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Disability at Work: A Look Back and Forward

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Purpose This article presents new evidence on employment barriers and workplace disparities facing employees with disabilities, linking the disparities to employee attitudes. Methods Analyses use the 2006 General Social Survey to connect disability to workplace disparities and attitudes in a structural equation model. Results Compared to employees without disabilities, those with disabilities report: lower pay levels, job security, and flexibility; more negative treatment by management; and, lower job satisfaction but similar organizational commitment and turnover intention. The lower satisfaction is mediated by lower job security, less job flexibility, and more negative views of management and co-worker relations. Conclusion Prior research and the present findings show that people with disabilities experience employment disparities that limit their income, security, and overall quality of work life. Technology plays an increasingly important role in decreasing employment disparities. However, there also should be increased targeted efforts by government, employers, insurers, occupational rehabilitation providers, and disability groups to address workplace barriers faced by employees with disabilities, and by those with disabilities seeking to return to work.

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  1. Analysis of the 2014 American Community Survey shows that among working-age people who did not receive any disability income in the past 12 months, 49.7% of people with disabilities were employed compared to 76.9% of people without disabilities (calculations available on request).

  2. It is likely these figures understate the problem due to “social desirability” bias, and the frequent discrepancy found between the attitudes employers express towards people with disabilities on surveys and their actual hiring practices [71].

  3. Ordered probits predicting the ease of finding another job found the disability coefficients of -0.160 (T = − 1.129) before controlling for occupation, and − 0.170 (T = − 1.170) after controlling for occupation. Both regressions control for gender, race, age, Hispanic, and education. The sample sizes were 689 and 684 respectively. Full results are available on request.


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Valuable assistance and comments were received from Stan Gully, Patrick McKay, Marjorie Baldwin, and Meera Adya.


Funding for the disability module for the 2006 General Social Survey was provided by U.S. Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR)—Grant No. H133B980042-99, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, and the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University. The program of research herein is also supported, in part, by grants to the Burton Blatt Institute from: (a) the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education (i) “Demand Side Employment Placement Models”—Grant No. H133A060033, (ii) “The Asset Accumulation and Economic Self-Sufficiency Project”—Grant No. H133A090014, (iii) “Southeast Disability & Business Technical Assistance Center”—Grant No. H133A060094, and (iv) “Center on Effective Delivery of Rehabilitation Technology by Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies”—Grant No. H133A090004, (b) the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) for the “Southeast Region TACE Center”—Grant No. H264A080021, and (c) the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), U.S. Department of Labor, “Disability Case Study Research Consortium”—Grant No. #E-9-4-6-0107.

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Correspondence to Andrea Kim.

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Informed Consent

For this type of study formal consent is not required. This paper includes results from analysis of secondary data which were not collected by the authors. The data come from the long-running General Social Survey, which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago where all data collection is approved by an Institutional Review Board.


Appendix 1: Variable Definitions


Any disability Yes to hearing or visual impairment, or to two or more of the other five disability questions below (Yes 1/No 0) (mean = .118).

Visual impairment “Do you have a vision problem that prevents you from reading a newspaper even when wearing glasses or contacts?” (Yes 1/No 0) (mean = .028).

Hearing impairment “Do you have a hearing problem that prevents you from hearing what is said in normal conversation even with a hearing aid?” (Yes 1/No 0) (mean = .044).

Mobility impairment Yes to “Any Disability” and “Do you have any condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying?” (Yes 1/No 0) (mean = .049).

Mental impairment Yes to “Any Disability,” and to “Do you have any emotional or mental disability?” (Yes 1/No 0) or “Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting 3 months or longer, do you have difficulty doing any of the following… Learning, remembering or concentrating?” (Yes 1/No 0) (mean = .042).

Other Disability Questions

“Do you have any other physical disability?” (Yes 1/No 0) (mean = .043).

“Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting 3 months or longer, do you have difficulty doing any of the following… Participating fully in school, housework, or other daily activities?” (Yes 1/No 0) (mean = .049).

