People with disabilities are still struggling to find employment — here are the obstacles they face

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Mollie Winninger, 27, is one of many Americans eager to join the job market in hopes of finding a full-time job. In order to compete with many applicants, Winninger has relied on a trick in her job applications to increase her chances of landing an interview: refusing to disclose her disability.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Feb. 26 an unemployment rate of 7.3% among people with disabilities in 2019, a slight decrease from the 8% reported in 2018. Yet, people with disabilities are still twice as likely to be unemployed, compared to those without a disability.

That has been the case for Winninger. During her time in graduate school, she was diagnosed with severe arthritis and POTS, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. Because of her arthritis, she is in chronic pain. Some of her accommodations to manage her discomfort at school included rotating between sitting and standing during her classes. One day of home care per week was allowed, in case Winninger's pain was too severe and she could not attend class. POTS causes her to have low blood pressure and a high heart rate, which makes her prone to fainting.

After graduating in May 2019, she began searching for work in August, hoping to find a place in chaplaincy or nonprofit organizations. She disclosed her disabilities at the start of her job search, but she never heard back from employers. "There is a stigma attached to that, and it can harm your chances, unfortunately," said Winninger. She found that to be true in her case, despite the existence of laws preventing employers from discriminating during the application process, like Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA. 

When she stopped disclosing her disabilities, the invitations for interviews rolled in. After more than 50 applications, she has yet to find full-time work. But she is not sure exactly why. "It's hard not to get feedback as to why they turn you down," said Winninger.

RespectAbility, a non-profit organization that works to advance opportunities for people with disabilities, released their own report this week on job gains among people with disabilities. Although their report relies on 2018 data from the Census Bureau, whereas the Bureau of Labor Statistics contains recent 2019 data, it still identifies the worrisome nature of the workforce for those with disabilities.

According to RespectAbility, only 29,893 people with disabilities joined the workforce in 2018, compared to 343,000 two years prior. "Fewer and fewer people with disabilities are getting employment, and that is not a good thing," said Philip Kahn-Pauli, policy and practices director at RespectAbility. Pauli explains the Bureau of Labor Statistics report "captures a simplistic view of a very complex topic."

One of the reasons why RespectAbility reported a significant drop of people with disabilities joining the workforce is the inflow and outflow of workers, according to Kahn-Pauli. People who entered the workforce for the first time left because there were no accommodations for their disabilities. Technology has made it easier to hire some people with disabilities and integrate them in the workforce, said Kahn-Pauli, but it leaves out those with more significant disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and being quadriplegic. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report was not surprising for Azza Altiraifi, a research and advocacy manager for the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. "They just confirmed what every disabled person living in this country has known," said Altiraifi, "which is to say that our economic condition hasn't changed, and it is only worsening."

Why those with disabilities struggle to find work

Altiraifi claims a lack of enforcement of the ADA, and algorithmic assessments by large corporations, are contributing to the unemployment rate of people with disabilities. "What ends up happening in the process is that people with disabilities are being screened out because they don't present in ways that are considered normative by these algorithmic assessments," explained Altiraifi.

The Brookings Institution has noted the concerns of using employment algorithms like artificial intelligence. If an applicant with a disability displays facial features or mannerisms during a video interview that the algorithm is not familiar with, the person will receive a low score on their application.

Other complex issues contribute to the unemployment rate, especially when looking into racial demographics of people with disabilities. For example, unemployment among African Americans and Latino folks with disabilities has increased since last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Kahn-Pauli says one reason for the rise of unemployment in the Latino population is due to fear of President Donald Trump's administration. For example, the public charge rule took effect on Feb. 24, which bars admission to the United States for those who are likely to use public benefits. It also affects those who previously used public benefits, who are seeking to change their nonimmigrant status.

The administration's focus on immigration enforcement and the passage of public charge fueled fear among immigrants with and without disabilities. "That fear is causing people to not disclose their disabilities," said Kahn-Pauli, "or seek help to overcome barriers to employment."

In response to Kahn-Pauli's statement regarding public charge's effect on Latino people with disabilities, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson referred to its policy manual to CNBC Make It. Although a disability diagnosis is a negative factor if it prevents a person from providing care for him or herself, "a disability that impacts the applicant's ability to provide and care got him or herself, to attend school, or to work must not be the sole basis for an inadmissibility determination." 

But there are worrisome circumstances for those who live in the U.S., too. In African-American communities, many students drop out of school and are most likely to end up in prison because schools fail to cater to disabilities, Kahn-Pauli said. 

Once released from prison, the stigma of being an ex-con gets in the way of securing a job. "The deck is stacked against African-Americans with disabilities," he said.

As employers are dealing with a labor shortage, Kahn-Pauli sees this as an opportunity for the federal government to gather and talk about ways to recruit people with disabilities. "We've got millions of Americans who want to work," he said. "What do we need to do to get them hired?"

Although the job market may look grim, Mollie Winninger remains hopeful to work with communities in need. "My dream job would be one where I could have a sense of purpose everyday and help people," she said, "and use the education I worked very hard for."

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