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Education and Employment Outcomes for People with Disabilities: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

John O’Neill, PhD, explores how to maximize the impact of education on employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Dr. O’Neill is Kessler Foundation’s director of Disability & Employment Research. 


Education and Employment Outcomes for People with Disabilities: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?



We know that in the general population individuals with postsecondary education have higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than those with only high school diplomas or less. We also know that the impact of rising levels of education on work-life earnings surpasses that of all other demographic factors.


We know that over the past 5 years, education levels have risen among people with disabilities, so how are educational gains affecting their outlook for employment and earnings – is their glass half empty or half full?


When we look at employment, the glass seems half full from three perspectives. First, Comparisons of employment rates by education show a steep gradient for individuals with disabilities, both overall and for specific types of disability. The employment rate rises from 20% for those who have not completed high school to 33% for those whose education ended with high school graduation, to 53% for those with bachelor’s degrees. Second, this gradient in the improvement of employment outcomes is steeper for those with disabilities than individuals without disabilities. Third, earnings also rise sharply with education - people with disabilities who have a high school education earn an average $22,966, whereas those with graduate degrees earn an average of $66,899 − a jump of almost 200%.


So how do these employment outcomes compare with people without disabilities? Here, the glass is looking empty. Across all education levels, employment and earnings disparities are significant between workers with and without disabilities. Employment rates for those without disabilities are unacceptably higher across all levels of education and across all types of disabilities. In addition, people without disabilities have higher annual income levels ranging from $6,505 per year for high graduates to $20,871 for those with graduate degrees.


This is obviously a mixed picture. Despite educational attainment and systematic increases in employment and earnings, significant disparities remain in employment and earnings between people with and without disabilities. The employment rate for working-age individuals with disabilities is less than half the rate for individuals without disabilities. Similarly, personal income for individuals with disabilities is less than half the median income for individuals without disabilities.


 How do we change the picture?  By ensuring that the promise inherent in educational attainment also applies to people with disabilities.


National survey data suggest a focus for such efforts. The college non-completion rate is 56% for persons with disabilities, compared to 40% among persons without disabilities. Focusing on dropout prevention among college students with disabilities could improve college completion rates and employment outcomes. Fortunately, such programs are being funded.


Since the early 1980s, a strategy called supported education has been used to increase the retention rates of college students with psychiatric disabilities. Supported education programs are usually initiated by community-based organizations in collaboration with colleges and universities. As of 2003, more than 100 such programs were in place across the U.S. This approach has been scientifically proven to be so successful that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a Tool Kit to help organizations create such programs (


Some colleges have developed programs of their own to improve retention and graduation rates for students with learning disabilities. These programs provide comprehensive academic support that goes well beyond what colleges usually provide and, as a consequence, may entail additional fees.


Helping college students with disabilities transition to the workplace is another opportunity for closing the employment gap. Bridging the Gap College to Careers is a structured model being implemented at San Diego State University and Florida State University with funding from Kessler Foundation.  A specially designed credit course, mentoring, financial and benefits counseling, internships and placement services prepare students with disabilities for the workplace and help them connect with employers.


Because the college application process can be daunting, especially for students with disabilities, many potential candidates miss out on the benefits of postsecondary opportunities. Transition programs with comprehensive services, such as a program at Chicago’s Center for Independent Living, can help high school students gain admission, stay enrolled and achieve independence through employment.


By coordinating, sustaining and replicating these efforts on a greater scale, we can close the gaps in employment and earnings. Seeing the glass as half full will mean we are closer to a more inclusive and productive society where people achieve financial independence by contributing to our economy.

Submitted by Kessler Foundation on Fri, 03/11/2016 - 12:14