The Unemployment Rate for the Disabled – What is it??

DOL Unemployment statistics:

As of January 2009, the monthly unemployment statistics released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (DOL/BLS) include numbers that reflect the disabled population ( The following results, excerpted from the March 2009 BLS statistics, are of great interest:

Employment status by sex, age and disability (not seasonally adjusted) – Numbers in thousands –
Persons with a disabilityPersons with no disability

  • TOTAL, 16 years and over
  • Civilian noninstitutional population
    • 26,738
    • 26,842
    • 208,175
    • 208,244
  • Civilian labor force
    • 6,141
    • 6,114
    • 147,663
    • 147,614
  • Percent of population in labor force
    • 23.0
    • 22.8
    • 70.9
    • 70.9
  • Employed
    • 5,282
    • 5,312
    • 134,823
    • 134,521
  • Employment-population ratio
    • 19.8
    • 19.8
    • 64.8
    • 64.6
  • Unemployed
    • 859
    • 802
    • 12,840
    • 13,093
  • Unemployment rate
    • 14.0
    • 13.1
    • 8.7
    • 8.9
  • Not in labor force
    • 20,596
    • 20,728
    • 60,512
    • 60,630

Note: The survey results shown above are not seasonally adjusted. Alternative measures (discussed below) are not seasonally adjusted. Official unemployment statistics ARE seasonally adjusted, so comparisons must be made carefully . Trends and analyses are similar in all cases.

At first glance

, the unemployment rate for the disabled is not startling compared to the unemployment rate for the non-disabled 13.1% versus 8.9%). But the complete picture is more complicated. While the percentage of non-disabled persons 16 years and older that are considered to be in the workforce is 70.9%, it is a meager 22.8% for the disabled population. This means that 77.2% of the disabled population is considered to be ‘Not In the Labor Force (NILF)’ and is not even counted in calculating the unemployment statistic.

So why is the disabled ‘not in the labor force’ number so very high? The BLS gathers many ‘alternative measures’ in its monthly survey ( in addition to its widely published official unemployment statistics. Some of these alternative measures shed light on the issue. For example, almost half of the disabled population (44%) is over 65 and not likely to be seeking employment.

Even so, that leaves almost 34% of the disabled population considered ‘not in the work force’. The reasons, other than age (over 65), that put non-disabled persons in the NILF category, such as military service and family obligations, are not as appropriate for disabled persons. So why are so many in this category? Are they too disabled to work? But that can be a self-perpetuating image. If employers have that view, they are much less likely to consider a disabled person as a prospective employee.

Our experience

at Virtual Vision Technologies (VVT) has been quite different. Assessing and training the disabled (especially the blind and visually impaired) to be productive workers in the integrated workforce provides a far different picture. The disabled job seeker that we encounter most often wants to work but is at a loss as to where the needed resources are and what the proper technology and training is to make them job ready. After extended periods of flailing and frustration, they often give up the search. This can lead to a skewed view of their unemployment status because a person is considered officially unemployed if they have not actively sought employment in the last 4 weeks.

But the BLS alternative measures do not support this picture. One of these measures (called the U5 measure) opens the 4-week window to 12 months. As a result, the unemployment rate goes to 15.7% (and to 10.0% for the non-disabled). Not a dramatic change, although it should be noted that a 15+% unemployment rate for the non-disabled would cause quite a stir.

And things seem to come to a grinding halt at that point. When the BLS survey asked the non-disabled NILF persons if they were looking for a job, only about 2% said Yes. So we are left, for the moment, with outstanding questions that include:

  • Why are so many disabled persons saying they are not looking for a job?
  • Are they truly that discouraged, or are they afraid that a Yes answer will jeopardize them in some way, (e.g., are they on disability, either SSDI or SSI, and fearful of somehow losing it)?
  • Why aren’t the efforts of the state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies better reflected in the BLS statistics? A VR ‘open case’ reflects a disabled person looking for a job and there should be many disabled persons on that list.

And what is the best way to proceed on these issues:

  • Continue to publicize the widely-used 70% unemployment figure, even though it represents persons NOT employed rather than persons unemployed – and is not compatible with the BLS statistics?
  • Publicize, on blind community websites and newsletters – and elsewhere , the U5 measure (unemployment using the 12-month window) discussed above? Also publicize any other BLS alternative measures that tell a useful story.
  • Address the issue of why so many disabled persons are answering the BLS survey questions the way that they are? This is a dialogue that the blind community can run with, in conjunction with the BLS. The BLS website has contact information that really works – they have been very responsive to inquiries from VVT and others See, for example, the extensive discussion on the American Foundation for the Blind, AFB, website – ( – of data provided by the BLS on the ‘blind and visually impaired’ persons part of the disabled community

The disabled unemployment issue belongs to all of us: the disabled community, the government agency chartered to track the statistics (BLS), the government agencies chartered to make sure that jobs happen (e.g. VR) and the business (employer) community. What can you do? What are you doing?

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