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Fifteen Years On The Bottom Rung Analysis Essay

An analysis of occupational and demographic data obtained by the US Census Bureau from 1.4 million labor force participants, combined with data on occupational characteristics from the O*NET database, reveals that workers with disabilities are substantially underrepresented in occupations that require proficiency in information, communication, and supervisory skills, the very qualities that afford higher earnings and better job security. Such workers are correspondingly overrepresented in entry-level, unskilled, highly physical, and more hazardous occupations, all of which typically offer lower wages and greater risk of job loss or layoff. These descriptive findings confirm results from prior studies showing disability-related disparities in earnings [1, 2], unemployment levels [3], and occupational roles [2, 6, 12, 13], but add to the understanding of these differences by systematically exploring the characteristics of occupations in which people with disabilities are more or less likely to work.

Multilevel regression models, which simultaneously assess the effects of individual and occupational characteristics on the likelihood of a labor force participant having a disability, reveal that differences in educational attainment, age, and other individual characteristics can partly explain the differences in disability rates across occupations. But, in models of overall and specific types of disability and of workers in different age groups, the nature of the occupations themselves are also highly significant, adding considerably to their ability to explain the variation in disability rates. Consistently across all models, the amount of required work experience and the extent of required proficiency in information skills both negatively predict disability. And proficiency in communication skills is also significant and negative in most of the models.

The effects of these skill requirements on the representation of workers with disabilities, and the consequences in terms of earnings and job stability, are new to the literature; the strong effect of occupational experience requirements is consistent with a prior finding that workers with disabilities are promoted less often than their non-disabled peers [3]. The preponderance of workers with disabilities in unskilled, low-skilled, and entry-level occupations is somewhat at odds with studies showing that people in higher-skilled jobs who acquire disabilities are more likely to remain employed rather than leaving the labor force [14, 15].

The most unexpected findings are those relating to the specific skills that predict the representation of workers with disabilities in an occupation. One would suppose that people with disabilities, like other workers, would gravitate toward occupations that highlight their abilities, avoiding jobs emphasizing activities they would find difficult or impossible to perform. And certainly, employers ought to be hiring workers whose abilities match the demands of the job. One might naively believe, for example, that a sedentary occupation involving information or communication skills would be better suited to a person with mobility impairment than a physically demanding occupation, or that employers would be more likely to hire such a person for a sedentary than a physical job.

Another naive expectation might be that people with certain sensory impairments, especially blindness and low vision, would also be attracted by or selected into occupations emphasizing information or communication skills, for which assistive technologies are readily available to those needing them, rather than physical skills. On the other hand, one might suppose that people with cognitive disabilities, perhaps lacking advanced information skills, would choose or be relegated to occupations that emphasize physical abilities.

For all these suppositions, however, the reality is quite different. The models suggest that, controlling for other factors, people with disabilities are greatly underrepresented in occupations requiring proficiency in handling and evaluating information and in communicating with customers or others outside the organization. In contrast, people with physical disabilities (or any other type of disability) are not significantly underrepresented in occupations requiring physical skills in handling objects and equipment, nor are people with cognitive (or any other) disabilities overrepresented. The statistical models also find no association between the presence of workers with disabilities and the need for supervisory skills, a surprise given the clear differences in supervisory duties found in a prior study [6]. Skills in serving and caring for others were also not significant.

Aside from proficiency requirements across occupations, the amount of prior, related work experience needed to obtain a job in a given occupation plays a major role in influencing the presence of workers with disabilities, with far greater representation in entry-level than higher-status occupations. The effect is especially pronounced in the cognitive disability model. Although labor force participants with disabilities have, on average, less educational attainment than those without disabilities, this finding cannot be attributed to such differences, which have been controlled for in the models.

The general lack of statistical significance of the occupational risk factors in the models is another unexpected finding. These variables were included to test the hypothesis that workplace injuries or stress levels might result in greater work-related disability and therefore be a factor in the greater prevalence of workers with disabilities in certain occupations. But these results suggest the contrary; in fact, high stress levels are associated with a lower presence of sensory or cognitive disability. This finding is consistent with prior research suggesting that the level of job strain is associated with later risk of acquiring a disability [16]. The limited extent of risk factors tested is a weakness in the analysis; additional information on occupational risks, such as that obtained using data on rates of workplace injury, could be added in a future study.

The preponderance of workers with disabilities in entry-level positions, and in occupations requiring little in the way of information or communication skills, has clear implications. As shown in Table 3, occupations with low levels in either skill or in required work experience have especially low earnings and high rates of unemployment. An analysis of the extent to which these occupational factors account for the lower earnings of workers with disabilities compared to their non-disabled counterparts is beyond the scope of this paper, but would make for an interesting future research project.

Workers with disabilities do not appear to be employed to their fullest potential, earning less and having less job security partly because they are employed in lower-paid occupations that do not take advantage of skills that are in the highest demand. There are several possible explanations. Clearly, one possibility is discrimination [8]. Workers with disabilities might be stuck in entry-level jobs because they are not getting equitable opportunities for promotion [3], not receiving the workplace accommodations necessary to perform more highly skilled work, or not being hired into better-paying jobs for which there is more competition. Employers might be relying on stereotypes about people with disabilities, relegating them to less prestigious, less visible jobs that do not require advanced information or communication skills. Or employers may deny them opportunities for training that would help them obtain those skills and enable them to advance their careers.

