Occupational Segregation and Persistent Labor Market Inequality Among People with Disabilities

In a September Openpop.org essay, I wrote about a recently published paper by myself and Michelle Maroto that sought to uncover possible reasons why the Americans with Disabilities Act had not delivered when it came to improving employment outcomes.  While we focused our attention mainly on institutional, state-level and individual characteristics over time, we noted that important supply-and-demand factors—especially occupational structures—are key to understanding barriers to the labor market, as well as poor earnings.

Indeed, in a recently published paper in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Maroto and I show how occupational “ghettoization” leads not only to low wages for most people with disabilities in comparison to similar individuals without disabilities, but that it also creates significant variation across types of disability.

By occupational ghettoization, we mean the segregation or clustering of people with disabilities into certain low-wage occupations. We found that people with disabilities are generally segregated into certain occupations, but this varies by type of disability. As the table shows, people with cognitive disabilities tend to experience the highest levels of segregation. The table also illustrates that people with different disabilities experience different levels of isolation suggesting that they may be “tokens” in their workplace. Because segregation limits employer interactions with people with disabilities, tokenism and isolation may also propagate some of the negative attitudes and stereotypes held by employers when it comes to disability and work.

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In terms of segregation across specific disabilities, we found that people with physical disabilities were overrepresented in administrative support and people with cognitive disabilities were overrepresented in food preparation and service occupations. This overrepresentation in certain occupations also had important consequences for earnings. Overall, people with disabilities were underrepresented in higher-earning occupations that include management, business, science, and the arts, and were overrepresented in low-earning, low-skill jobs with few requirements. Importantly though, not only are individuals with disabilities segregated in low earning occupations, they also earn less within those occupations than individuals without disabilities.

In our paper in Law and Policy, Maroto and I discussed the ways in which antidiscrimination legislation was rendered ineffective at removing labor market barriers for people with disabilities. However, given the complexities of labor markets, employer preferences, and occupational norms and demands, we suggest that more needs to be done at the policy level to address occupational segregation. One important way in which policymakers can tackle the negative effects of occupational clustering is by addressing barriers to education.  As we and other scholars have noted, it is especially important that people with disabilities have access to educational resources given that these help mitigate potentially negative attitudes on the part of employers about both the ability to work and barriers in hiring.  Allowing people with disabilities to obtain jobs that truly take advantage of their strengths benefits both them and their employers.

Papers can be accessed using the links below:

Maroto, Michelle and David Pettinicchio. 2014. “Disability, structural inequality, and work: The influence of occupational segregation on earnings for people with different disabilities,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 38:76-92.

Maroto, Michelle and David Pettinicchio. 2014. “The Limitations of Disability Antidiscrimination Legislation: Policymaking and the Economic Well-being of People with Disabilities.”


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