Research findings unveiled in late October at the seventh National Disability Statistics and Policy Forum show that many challenges still face a majority of individuals with disabilities.
Despite record economic growth throughout the 1990s, a series of presentations by national experts in disability research showed that the disabled continue to lag behind their non-disabled peers in income, employment, access to the Internet, and social participation.
The forum, held annually in Washington, D.C. and sponsored by the Disability Statistics Center and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, attracted more than 100 academics, policy professionals and advocates.
Perhaps the most startling news of the day came from Mary Daly of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. While many economically vulnerable populations made gains throughout the 1990s business cycle, including single mothers, African Americans and Hispanics, people with disabilities actually lost ground.
“The employment and earnings of men and women with disabilities fell over the entire 1900s business cycle, although less so in recovery than in recession,” she said. While most Americans saw their family income rise an average of $3,500 during the peak growth years of 1993-1997, “people with disabilities did not,” Daly said.
Mitchell LaPlante, director of the Disability Statistics Center at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF), acknowledged that the gap between the employment rates of those with disabilities and those without “has remained largely unchanged over the past 14 years.” For those with severe disabilities, the “employment gap” is 49 percent.
The real question, of course, is why? Recent changes in public policy at both the state and federal level have attempted to eliminate barriers to employment for those with disabilities who currently rely on public programs for income, health insurance, or both.
LaPlante and a colleague from UCSF, Stephen Kaye, examined the decline in labor force participation and asked whether functional limitations were preventing people from working, or whether poor health was a factor. They found that the employment gap narrowed significantly when health status was considered. So while a disability is present, “the real problem is poor health,” LaPlante said, adding that while this finding has many policy implications, “it can be helpful in trying to identify the size of the available workforce.”
But others said studies such as these are asking the wrong questions.
“What we really ought to be asking is how does the disability interact with the physical environment — and stop defining disability as an inability to work,” said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
The issue raised by Imparato is twofold: the large federal data sets used by researchers do not have a consistent definition of disability; and none of them correspond with the definition contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many conference presenters admitted to feeling hamstrung by the lack of available data on the disabled population. The most commonly used tools, including the National Health Interview Survey and the Current Population Survey, tend to define disability in medical terms and limitations rather than one’s interaction with the environment.
This issue has been raised before. In a 1998 report by the National Council on Disability, ‘Reorienting Disability Research,’ a plea was made to adopt a uniform definition of disability based on environmental barriers rather than physical impairment. All federal agencies collecting information on gender and race were also asked to gather information on disability. The report served as the basis for a Congressional hearing and successfully brough attention to both the lack of disability data available and the philosophical shift in viewing disability as something other than a physical defect.
And while the established data collection systems have not yet adapted to meet this challenge, researchers have forged ahead with telephone surveys and alternative methods.
Other findings presented at the conference tried to show that both individual and environmental factors limited social participation for people with disabilities. Transportation was cited as a major hurdle, with 44 percent of disabled individuals reporting at least some difficulty. As difficulty with transportation increased, social outings and visits from friends showed a corresponding decrease. This may help to explain why more people with disabilities are turning to their computers to connect with the outside world.
While fewer people with disabilities (43 percent) are online when compared to individuals without disabilities (57 percent), the value gained from the experience is much greater for the disabled. Robert Leitman of Harris Interactive reported that “48 percent of adults with disabiltiies said that the Internet has significantly improved the quality of their lives, while just 28 percent of adults without disabilities reported the same.” Adults with disabilities also spend twice as much time online (20 hours per week) as those without disabilities (10 hours per week). More individuals with disabilities said the Internet made them feel more connected to the world around them (44 percent) than did people without disabilities (38 percent).
Researchers acknowledged the interwoven nature of each of these subjects: employment, income, social interaction, and access to technology. The common factor to them all is money.
“Without money, you can’t participate in anything,” said one conference participant. Getting more of it into the hands of people with disabilities through employment, said Mary Daly, is the “major policy puzzle that must be solved before the rewards of economic growth are shared by all.”