Worldwide, people with disabilities struggle to find jobs

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As the 2016 Paralympic Games take place in Rio de Janeiro from Sept. 7 through 18, U.S. News & World Report is looking at the challenges facing people with disabilities worldwide.

MORGANTOWN, West Virginia — It's not always easy for West Virginians with disabilities to make their way to Jennifer Tenney's office, a generic, cream-colored building on a small hill on the outskirts of this college town. Some come from counties away, catching rides with friends or family members along Appalachian back roads.

But those who get there are among the lucky ones: They've found one of the two counselors in the entire state who can help them understand how finding work could affect their disability benefits. For some, a welcome, long-awaited return to employment is just around the corner. West Virginia, plagued by high rates of obesity, cancer and diabetes, has both the nation's highest percentage of people with disabilities and the lowest employment rate among them.

"The problem is huge," says Tenney, who works for the Social Security Administration's Work Incentives Planning and Assistance, or WIPA, program. "I have people coming in my office every day saying, 'I am tired of looking at these for four walls – I want to get to work.'"

Though particularly pronounced in West Virginia, a state where only 25 percent of people with disabilities are working, low employment rates for people with disabilities are a country-wide phenomenon. According to most experts, the employment rate of working age people with disabilities in the U.S. has fallen almost continuously since the late 1980s. In 2014, only 34 percent of working age citizens with disabilities were employed – that's compared to 75 percent of their non-disabled peers. Employment rates are often considered a better measure than unemployment figures, which don't factor in people who have stopped looking for work.

The trend extends well beyond U.S. borders to other industrialized nations and to the developing world, where the problem is more severe. But, despite international awareness that people with disabilities have the right to work – an entitlement enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities – even the most advanced economies can't seem to find a way to successfully integrate them into the workplace.

Among 29 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the late 2000s, seven had lower employment rates for citizens with disabilities than the U.S., according to a 2010 OECD report with the most recent figures. Hungary, Ireland and Poland have particularly low employment rates for their citizens with disabilities, while the Nordic countries, Mexico and Switzerland have the highest rates.

"Some OECD countries are doing relatively better; and some countries, including the U.S. and most of the Eastern European countries, are doing especially bad," says Christopher Prinz, senior economist in the OECD's employment policy division.

Low employment rates are concerning for several reasons. As more unemployed people join disability rolls, national budgets feel the pinch. In the U.S., for example, the Social Security's disability trust fund was set to run out in 2016, and was saved only by temporarily diverting funds from another program. It's now on track to go bust in 2023.

The lack of employment also takes a toll on the disabled themselves. Even though most unemployed people with disabilities receive some form of government assistance, they have far lower incomes than their peers on average, and are at far higher risk of poverty, according to the OECD. In the U.S., for example, living on disability benefits alone often keeps people just right above the poverty line. Almost 30 percent of working-age U.S. citizens with disabilities were living in poverty in 2014, more than double the rate of their non-disabled peers.

Employment also helps guard against the physical and mental health tolls that can come from being out of work.

"It's important to have a job," says Cliff Linkous, a 40-year-old with a genetic disease called Williams Syndrome who cleans bathrooms and takes out the trash at Shoney's, a chain restaurant in Morgantown. "It makes me feel good as a person. And you get paid."

Many experts attribute the employment gap between the disabled and their peers in industrialized nations to flawed policies which can provide disincentives to work.

In the U.S., for example, disabled citizens must first prove they cannot work before receiving disability benefits. That means they can only work a minimal amount while their claims are being evaluated – a process that can take many months.

Only after people qualify for disability benefits are they eligible for the kinds of rehabilitation services that could help them get a job. And if they find themselves ready to head back to the workforce, there's a catch: Disability payments are typically reduced when someone starts to work based on a complicated government formula. So, depending on how much her clients are set to make, Tenney sometimes finds herself in the awkward position of explaining that it might make more financial sense for them to actually work less.

