change in the employment of workers with disabilities after the Act and, in fact, the most recent research based on the Current Population Survey found a decline in such employment over the course of the 1990s. Kruse and Schur use results based on the alternative measures of disability available in the Survey of Income and Program Participation to suggest that employment actually increased when a definition of disability more appropriate to the actual interpretation of the ADA is substituted for self-reported limitations on work.
Susan Schwochau and Peter Blanck conclude the symposium by returning the issue of defining disability to the drafting of the American with Disabilities Act. They underline the need to more completely understand the labor market decisions of workers with disabilities before developing new statutory language. The questions Schwochau and Blanck suggest considering include not only what impels persons with disabilities to enter the work force, but what factors might keep them from finding employment, what barriers and attitudes continue to impede progress, how does lack of work experience play out in the context of ADA, and to what extent do the definitional issues affect the answers to these questions.
Low-wage labor markets
The November 2002 issue of Economic Development Quarterly includes a focus section on low-wage labor markets. As the introductory essay by Rachel Weber and Nik Theodore suggests, leaving welfare to enter the workplace is a complex process and understanding the labor markets these processes operate in is crucial for developing ways to help welfare leavers progress into sustainable careers.
Karen Chapple identifies the interactions between styles of labor market attachment, job search methods, and individual characteristics as important determinants of career progression. Among the three labor market attachment typologies she finds among women on welfare in San Francisco—chronically unemployed, job mobile, or career-oriented—the chronically unemployed rely overly on informal job search methods while the career oriented use a combination of social networks and education to advance.
Evelyn Blumenberg enumerates the many and interrelated barriers that face welfare participants in the search for work and career. Chief among these are failure to complete high school, limited language ability, transportation problems (especially using mass transit), presence of children, and poor health. The most important, especially among women, were education and competence in the English language.
Sammis B. White and Lori A. Geddes analyze the importance of the employer’s characteristics in determining success at leaving poverty. They report that women who are employed in larger establishments that are not in the agriculture, mining, retail, or service industries have the best chance of escaping poverty. It was also important to be employed consistently, preferably throughout the year for the same employer (or at least in the same industry), and to avoid establishments with high turnover and higher proportions of welfare recipients on the payroll.
We are interested in your feedback on this column. Please let us know what you have found most interesting and what essential reading we may have missed. Write to: Executive Editor, Monthly Labor Review, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, DC. 20212, or e-mail MLR@bls.gov
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