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Issue brief

In 2014, working-age (16-64 years old) women with
disabilities1 made up 1.5 percent of the workforce even
though they were nearly 4 percent of the U.S. workingage population. These women represent a critical source
of untapped labor force talent.2 In addition to facing
persistently low employment, women with disabilities
often face a number of gender-specific barriers as well as
difficulties obtaining access to adequate housing, health,
and education; unequal hiring and promotion standards;
and unequal pay.3 An examination of employment statistics,
including unemployment, workforce participation, and
income, reveals an unmet potential for employment among
those with disabilities. Despite growing opportunities
over the past few decades, people with disabilities,
especially women, who want to and are able to work, are
encountering barriers that prevent them from achieving
economic security. This paper highlights several key
employment factors that contribute to the economic
vulnerability of women workers with disabilities.

Americans with disabilities experience more pronounced
poverty rates than almost any other single demographic
group.4 According to Census Bureau data, in 2013, the
poverty rate for those age 16-64 with a disability was 28.8
percent, compared to 12.3 percent for able-bodied people.5
Women with disabilities are more likely to experience
economic insecurity, due partly to the fact that, among
working-age individuals, women with disabilities have
the lowest labor force participation rate and the lowest
employment-population ratio6 when compared to men with
disabilities, able-bodied women, and able-bodied men (See
Figures 1 and 2, respectively).7

Issue brief
Although working-age women and men with disabilities
have nearly the same unemployment rates, they are more
than double the unemployment rates for able-bodied
women and men (See Figure 3).8
Among working-age women with disabilities, women of
color generally experience greater economic insecurity
than white women. In particular, black/African American
women face a lower labor force participation rate, a lower
employment-population ratio, and a higher unemployment
rate than their white, Asian, and Hispanic/Latina
counterparts (See Figure 4).9
In addition, women with disabilities, like all other women,
experience the gender wage gap and occupational
segregation, both of which exacerbate economic
insecurity. Full-time, year round working women with
disabilities, age 16 and older, earn 80.8 percent of what
their male counterparts with disabilities earn and only 69.5
percent of what men without disabilities earn.10 Women
with a disability are also more likely to work in service
occupations11 — the lowest paying employment sector
— compared to men with a disability, women without a
disability, and men without a disability (See Figure 5).12
For example, women in “service occupations” earn a
median weekly income of $461, whereas women in
“management, professional, and related occupations” earn
a median weekly income of $981.13
Without a job or a living wage to help offset costs
associated with having a disability, the result is often a
greater dependency on government safety net programs
(i.e., Supplemental Security Income and Social Security
Disability Insurance or others).14 But in spite of the
economic instability they face, women with disabilities are
still less likely than men with disabilities to receive benefits
from Social Security and Disability Insurance.15 For women
who do receive disability insurance, the average monthly
benefit is lower than the amount men receive ($1,033.50
for women and $1,289.13 for men).16 These differences in
benefits occur because the receipt of disability insurance
is dependent on work history17 and women with disabilities
are less likely to have jobs, or more likely to have jobs that
pay lower wages, than men with disabilities.18
Notwithstanding marked improvements since the
1970s around inclusion, opportunity, accessibility,
and destigmatization of disability in the United States,
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Issue brief
the magnified challenges disabled women face have
often gone overlooked in interventions and initiatives
aimed at improving labor outcomes. Increased access
to apprenticeships, internships, jobs, and leadership
training programs, or access to affordable post-secondary
education options (such as community colleges), are
among the solutions that can significantly improve the labor
market outcomes of women with disabilities.

In May 2012, half of all individuals with a disability who
were not working reported some kind of barrier to work.19
Reported barriers included: lack of education or training
(14.1 percent), transportation needs (11.7 percent), the
need for on-site job accommodations (10.3 percent), and a
person’s own disability (80.5 percent).20
The challenges women with disabilities face may be
amplified as a result of two-fold discrimination– gender and
disability status discrimination.21 Barriers to employment
and wage parity, particularly those resulting from
discrimination and stigma, have a disproportionate impact
on women with disabilities, who may face perceptions

of “inability” and “weakness” aimed at their disability
status and gender.22 These barriers include (1) reduced
self-esteem,23 (2) unequal access to and participation in
critical subjects and academic precursors to competitive
jobs,24 (3) lower career expectations,25 (4) a perceived
need to self-accommodate,26 and/or (5) isolation and lack
of access to supports and key informational resources.27
If the compound barriers associated with both gender
and disability fail to be explicitly accounted for in the
policies and programs intended to support this population,
women with disabilities may also benefit less from existing
interventions and initiatives.

Few female students with disabilities receive the exposure
and education necessary for employment, particularly in
more lucrative STEM fields.28 For women with disabilities
who may face stigma, isolation, and a reduced probability
of employment on the basis of gender and disability
discrimination, access to early work experience and
transition to work programs may be a mitigating factor.

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Issue brief

The effects of quality education and a successful schoolto-work transition program are clear. Regardless of sex
and/or disability, higher levels of educational attainment

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are associated with higher labor force participation rates
and higher employment-population ratios (See Figures 6
and 7, respectively).