Pay and How Work Is Organized

Earnings Natural logarithm of total annual work earnings from primary job, coded in one of 25 categories (using midpoints of ranges: mean = 10.27, SD = .92) (standardized for SEM).

Job security “The job security is good” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1) (mean = 3.35, SD = .81) (standardized for SEM).

Flexible hours “How often are you allowed to change your starting and quitting times on a daily basis?” (Often 4/Sometimes 3/Rarely 1/Never 1) (mean = 2.38, SD = 1.24)(standardized for SEM).

Promotion opportunities “The chances for promotion are good” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1) (mean = 2.59, SD = 1.01) (standardized for SEM).

Work-family balance index of the two following standardized items (α = 0.61).

“How often do the demands of your job interfere with your family life?” (Often 1/Sometimes 2/Rarely 3/Never 4).

“How often do the demands of your family interfere with your work on the job?” (Often 1/Sometimes 2/Rarely 3/Never 4).

Participation in decisions index of the four following standardized items (α = 0.74).

“In your job, how often do you take part with others in making decisions that affect you?” (Often 4/Sometimes 3/Rarely 1/Never 1).

“How often do you participate with others in helping set the way things are done on your job?” (Often 4/Sometimes 3/Rarely 1/Never 1).

“I have a lot of say about what happens on my job” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“I am given a lot of freedom to decide how to do my own work” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

Skill use and development index of following five standardized items (α = 0.71).

“My job lets me use my skills and abilities” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“I have an opportunity to develop my own special abilities” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

“I have the training opportunities I need to perform my job safely and competently” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

“My job requires that I keep learning new things” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“I get to do a number of different things on my job” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

Preferences over Job Characteristics

The following questions were prefaced by the statement “For each of the following, please tell me how important you personally think it is in a job” (1 = not important at all, 2 = not important, 3 = neither important nor unimportant, 4 = important, 5 = very important).

High income How important is … high income?”

Job security “How important is … job security?”

Promotion opportunities “How important is … good opportunities for advancement?”

Flexible hours “How important is … a job that allows someone to decide their times or days of work?”

Interesting job “How important is … an interesting job?”

Work independently “How important is … a job that allows someone to work independently?”

Helping others “How important is … a job that allows someone to help other people?”

Useful to society “How important is … a job that is useful to society?”

The following questions were prefaced by the statement “Thinking of work in general, please circle one number for each statement below to show how much you agree or disagree with each” (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree).

Job just way of earning money “A job is just a way of earning money—no more”.

Would enjoy job even if not paid “I would enjoy having a paying job even if I did not need that money.”

The following questions were prefaced by the statement “Suppose you were working and could choose between different kinds of jobs. Which of the following would you personally choose? I would advise…”

Prefer employee to self-employed “Being an employee or being self-employed?” (1 = employee, 0 = self-employed).

Prefer small to big firm “Working in a small firm or working in a large firm?” (1 = small firm, 0 = small firm).

Prefer private to government job “Working in a private business or working in the government or civil service?” (1 = private, 0 = government).

Company Treatment of Employees

Employee-management relations “In general, how would you describe relations in your work place between management and employees?” (Very good 5/Quite good 4/Neither good nor bad 3/Quite bad 2/Very bad 1) (mean = 3.90, SD = 1.00) (standardized for SEM).

Treatment by management index of following 7 standardized items and the “employee-management relations” item (α = 0.86).

“At the place where I work, I am treated with respect” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“I trust the management at the place where I work” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“Promotions are handled fairly” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

“The safety of workers is a high priority with management where I work” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“There are no significant compromises or shortcuts taken when worker safety is at stake” (Strongly agree 4/Agree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“My supervisor cares about employees” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

“My supervisor is helpful to me in getting the job done” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

Co-worker relations index of following two standardized items (α = 0.58).

“The people I work with take a personal interest in me” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

“The people I work with can be relied on when I need help” (Very true 4/Somewhat true 3/Not too true 2/Not at all true 1).

Employee Responses

Organizational commitment index of following three standardized items (α = 0.72).