Another possibility is that there are real deficits in levels of relevant work experience between workers with and without disabilities. Labor force participants with disabilities may have work histories that are less solid than their non-disabled counterparts [13], because of temporary absences from the workforce or periods of part-time work; or, when an acquired disability necessitates a change in occupation, prior work experience might not be related to the current job. Although educational level is controlled for in the models, there may be differences in the specific skills that have been obtained through education or through prior jobs. The absence of data on work history and skill levels is a principal limitation of this study; national datasets other than the ACS have limited work history information but a much smaller sample size and a much less detailed occupational classification.

A third possible explanation for the disproportionate presence of workers with disabilities in certain lower-paid occupations rests in the workers themselves. Perhaps they do not actively pursue better-paying, more intellectually demanding jobs because their expectations for employment are low, believing either that they are not qualified for better jobs or that no employer will hire them despite their qualifications. Young adults with learning disabilities, for example, were found in one study to aspire to lower-prestige occupations than their peers without disabilities [17].

Alternatively, workers with disabilities may actually prefer jobs entailing fewer work hours and responsibilities and offering greater flexibility and less psychological stress that might worsen their health or functioning [5, 18]. Or they may stick with lower-paying jobs to retain public healthcare coverage or cash benefits, which would be lost if their income increased beyond the eligibility limit [19]. Whether due to lack of ambition or rational choice, many workers with disabilities might be voluntarily underemployed, settling for lower-status, lower-paid jobs rather than pursuing opportunities for advancement or training.

Workers with disabilities cannot achieve parity with their non-disabled counterparts in terms of earnings, benefits, and job security until they have equal access to and equal representation in better-paid and more highly skilled occupations. Vocational rehabilitation agencies, special education programs, and other service providers must reconsider any practice of encouraging people with disabilities to settle for jobs that do not take full advantage of their skills, abilities, and experience. Incentives to place people in any job, rather than a good job matching the person’s interests and abilities, may be counterproductive. Lack of ambition in a job search, or in pursuing opportunities for advancement, may lead to a lifetime of underemployment, low pay, and job insecurity. Furthermore, inflexible income limits to eligibility for government benefit programs should be changed, lest they continue to serve as a disincentive to advancement into higher paying jobs.

It is likely that discrimination plays a role in the apparent exclusion of large numbers of workers with disabilities from better-paid and more stable occupations. The dearth of representation in occupations involving contact with the public—in other words, as visible representatives of the business or organization—is particularly telling. Employers must be better educated in recognizing the talents and abilities of workers with disabilities, and of their potential, given appropriate accommodations, to perform a wide variety of job tasks [20]. They should also include disability status as a component in their efforts to increase and showcase workplace diversity, reversing what is apparently the current practice of keeping their employees with disabilities shielded from public exposure.

Finally, national disability employment policy must further expand its focus beyond getting people with disabilities into the workforce, to also include fostering quality careers that pay well and offer stability and opportunities for advancement. Such services ought to be provided not only to people entering or attempting to re-enter the labor force, but also to employed people with disabilities working in entry-level, low-skill jobs. Workers with disabilities need greater opportunity to advance into higher quality occupations, increase their earnings potential, and improve their job security and social status. The promise of a brighter employment future would go a long way toward encouraging greater labor force participation among people with disabilities, substantially increasing both employment and income levels and reducing reliance on benefit programs.

By focusing on factors associated with occupational differences, and finding large discrepancies between the backgrounds and abilities of workers with disabilities and the types of jobs they hold, this study adds to the understanding of employment disparities between people with and without disabilities. A person’s occupation affects not only his or her earnings potential, but also the level of job security and stability, job satisfaction, motivation to join and remain attached to the labor force, and alignment between job tasks and the person’s abilities, perhaps in the face of future declines in functional abilities or health status. Future research should focus on the barriers to better and more appropriate careers for workers with disabilities, and pinpoint strategies for overcoming those barriers.

On September 11, 2001, did American Muslims become America's newest race? This essay offers preliminary observations regarding that question.

Using the word “race” in America is like waving a red flag before a bull. You are likely to get a spirited response. In the context of a national calamity like the September 11, 2001 tragedy, discussing race becomes an even more delicate venture. Accordingly, to reduce prospects of confusion later, this essay begins by briefly addressing some initial concerns about even using the term “race.” The essay acknowledges that race is a complex, multilayered phenomenon. In these circumstances, do not expect these comments to provide definitive insights into the nature of “race.” Rather, because racial worldviews are so pervasive, the essay limits itself to merely attempting to give a sense of how the term “race” is used here.

After briefly dealing with some concerns about race, the essay outlines evidence that, based on what at best can be called racial stereotypes, American Muslims have been singled out for particularly egregious treatment following the September 11 tragedy. For illustrative purposes, the essay draws comparisons between the response of public officials to the September 11 and Oklahoma City bombing catastrophes. The essay then puts these matters in a slightly broader historical perspective by considering several cases which the United States Supreme Court decided in the 1930s and 1940s before and after another calamitous day in American history: December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor. To round out the historical outline, two contrasting cases involving the jurisdiction of military commissions to try American civilians are briefly evaluated.

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