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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why This Counts: How BLS Data Support the Goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act

This July marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Its goal is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities in employment, government services, transportation, and other aspects of their lives. The law prohibits employment discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.

Today I want to tell you about the role BLS data play in supporting the goals of the ADA—one of our nation’s proudest civil rights triumphs.

The renowned physicist Lord Kelvin wrote more than a century ago, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” When the ADA became law, we had no reliable measure of the number of people with disabilities who were working or seeking work. To track our nation’s progress, we needed statistics.

In 1998, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13078 to reduce barriers to employment for people with disabilities. The order required BLS, the U.S. Census Bureau, and other agencies to “design and implement a statistically reliable and accurate method to measure the employment rate of adults with disabilities.” The order also required us to publish employment data on people with disabilities as often as possible. BLS joined with other federal agencies and academic researchers to develop a short set of survey questions to identify people with disabilities.

Extensive research and testing showed the challenges of counting the number of people with disabilities using only a few survey questions. The team persevered, however, and in June 2008, we added six new questions to the Current Population Survey (CPS) to identify people with disabilities. The CPS is the monthly survey of about 60,000 households that we use to measure the U.S. labor force and unemployment rate. Adding these questions allowed us for the first time to track the employment status of people with disabilities. You can learn more in our Frequently Asked Questions about the disability data we collect.

The charts below show a few of the facts we have learned about the labor force status of people with a disability.

In 2014, there were about 29 million people age 16 and older with a disability in the civilian population outside of institutions. (Institutions include skilled-nursing facilities, in-patient hospice facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons.) That was 11.8 percent of the total. We call this the disability rate, the percentage of people in a group who have a disability. Older people are more likely than younger people to have a disability.

About 8 in 10 people with a disability were not in the labor force in 2014, compared with about 3 in 10 of those with no disability. Many of those with a disability are age 65 and older; older people are less likely to participate in the labor force than people in younger age groups.

The employment–population ratio—the number employed as a percentage of the population—for people with a disability is much lower than for those with no disability. This is the case across all major race and ethnicity groups.

The unemployment rate for people with a disability was 12.5 percent in 2014, about twice the rate of 5.9 percent for those with no disability. (The unemployed are people who did not have a job, were available for work, and were actively looking for a job in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.)

BLS publishes monthly data on people with a disability in Table A-6 of the Employment Situation news release. In addition, we have published an annual news release on the labor force characteristics of people with a disability since 2009.

Many dedicated economists, statisticians, and survey methodologists inside and outside the U.S. government conducted the research to develop questions about disability. Terry McMenamin was one of the key contributors in developing the first questions about people with a disability. Terry was also instrumental in developing, testing, and fielding questions in the May 2012 CPS that gathered even more data on people with a disability. Those questions asked about the labor market problems confronting people with a disability. Tragically, Terry passed away in an automobile accident last fall. Terry was passionate about his work in collecting high-quality labor market data on people with a disability. He was a valued member of the BLS family, and all who worked with him miss him greatly.

BLS is committed to providing essential economic information to support public and private decision making. As Commissioner, I am proud of the work by BLS and others not only in developing measures about disability, but also in supporting the ADA’s goal to promote fairness in labor practices for all Americans.