Improving Lives for People with Disabilities in the Workplace and the Marketplace

AIR’s mission is to conduct and apply the best research and evaluation to improve people’s lives. I am proud that for the past nine years, I have been a part of AIR’s mission-focused work to improve the lives of people with disabilities, especially in the workplace and the marketplace.

I enjoyed sharing some of our work at the 2019 Disability Matters Conference and speaking with employers from various industries. Our research not only highlights the workplace challenges that adults with disabilities and employers face, but seeks to offer solutions.

To frame these issues, here are some of the main takeaways from our research:

Salary and Access Gaps

Federal and state laws and policies have raised awareness of the challenges that people with disabilities face in receiving an education, and progress has been made. But even if they do successfully complete their education, the workplace and marketplace are not friendly to people with disabilities. Over the past few years, AIR has published research highlighting the gaps and challenges that people with disabilities face in the job market. Among our findings:

There are many reasons these disparities have developed and persisted over time. While there has been progress in education, there is still a significant achievement gap between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers, at all levels. Also, some business and industry has not fully embraced the talents and perspectives that people with disabilities bring by making work spaces and policies more inclusive. There has been some progress, but it’s not happening quickly enough.

Getting to the Bottom Line

There are countless benefits to increasing the number of people with disabilities in the workforce, starting with the need to provide all people with the best opportunity for success. But for business and industry to pay attention, perhaps it’s best to get to the bottom line: The earning and spending potential of people with disabilities is too big to ignore.

Last year, we released a study on the spending power of people with disabilities, which included some eye-opening findings:

  • The total disposable income for U.S. adults with disabilities is about $490 billion, which is comparable to other significant market segments, such as African Americans ($501 billion) and Hispanics ($582 billion). (Disposable income is what is left after taxes are paid); and
  • Discretionary income for working-age people with disabilities is about $21 billion, which is greater than that of the African American ($3 billion) and Hispanic ($16 billion) market segments, combined. (Discretionary income is the money remaining after deducting taxes, other mandatory charges, and spending on necessities, such as food and housing.)

Several U.S. companies have already begun to see the purse power of adults with disabilities. For instance, Nike and Zappos have begun marketing shoe and clothing lines to meet the needs of people with disabilities, and many technology companies see people with disabilities as ‘super-users’ of their products.

Overcoming the Challenges

Accessing this substantial purchasing power will require some specific strategies. It starts with hiring more people with disabilities to work at companies and involving them in product development and testing. That means business and industry will have to invest to make workplaces more accessible and take steps to ensure people with disabilities have the best chance of success. I spoke to many employers at the Disability Matters conference who are taking important steps in this area, but know that more needs to be done.

Companies should also consider involving people with disabilities in advertising and marketing, and not just for products that are designed for them. People with disabilities—like everyone else—are more loyal to products that they believe their peers are using.

Accessing this purchasing power will also require training employees on how to best serve people with disabilities. This work is happening across the country. For instance, AIR is working with the travel and hospitality industry to improve access in transportation hubs, such as airports.

Our research shows that people with disabilities can make an even greater contribution to society and the economy if they are given the opportunity. In order to realize that potential, we must go beyond ‘compliance’ and really meet the needs of people with disabilities in schools, in the workplace, and in the marketplace.

This article originally appeared in the 2019 edition of Disability Matters.