Issue brief
Additionally, individuals age 25 and older with a
bachelor’s degree and higher education levels have lower
unemployment rates than those with some college or an
associate’s degree, those with high school degrees, and
those with less than high school educations (See Figure 8).29
Only recently has greater attention been brought to bear
on education and the need for a seamless transition to work.
Notwithstanding the Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act (IDEA) of 1975, student transition plans have not been a
priority during individualized education planning.30 However,
there is a growing realization of the need for planning and
early discussions about elements of adult living, such
as preparation for post-secondary education, vocational
education, integrated employment (including supported
employment), continuing and adult education, adult services,
independent living, and community participation31 – most
recently evidenced by the federal joint-agency PROMISE

initiative32 and the Federal Partners in Transition workgroup.33
States and institutions of higher education have the means
to create and expand work-to-learn programs and increase
affordability of post-secondary learning and training. Private
and public sector entities can provide opportunities for
internships, apprenticeships, or job training and professional
development efforts that are made more accessible to the
pipeline of young and adult women with disabilities.
To fully realize the progress that has been made to
reduce barriers and increase accessibility to employment
for individuals with disabilities, more could be done to
ensure women workers with disabilities are positioned
to achieve strong, sustained labor force attachment.
Providing women with disabilities the opportunity to
realize their full potential as workers pays dividends
not just for the individual, but also for the families and
employers who benefit from their contributions.

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For the purposes of federal disability nondiscrimination laws, a person with a disability is typically defined as someone
who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities,” (2) has a record
of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. “Frequently Ask Questions,” U.S. Department
of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, accessed June 12, 2015,
Unpublished tabulations from the 2014 Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Women and Girls with Disabilities,” United Nations, accessed May 28, 2015,
“Fulfilling the Promise: Overcoming Persistent Barriers to Economic Self- Sufficiency for People with Disabilities,”
United States Senate, accessed May 28, 2015, 	
“Income and Poverty in the United States: 2013,” United States Census Bureau, accessed May 28, 2015, (in table 3 on page 13)
Employment-population ratio is the proportion of the civilian non-institutional population aged 16 years and older that is
Unpublished tabulations from the 2014 Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“How the Wage Gap Hurts Women and Families.” Employment Fact Sheet. National Women’s Law Center. April 2015. NWLC calculations are based on the Current
Population Survey, 2014 Annual Social and Economic Supplement.
Unpublished tabulations from the 2014 Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ tabulation of the 2014 Current Population Survey, of those in Service
Occupations, women earn a median weekly income of $461 and men earn $583.
“Fulfilling the Promise: Overcoming Persistent Barriers to Economic Self- Sufficiency for People with Disabilities,”
United States Senate, accessed July 2, 2015, 
“Benefits Paid By Type of Beneficiary,” Social Security Administration, accessed July 2, 2015,
“ Benefits for People With Disabilities,” Social Security Administration, accessed July 2, 2015,
“Women” U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, accessed July 2, 2015,
“Persons With A Disability: Barriers To Employment, Types of Assistance, and Other Labor-Related Issues ̶ May 2012”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed May 18, 2015,
“Women and Girls with Disabilities” United Nations, accessed May 28, 2015,
Carrie G. Basas, “The New Boys: Women with Disabilities and the Legal Profession,” Berkley Journal of Gender, Law &
Justice 25 (2010):32-124.
Michael R. Benz, Bonnie Doren & Paul Yovanoff, “Crossing the great divide: Predicting productive engagement for
young women with disabilities,” Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 21(1)(1998), 3-16.
Penny Hammrich, Lynda Price & Graciela Slesaranksky-Poe, “Daughters with Disabilities: Breaking Down Barriers,”
Electronic Journal of Special Education, 5(4)(2001), Last accessed July 3, 2015, Retrieved from

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“Employee Development for People with Disabilities, Employment Issue Brief #2,” National Council on Disability,
October 1, 2007, accessed July 2, 2015.
Carrie G. Basas, “The New Boys: Women with Disabilities and the Legal Profession.” Berkley Journal of Gender, Law &
Justice 25 (2010):32-124.
Fredrick E. Menz, Geraldine Hansen, Harry Smith, Constance Brown, Meg Ford & George McCrowey, “Gender
equity in access services and benefits from vocational rehabilitation,” The Journal of Rehabilitation, 55(1)(1989): 3140.; Michael R. Benz, Bonnie Doren & Paul Yovanoff, “Crossing the great divide: Predicting productive engagement
for young women with disabilities,” Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 21(1)(1998), 3-16.; Keith B.
Wilson, Debra A. Harley, Katherine McCormick, Kristine Jolivette, & Ronald L. Jackson II, “A literature review of
vocational rehabilitation acceptance and explaining bias in the rehabilitation process,” Journal of Applied Rehabilitation
Counseling, 32(I) (2001):24-35.
Penny Hammrich, Lynda Price & Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, “Daughters with disabilities: Breaking down barriers,”
Electronic Journal of Special Education, 5(4)(2001). Last accessed July 3, 2015, Retrieved from
Unpublished tabulations from the 2014 Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cheryl Bates-Harris, “Segregated and exploited: The failure of the disability services system to provide quality work,”
Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 36(2012): 39-64.
C.F.R. §300.43(a), 2004
Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department
of Education, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Labor, and Social Security
Administration. It was created to foster improved health, education, and post-secondary outcomes for children ages 1416 who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), as well as their families. More information can be found at “About” U.S. Department of Education, accessed June 12, 2015,
Federal Partners in Transition is a workgroup, led by senior federal officials, with representatives of several
federal agencies, including Department of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and the Social Security
Administration involved in transition of youth with disabilities from school into post-secondary education, work, and
independent living. More information can be found at
“Partnerships and Initiatives,” U.S. Department of Labor, accessed July 1, 2015,
July 2015

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Contact us
Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, July 2015.

U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210
Phone: 1-800-827-5335 or (202) 693-6710

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