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Employment and Disability

The employment status of persons with disabilities is a matter of critical importance, both in terms of public expenditures and in the right of persons with disabilities to participate fully in the labor market. Table 24 presents data on the employment status of persons 21 to 64 years of age by disability status.

Previous studies have primarily focused on the relationship between work disability and employment status. Work disability status, as measured in SIPP, March Current Population Surveys, and the past three decennial censuses, is determined by asking if a person has a condition that "limits the kind or amount of work" that can be done or "prevents the person from working at a job or business." Studies show that work disability status, as measured in this way, is strongly associated with labor force status, earnings levels, and other characteristics. In spite of these findings, however, it ought to be noted that work disability status is an ambiguous concept. The work disability question implies that the only factor affecting the ability to work is the condition of the person. This is clearly not the case. Under one set of environmental factors, a given condition may hinder or prevent work, but if physical and/or social barriers are removed, the same condition may have no effect on the ability to work. The data in table 24 show the relationship between work disability status and employment status, but they also show the relationship between a full array of disability measures and employment status.

The data show that having a disability that is not severe reduces the likelihood of being employed by a rather small amount, and having a severe disability reduces the likelihood by a very great amount (see figure 6). Among males, the employment rate was 88.8 percent for persons with no disability, 83.9 percent for persons with a disability that was not severe, and 23.9 percent for persons with a severe disability. The comparable rates among females were 72.6 percent, 67.3 percent, and 22.7 percent (the rate for females with a severe disability was not statistically different from the rate for males with a severe disability).

Among both sexes, the employment rate for persons with no disability was 80.5 percent, but the rate was 27.6 percent for persons with a severe functional limitation, and 20.6 percent for persons who need personal assistance with an ADL or IADL.

The potential value of the data presented in table 24 is that, over time, data on changes in the employment rate for persons with specific disabilities (e.g., difficulty seeing, hearing, or walking, or a user of a wheelchair) would provide a measure of the extent to which employment barriers had been reduced. A problem with the use of SIPP data for this purpose is the relatively small sample size of the survey. The sample of 30,000 households upon which this study is based is about half as large as the sample size for the Current Population Survey. Changes in employment and earnings would have to be relatively large before they could be described as statistically significant.

The data in Tables 26 and 27 provide information on earnings by disability status and table 28 provides some occupational data.

It ought to be noted again that the SIPP sample size makes it difficult to analyze issues such as earnings differences in great detail. When the number of workers with a specific disability is small, earnings estimates will be characterized by relatively large standard errors.

The data in table 26 do show evidence of a negative association between earnings and disability status. For example, among persons 35 to 54 years of age, persons with no disability had mean monthly earnings of $2,446, persons with a disability that was not severe had earnings of $2,006, and persons with a severe disability had earnings of $1,562. Table 26 follows the usual convention of presenting earnings data for persons classified by age by years of school completed. The implication is that earnings comparisons should be made only after controlling for education. Users might recall, however, that there is a strong negative association between education and disability status. That is, one of the ways disability may affect earnings is through its effect on levels of education and training.

Table 27 shows data on earnings by type of disability. Because of sample size constraints, there is no attempt to cross classify the data by age and schooling. Many of the earnings figures shown in the table are characterized by relatively large standard errors.

The data in table 28 show some relationships between occupation and disability status. For example, if we consider the first six occupations listed (from "executive and administrative occupations" to "physicians, dentists, and other health diagnosing occupations") the proportion of employed persons in that group was 15.0 percent among persons with no disability, 11.9 percent among persons with a disability that was not severe, and 10.1 percent among persons with a severe disability (the latter two figures are not statistically different from each other).

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