Thousands of people work despite being disabled, whether out of necessity or desire. In the last several decades, federal protections for this segment of the workforce have expanded, requiring employers to accommodate people with disabilities. In addition, many employers recognize that disabled people offer valuable insights and talents, and work to make the office a viable place for all staff members.

The Social Security administration has established a set of conditions that qualify people as eligible for disability benefits as long as they meet certain conditions. Conditions must have been present for at least 12 months, or predicted to last for an additional 12 months. The disability must limit a person’s efforts at major life activities in order to qualify.

Disabled people are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prevents employers from treating people with qualified disabilities differently than people without impairment. Employees must be treated equally when it comes to hiring, firing, promotions, and layoffs, as well as salary and job assignments. The Act also protects disabled people against workplace discrimination; it’s an employers’ legal responsibility to make sure harassment stays out of the workplace.

Federal laws support the quest to work for people with disabilities.

Disabled people have the right to work in an environment that’s not hostile, and where coworkers or management don’t harass the protected person. Teasing or isolated incidents aren’t prohibited under the law unless they become a trend or create an overall difficult working environment, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Although today’s laws are relatively robust concerning disabled people in the workforce, that wasn’t always the case. The movement toward securing rights began earlier in U.S. history, when people suffering from various conditions challenged social barriers that were isolating them, according to the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (DREDF).

Historically, few resources were available to help people with disabilities live independent lives, and so they were often institutionalized. This resulted in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, and disabled people had few rights, according to the DREDF.

As time passed and local community groups developed to fight for equal rights, the 1st step was to establish community resources to support people who were disabled so that they didn’t have to live in an institution.

Workers’ rights for the disabled grew out of decades of grassroots effort.

The ADA began very much as a grassroots effort, full of sending out letters, testifying before elected officials, and filing lawsuits on behalf of disabled people. The efforts culminated in 1990, when the original ADA was passed. In 2008, the law was amended to make it easier for people to file for disability benefits, according to the EEOC.

The range of disabilities and people’s ability to work varies widely. Some people may find their daily activities are severely impacted while others still find it possible to maintain a job.

Nearly 18% of disabled people have jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 64% of the non-disabled population. 34% of disabled workers are employed part-time, compared to 19% of the remaining population.

However, disabled people are more likely to be unemployed, with 13% of people looking for jobs unable to find them compared to 7% of the non-disabled population. That difference may be partly attributed to demographics since nearly half of all people with disabilities are at least 65 years old.

Discrimination among employers is still evident today, although many say attitudes are changing. The federal government has taken an active role in enforcing the ADA. In July 2014, for example, the EEOC won a court case against the supermarket chain Jewel-Osco for firing an employee on unpaid leave and forcing another to quit, which violated the ADA.

Additionally, some companies take advantage of disabled people. An investigation by Birmingham, New York’s Press and Sun-Bulletin found that some companies substantially underpay disabled workers. A certain non-profit paid its disabled workers as little as 33 cents per hour.

Despite the doom and gloom stories, disabled people increasingly have a place in today’s workforce, a trend spurred along by technology. For example, a disabled man in Boston works from home answering insurance claims for Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) Massachusetts, reports The Boston Globe.

More workplaces are allowing people to work from home, and even actively recruiting disabled job applicants. The average cost of accommodating a disabled person is less than $500, the newspaper reports.

With so many disabled workers, employers have come up with creative solutions to meet their needs.

Possible solutions for individuals who aren’t as mobile, perhaps due to chronic pain, include offering adjustable tables, assigning office assistants, and making sure to have appropriate ramps for people who may be in a wheelchair. Employers may also have to provide assistance for disabled employees to attend off-site meetings or carry heavy objects.

Some sectors are particularly responsive when it comes to meeting the needs of disabled people. The green economy, for example, which includes environmentally friendly products and services, has tailored professional education specifically to address the unique needs of people with disabilities.

A study published in the International Journal of Green Economics studied this emerging phenomenon. After years of stunted economic growth, the rebounding economy is clashing against the realities of climate change, spurring the rapid growth of green industries, researchers say.

Increasing job opportunities create the chance for people with disabilities to explore their career potential in fields such as science, engineering, architecture, design, and building public awareness. Researchers note that:

“People with disabilities can be powerful allies in the revitalization and economic development of their communicates as the green jobs employment sector grows.”

The study identified 4 ways in which green professionals can empower disabled people. Those include establishing rigorous criteria for funding job training programs, developing a database of green job training programs, creating hiring agreements and providing access to job advancement, and writing training manuals with information for disabled people and other industry professionals regarding the evolving green economy.

What do you think about the increasing place for disabled workers in the modern economy?

Image by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

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