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Disability and Job Disparities

Written by
Sarah Aitchison
Attorney
November 15, 2023  ·  4 min read
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A paycheck is often seen as a measure of one’s value in the workforce. Yet, for U.S. workers with disabilities, it reflects a persistent gap widened by juggling multiple jobs and systemic discrimination. Our analysis spotlights their struggles, highlighting an urgent need for change.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data and our cross-generational survey of 500 workers with disabilities and 500 without, we studied the current state of wage inequality and how it impacts the disability community.

These voices inform our exploration of the workplace and financial disparities faced by working adults with disabilities. From here, we examine the stark earnings and job security divide as well as their other work-related challenges, emphasizing the pressing need for reforms that support fairness and opportunity.

Key takeaways

  • The highest pay disparity was observed in 2022, when workers with disabilities made an average of 42% less than others.
  • Workers with disabilities are 10% less likely to have gotten a raise in the past year.
  • Over 30% of workers with disabilities have experienced discrimination at work related to their disability.
  • Nearly 20% of workers with disabilities believe they were let go from a job due to their disability.
  • Side hustles account for nearly 40% of income among workers with disabilities.
  • Over 3 in 10 workers with disabilities work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Disability and wage inequality

Based on a comparison of U.S. Census data spanning the past 10 years, we analyzed wage disparities between workers with and without disabilities. We found significant variations in income gaps over this period, offering valuable insights into the economic challenges faced by workers with disabilities.

Disability Earnings Divide

We saw the lowest median wage disparity in 2013, where workers with disabilities earned about $10,000 less than other workers each year. However, the situation worsened significantly in 2022, when this wage difference jumped to nearly $13,000 and resulted in workers with disabilities making 42% less than other workers, on average.

This gap has shown a general upward trend over the past decade, with occasional fluctuations along the way. These may reflect various economic factors and policy changes that have influenced the earnings of workers with and without disabilities.

This data underscores the importance of addressing wage disparities and advocating for policies and initiatives that promote greater economic equality in the workforce across abilities. As we continue to analyze these trends, further research and targeted interventions will be needed to narrow this wage gap.

Financial strain on workers with disabilities

According to the survey component of our study, these two groups of workers also showed strikingly different levels of financial stress.

Financial Tightrope for People with Disabilities

Workers with disabilities grappled with financial stress at a level 50% higher than that of their counterparts. This discrepancy is further compounded by the fact that over 30% of workers with disabilities have juggled multiple jobs just to make ends meet, highlighting the formidable challenges they face in striving for financial stability.

Moreover, a significant 44% of workers with disabilities depend on at least three income sources to make ends meet, including earnings from multiple jobs and various benefits programs.Their finances had many of them sacrificing certain common expenses. A significant majority (60%) have eliminated the luxury of dining out or ordering takeout, while over half have put their vacation or travel plans on hold (57%) or curtailed spending on entertainment (54%) such as movies, concerts, and theater events.

Others resorted to canceling subscription services in order to economize. Approximately 29% have discontinued their monthly subscription boxes, while 28% relinquished gym or fitness memberships, which can be especially important for managing certain health conditions. Even popular streaming services like Netflix got the ax, with 27% of workers with disabilities terminating these subscriptions to balance their budgets.

Challenges in the modern workforce

The next set of research covers the types of side jobs workers with disabilities have taken to supplement their income and some of the most common issues they’ve experienced at work.

Side hustles for workers with disabilities

Our survey of workers with disabilities revealed that a significant number have depended on side hustles, which constituted 40% of their income. Market research was the most common side gig (76%), while more than 1 in 5 sold products on platforms like eBay or Amazon (21%), and slightly fewer (16%) sold handmade crafts or art through channels like Etsy.

These workers were also over 60% less likely than workers without disabilities to contribute to their savings each month. Perhaps it’s no wonder their budgets have been too tight to save, considering they were 10% less likely to have received a pay raise in the past year and faced a 75% higher risk of unexpected job termination. Compounding this, nearly 20% had experienced a job termination they believed was due to their disability. 

Discrimination was a significant issue faced by over 30% of our respondents with disabilities. Almost half of them shared that people doubted their ability to work effectively because of their disability (47%), that they’ve felt isolated or excluded (47%), or that they’ve experienced disability-related microaggressions (46%). Disability discrimination likely contributed, at least in part, to their feeling over 40% less secure in their employment than workers without disabilities.

Pathways to economic equality and empowerment for workers with disabilities

Our study illustrates the hurdles faced by workers with disabilities, from the widening income gap to the daily sacrifices they make and discrimination they endure. As we reflect on these insights, it’s imperative that we foster environments where these workers are not only included but also supported in their aspirations for financial stability and career growth. 

By addressing these issues head-on and advocating for meaningful change, we can work towards a future where disability does not stand in the way of fulfilling career and financial opportunities. This research is a call for action and a better, more inclusive tomorrow.

Methodology

We used U.S. Census Bureau annual median wage data from 2012-2022 for workers with and without disabilities to calculate wage disparities for this study. We also conducted a survey of 1,000 American workers, equally split between those with and without disabilities, to assess their financial and employment situations.

Those with disabilities averaged 45 years of age and comprised 43% males, 52% females, and 5% non-binary individuals. Their generational makeup included 17% baby boomers, 33% Gen X, 41% millennials, and 9% Gen Z. Conversely, workers without disabilities were an average of 39 years old, with a gender divided by 51% male, 48% female, and 1% non-binary. Their generational breakdown was 7% baby boomers, 26% Gen X, 59% millennials, and 8% Gen Z.

About Atticus

Atticus is a public-interest law firm that helps Americans in a crisis access the benefits they deserve. We've advised over 30,000 Americans on Social Security Disability and Workers' Compensation — providing free advice and personalized legal help at no upfront cost.

Fair use statement

To spread awareness about the economic challenges faced by individuals with disabilities, we welcome you to share this article with your readers or networks. Please ensure your purposes are non-commercial and include a link back to this page for our full context and insights.

Sarah Aitchison

Attorney

Sarah is an attorney at Atticus Law, P.C. Prior to joining Atticus, she was a civil public defender in Brooklyn, NY and a business reporter in Seattle, WA. She is a graduate of the University of Washington School of Law.
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