5 Quick Facts about Americans with Disabilities

It’s been 30 years since the ADA was signed into law. Here’s a brief look at some stats about Americans with disabilities today.

This weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When it comes to public policy, the ADA is a landmark piece of legislation, prohibiting discrimination based on disability and putting accessibility requirements in place for employers and some structures.

The ADA produced many significant changes for those living with a disability (and continues to do so). Still, the 40 to 60 million Americans living with a disability face challenges in our communities—not because of their own livelihoods but because we haven’t made our spaces and society accessible.

A big barrier to achieving this is simply awareness. The more people know about their neighbors, the more likely they’ll be proactive about accessibility. Without further ado, here are five quick facts about Americans with disabilities according to Census Bureau data.

1. Older Americans are more likely to have a disability than younger folks, yet most living with a disability are 64-years-old or younger.

Older groups have disproportionately higher numbers of reported individuals with disabilities. About half of Americans aged 75 or older live with a disability, over 9.9 million people.

This stat might be why many people attribute a disability to age, but doing so overlooks the other 30 million people with disabilities: the largest share of this population—about 15.5 million people—are between the ages of 35 and 64.

2. About one in four disabled Americans are in the work force, compared to two in three Americans with no disability.

In other words, 24% of disabled Americans were employed compared to 67% of Americans with no disability. (We’re talking those age 16 or older, by the way.)

Workers with a disability are less likely to work in management positions and more likely to work in service and production/transportation jobs than non-disabled workers.

3. Median earnings for workers with a disability are almost 34% lower than workers with no disability.

According to the Census Bureau’s ACS data for 2018, the estimated median income for disabled workers is $23,848. For workers with no disability, that number is $36,034. Only 26% of workers with a disability make more than $35,000 a year, compared to almost 52% of non-disabled workers.

There are two big reasons for this gap. The first involves accessibility. Depending on what kind of disability they have, many disabled Americans are forced to choose low-paying jobs over higher-paying ones. The other reason is built-in discrimination: The Fair Labor Standards Act includes a provision that allows employers to pay disabled workers far below the federal minimum wage.

4. One in five Americans with a disability live below the poverty line.

About 20% of disabled Americans live below the poverty line, compared to 10% of non-disabled Americans.

When extending the scope to 150% of the poverty line, this disproportionality only grows: 32% of those with a disability live below this benchmark compared to just 17%.

5. Less than half of Americans with a disability have attended college, and less than one fifth have earned a bachelor’s.

There is a significant gap in educational attainment. When looking at high school, 20% of those with a disability aged 25 or older have not completed high school or an equivalent achievement. To compare, less than 10% of people with no disability aged 25 or older haven’t completed high school.

College is a different matter. A total of 54% of disabled Americans don’t attend college. (Combining the percentage of those with highest education attainment being some high school with those who completed high school or an equivalent.) Meanwhile, only 35% of those with no disability are in this category.

Roughly 28% of those living with a disability have attended some college without earning a bachelor’s, about the same for the population at large. Still, less than 18% actually earn a four-year degree, less than half of the percentage of those with no disability.

The relationship with education and living with a disability is a complicated one. Many schools aren’t accessible or lack what they need to make sure all their students succeed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act requires schools to do this, but navigating the act’s specific processes can be tough for school instructors, students, and parents.

If you’re new to this information, it might take some time to digest. If you live with a disability, you probably already know a lot of it. Importantly, this doesn’t take into account other stuff, like higher costs for health care, the human services “cliff” that occurs when a disabled person finished high school, transportation accessibility issues for those with walking or movement disabilities, or the fact that we’re probably undercounting the number of people with disabilities.

There’s evidence that progress has been made over the last 30 years, but we need to acknowledge that we still aren’t treating a portion of our community fairly. We need to do more than continue improving the ADA (and the IDEA Act); we need to fix the way we frame disability-related issues.


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