The Best—and Worst—States for Workers With Disabilities

Although disability-based discrimination is illegal, barriers to employment remain high.
(Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty Images)
Sep 6, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

The ease of finding a job varies from state to state for the average person, but the location makes an even greater difference for a job seeker with a disability.

Some 70 percent of working-age people with disabilities are out of the workforce, compared with 28 percent of working-age people out of the workforce overall. But in North Dakota, 52 percent of people with disabilities are employed, according to a new report from RespectabilityUSA, a nonprofit advocacy group. Wyoming, South Dakota, Alaska, and Minnesota round out the top five states, each with close to half of its disabled residents in the workforce. Kentucky, Mississippi, and West Virginia fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, with roughly 75 percent for people with disabilities not working.

The ability to find work is crucial to people with disabilities. Not only does having a job help create a sense of identity and purpose, but people with disabilities often have higher costs of living that they need to support through employment.

As many as one in five Americans have some form of developmental, psychiatric, or physical disability. The Americans With Disabilities Act, signed in 1990, outlaws discrimination based on disabilities in schools, the workforce, and public places, but finding a job still proves more difficult for people with disabilities than people without them. In a 2012 survey from the U.S. Department of Labor, 80 percent of people with disabilities reported that it was a barrier to employment, while 14 percent cited lack of education or training and 10 percent said it was owing to needing assistance at work.

Although some of the top-performing states can credit their achievement to a booming economy, government-funded training workshops and economic incentives have proved successful. The report outlines some of the programs, such as North Dakota’s Disabilities Access Credit, which helps companies pay for assistive technology. Alaska and Wyoming are both part of Project SEARCH, a yearlong school-to-work transition program for young adults with significant disabilities. In Minnesota, managers working for the government undergo training programs that focus on recruiting potential employees with disabilities.

Jennifer Sheehy of the Office of Disability Employment Policy hopes states failing to provide for the marginalized community will look to the successful programs in the top states. And they may want to start looking: Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act signed by President Obama last year, every state is required to develop plans for career programs for people with disabilities by March 2016.

“Given that literally billions of dollars in federal tax dollars will follow those new plans, governors and those such as ODEP that are working with states to improve disability employment can build on these past successes to create a workforce system that serves everyone well, including employers and people with disabilities,” Sheehy said in a release.