"It was weird the first few times," she says. "It does make me think the system is flawed in a way."

Richard V. Burkhauser, senior research fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees.

"We have incentives in our system that are at odds with our stated goals since the Americans with Disabilities Act," he says. "The problem is that once people get on the disability rolls, virtually no one gets off except for death or reaching retirement age."

Another reason for the employment gap is tied to trends in the global economy.

In recent years, globalization, changes in technology and the Great Recession have led to fewer jobs for low-skilled workers in both Europe and the U.S. Many people with disabilities want to work, researchers say, but the jobs they want – the kind that would pay more than their benefits – just aren't there. In West Virginia, for example, jobs have evaporated as coal mines have shuttered. With less than half of working-age adults in the workforce, competition for any job is fierce.

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"The idea that they will be able to secure a job with health insurance and benefits – it's true for some but it's not going to be true for a lot of people in these programs," says Zach Morris, a doctoral candidate focused on international disability benefit reforms at the University of California Berkeley. "They are more likely to be doing something more temporary with less security – that's an underlying challenge."

Poor employment prospects, combined with a curtailing of pensions, early retirement schemes and other social-assistance benefits have made disability programs in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere the "benefit of last resort for people unable to stay in, or get into, the labour market," according to the OECD.

Some experts on disability benefit reform say it doesn't need to be this way. They point to several countries in Europe that have switched to "work first policies," rules that require workers and employers to consider workplace accommodation and rehabilitation before state benefits kick in.

In the Netherlands, one of the most cited examples of effective reform, there was once such a high percentage of people receiving disability benefits that economists began referring to the challenge as "the Dutch Disease." Then in 2002 a policy switch required employers to demonstrate an effort to accommodate and rehabilitate their workers for two years, and for workers to cooperate in turn. Only when efforts are not effective are the workers able to collect state-issued disability benefits.

In the past 14 years, the country has significantly reduced the percentage of working age adults on disability, a trend Burkhauser attributes to the policy shift. His research suggests Germany and Sweden have made similar gains from moving toward work first policies.

But most experts say it's too early to draw any clear lessons from these programs. Drastic reforms can be expensive to implement, some warn, or simply drive people onto a different kind of benefit program. In some cases, they may even be unfair.

"I would be careful not to exaggerate the effects of the reforms in Europe," Morris says. He points to the case of the United Kingdom, where 2008 reforms encouraged people with disabilities to stay in the workforce and required everyone on the disability rolls to be re-assessed for their work capabilities. While the reforms moved people off the rolls, not all believe the removals were just.

"That generated a lot of controversy," Morris says. "The dust hasn't settled."

Still, Morris adds, he wishes the U.S. could find the "creative spirit" other countries have summoned to tackle the issue.

"I think we could be more ambitious," he says.

Part of the challenge for policymakers is the complicated nature of the issue. Disability is a wide spectrum. Young adults with developmental disabilities from birth, for example, will need different strategies for finding employment than adults who acquire a disability as they age. For the former group, advocates say, society needs to do a better job of prioritizing employment preparation in the education system and in supporting adults after high school.

Attitude changes, as well as policy shifts, may also be key to combating underemployment of people with disabilities.

More than 25 years after the Americans With Disabilities Act, which intended to promote inclusiveness, there's still a "culture of a lack of expectations" among some parents with children with disabilities, says David Hoff, program director at the Institute for Community Inclusion at University of Massachusetts Boston.

"We are seeing it changing in certain areas, but in terms of an expectations that, 'Yes, even though he has a disability, I still expect him to go to work,' is a relatively new and certainly not universal view," Hoff says.

People with disabilities in the U.S. are also up against decades-old myths surrounding disability assistance. Many people are under the misimpression that the second they do any work, all of their benefits evaporate, Tenney says.

Even when people do find work, some will back out the last minute. "They're scared," Tenney says.

In a tough economy, where stable jobs seem ever more elusive, they may have reason to be.

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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