Why are Thousands of Women with Disabilities Leaving the Workforce?

“People with disabilities of all backgrounds and genders deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence,” said RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has dyslexia and is parenting a child with multiple disabilities, “just like anyone else.”

Unfortunately, statistics show that women living with disabilities in the U.S. too often lack those opportunities.

More than 20.9 million women are living with a disability in the U.S., and over 10.2 million of them are working age (between 18 and 64)—but only 34.6 percent of them are employed. (For comparison: 82.5 percent of working-age women without disabilities are employed.) At-large, with fully one-in-four American adults having a disability, just 37 percent of those who are working-age are employed. Polls show that most adults with disabilities want to work. Instead, approximately 22.6 percent of women with disabilities are living in poverty—compared to 14.7 percent of women without disabilities.

According to the newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, 111,804 people with disabilities entered the workforce in 2017, but 3,736 women with disabilities left. These losses occurred even as other segments of the disability community continued to see job gains. Further analysis by the nonpartisan advocacy group RespectAbility shows that opportunities to enter the workforce very much depends on where a person lives.

2017 Top 10 States Ranked by Female Disability Employment Rates 

RankStateTotal # of Working-Age WWDs# of WWDs EmployedTotal Job Gains and LossesDisability Employment Rate

South Dakota leads the nation: 53 percent of women with disabilities there are employed. North Dakota follows in a close second, with a 49.8 percent disability employment rate. Since last year, Alaska and Kansas have dropped out of the top 10 states employing people with disabilities, replaced by Vermont and Colorado.

The data from South Dakota tells an interesting story about the evolving place of women with disabilities in the workforce. Even as others with disabilities lost jobs, women with disabilities cemented their place in the Mount Rushmore State’s workforce.

Last year, women with disabilities in South Dakota had a 42.7 percent employment rate, which has now increased to 53 percent. In Rhode Island, women with disabilities also saw their disability employment rate dramatically rise in the last year, from 30.2 percent to 38.3 percent.

Women with disabilities gained jobs in only 21 out of 50 states over the same period. Illinois saw the biggest gains, with 17,089 working-age women with disabilities entering the workforce, even though it has a rate of just 38.4 percent for disability employment. California saw the second-biggest gains, with 15,869 new jobs for women with disabilities opening up in the state, even though it has a disability employment rate of just 34 percent.

However, in far too many states, women with disabilities are leaving the workforce, experiencing discrimination and being denied the opportunity to earn an income. North Carolina saw the biggest job losses of any state in the index, with 12,142 women with disabilities leaving the workforce; in Oregon, 8,409 women with disabilities left the workforce in just a year’s time.

Employment rates only tell part of the story.

The 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium Supplement does not have female employment disaggregated by race—but with more than 7,500 African Americans with disabilities leaving the workforce last year, it is likely that women of color with disabilities are facing down additional barriers. And looking across the intersection of disability and race, there are serious gaps in outcomes: Only 28.6 percent of African Americans with disabilities have jobs, compared to the 38.6 percent of Hispanics with disabilities and 41.2 percent of Asian Americans with disabilities.

“About two and a half decades ago, Eddie Glenn called attention to the disparate treatment of African American women with disabilities, suggesting that a triple jeopardy syndrome put them at a further disadvantage because they were victims of race, gender and disability bias in our society,” said Donna Walton, Ed.D. “The impact of the triple jeopardy syndrome cannot be overstated, as an African American with a disability can never can be quite sure if their race, gender or disability is hurting their chances for advancement. My experiences—being denied employment and facing financial planners who make false assumptions about my income status and earning potential because of my disability, for instance—prompt my suspicions that triple jeopardy is working against many African-Americans with disabilities.”

People with disabilities of all backgrounds can be amongst the highest achievers on earth. Haben Girma became the first Deafblind person to graduate from law school when she earned her degree from Harvard Law School in 2013. Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, performer Selena Gomez lives with lupus, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Barbara Corcoran is dyslexic and gymnast Simone Biles has ADHD.

According to the Census Bureau, there are in total, more than 56 million Americans living with some form of disability. This can include visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, visual impairments or hearing loss to people living with invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health or Autism.

Our nation’s economy is strongest when it is inclusive of the value that diverse talent brings to the workplace. Some celebrities are making a difference in how audiences perceive disability, and companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, UPS, Ernst & Young, IBM, Walgreen’s, Starbucks and the software corporation SAP also exemplify these values— with specific programs to hire, cultivate and promote people with disabilities in place at their organizations.

People with disabilities are successful employees, and they improve businesses’ bottom lines. “People with disabilities bring a unique skill set that it is very valuable for companies.,” Vincenzo Piscopo of the Coca-Cola Company said. “As it relates to employment and competitiveness in the workplace, we have to stop thinking of disability as a weakness and start thinking of it as an asset.”

This post originally appeared on the RespectAbility blog. Republished with permisison.

RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign is shining a light on individuals with disabilities who are succeeding in their chosen careers, as well as companies that employ people with disabilities. All throughout Women’s History Month, we will post additional pieces about female role models with disabilities and the experiences of our staff and Fellows, a majority of whom are women.


Lauren Appelbaum is the Communications Director at RespectAbility and the Managing Editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. She is also the talent behind #RespectTheAbility campaign, which highlights model employers that demonstrate how hiring workers with disabilities benefits the employer, the employee and society. Lauren has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Syracuse University and undergraduate degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.