“I am willing to work harder than I have to in order to help the firm or organization I work for succeed” (Strongly agree 5/Agree 4/Neither agree nor disagree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“I would turn down another job that offered quite a bit more pay in order to stay with this organization” (Strongly agree 5/Agree 4/Neither agree nor disagree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

“I am proud to be working for my firm or organization” (Strongly agree 5/Agree 4/Neither agree nor disagree 3/Disagree 2/Strongly disagree 1).

Job satisfaction “All in all, how satisfied would you say you are with your job?” (Very satisfied 4/Somewhat satisfied 3/Not too satisfied 2/Not at all satisfied 1) (mean = 2.29, SD = .76) (standardized for SEM).

Turnover intention “Taking everything into consideration, how likely is it you will make a genuine effort to find a new job with another employer within the next year?” (Very likely 3/Somewhat likely 2/Not at all likely 1) (mean = 1.55, SD = .75) (standardized for SEM).

Outside Opportunities

Ease of finding other job “How easy would it be for you to find a job with another employer with approximately the same income and fringe benefits as you have now?” (Very easy 3/Somewhat easy 2/Not easy at all 1)(mean = 1.97, SD = .78).

Appendix 2: Testing of Structural Equation Model

To test the model in Fig. 1 and evaluate how the disparities are related, we employ a structural equation model using the random sample that answered questions in the QWL module. The model is restricted to respondents with valid observations on every measure, and uses all of the measures except for organizational commitment, since the QWL module did not contain an adequate measure of this. The analysis is performed with Lisrel 8.7 statistical software [83]. Structural equation models are typically based on multi-item measures of latent variables. As our measures have several single indicators, we correct for the reliability of the single-item indicators of latent variables following Anderson and Gerbing’s method, which assigns a unique variance of 0.95 to these variables and sets the residual error variance for these variables to the product of variance of the indicators multiplied by 0.1 [84].

Variable means and correlations, excluding the control variables, are presented in “Table 5 (Appendix 3)”. To evaluate the factor structures of the data, we employ a two-step approach to the structural equation model [54]. Absolute fit indexes show that the measurement model provides an acceptable fit to the data (\(\chi\) 2 = 1097.26, df = 397, p < .0001, TLI = 0.94, GFI = 0.92, CFI = 0.96, NFI = 0.94, RMSEA = 0.050). Our hypothesized model presented in Fig. 1 provides an acceptable fit to the data (\(\chi\) 2 = 1963.63, df = 527, p < .0001, TLI = 0.88, GFI = 0.88, CFI = 0.93, NFI = 0.91, RMSEA = 0.063). To confirm whether our model has the best fit to the data, we conduct the chi-squares difference procedure [85].

In this procedure, we develop seven alternative models according to the extant literature, and then compare the chi-squares and degrees of freedom between our hypothesized model and each of seven alternative models. As seen in “Table 6 (Appendix 3)”, the goodness of fit index of each alternative model is acceptable except for alternative model 5, which has an unacceptable Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) of 0.081. Thus, six alternative models (i.e., alternative models 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7) are employed for chi-squares comparison.

The results show that the chi-squares differences between our hypothesized model and each of the alternative models 2 to 7 are significant. The model that has more parameters and fewer degrees of freedom is favored when the chi-squares difference is significant [85]. Our hypothesized model is therefore preferred to alternative models 2–7, which have higher chi-squares with fewer parameters and more degrees of freedom than our hypothesized model. In the chi-squares comparison with alternative model 1 that has a smaller Chi square and fewer degrees of freedom than our hypothesized model, the result shows that there is no significant difference in the chi-squares between the two models (∆\(\chi\) 2 = 3.11, ∆df = 3). In this case, the model that has fewer parameters is favored [85]. Hence, our hypothesized model, which is more parsimonious than alternative model 1, is preferred.

Appendix 3

See Tables 5, 6

Table 5 Descriptive statistics and correlations for SEM model
Table 6 Fit indices for structural equation models

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Schur, L., Han, K., Kim, A. et al. Disability at Work: A Look Back and Forward. J Occup Rehabil 27, 482–497 (2017).

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