Great Recession further hampers employment for persons with disabilities

Unemployment Lines By Brian McMahon, Ph.D., CRC
Professor, Departments of Rehabilitation Counseling and Rehabilitation Medicine
Virginia Commonwealth University

And Paul Harrington and Neeta Fogg
Drexel University

The Great Recession, December 2007 to September 2009, created a serious setback for persons with disabilities (PWDs) causing substantial hardship to a population that was already lagging in virtually every aspect of labor market activity.

It is clear that the Great Recession imposed a far greater level of hardship on Persons With Disabilities in America when measured by various aspects of unemployment.

It is equally clear that the nature of unemployment, the reasons for it, and the experience of it were markedly different for PWDs than for persons without disabilities (PWODs). Personal characteristics which tend to "soften the blow" in hard economic times were less effective for PWDs, such as age, experience, and education.

Labor Force Participation Rates by Disability Status

Official Unemployment Rates by Gender and Disability Status

Measuring Labor Market Problems of Persons With Disabilities

U.S. Bureau of the Census since 2008 has collected the following data to examine limitations associated with daily living activities as part of its monthly Current Population Survey:

  1. Is one deaf or does one have serious difficulty hearing?
  2. Is one blind or does one have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses?
  3. Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does one have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?
  4. Does one have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs?
  5. Does one have difficulty dressing or bathing?
  6. Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does one have difficulty doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor's office or shopping?

An affirmative answer to just one of these items would classify that individual household member as disabled in that month; i.e., a household resident over age 16 who has at least one limitation in a daily life activity. This does not conform to the ADA definition of disability or that of any other agency, policy, or law.

For your consideration

There are strong and compelling messages in these findings for vocational rehabilitation (VR) policymakers. After 94 years of VR service delivery and 20 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act, PWDs are faring poorly in terms of employment. The young and less educated are markedly disenfranchised, and the vocational benefits of maturity and higher education offer fewer protections.

On the bright side, disability policy has been effective in the operation of a training-oriented VR system, and in minimizing the effects of reported workplace discrimination. The results of the former in terms of “job placements that stick,” however, are not evident. The recent shift in vocational rehabilitation to more “demand side” job placement interventions is probably well advised.


Fogg, N.P., Harrington, P.E., & McMahon, B.T. (2010). The Impact of the Great Recession on the unemployment of Americans with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 33, 193-202.