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Since today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I want to highlight some statistics regarding the participation of persons with disabilities in the labor force around the world. According to a December 2012, UN Press Release by the Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, ‘about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability.’ The World Bank estimates that 20% of the world’s poorest people have some kind of disability, and tend to be regarded in their own communities as the most disadvantaged.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published a paper in Psychological Review titled, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ which is often referred to as the ‘hierarchy of needs.’ It includes the most basic elements that human beings long for in our lives: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. For many people, working and doing that we enjoy is a big part of life. It what makes us happy because it’s what we look forward to doing each and every day.  Working also creates opportunity for people. It’s what provides not only the necessities, but the desires or ‘wants’ in our lives.

Two articles posted on the World Bank website, ‘See me, and do not forget me – People with disabilities in Kenya’ and ‘This is my life-Living with a disability in Yemen’ both written by Benedicte Ingstad and Lisbet Grut, share the stories of people and their struggles at being accepted in society but also trying to make the most of their lives.  In the articles, the researchers share the hardships families go through caring for people with disabilities, but also explain how poverty and having a disability are intertwined. It’s not until recently when the United Nations promoted an International Day of Disabled Persons (1992) and in 2007 a UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was opened for signature.

To measure economic activity for those with disabilities around the world is extremely difficult as many countries either do not report disability statistics or the data on file is too old to be relevant for public policy purposes. I have looked at three countries that have good, reliable data on people with disabilities in the labor market — Norway, the UK, and the USA. Starting in June 2008, the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy sponsored the collection of data on people with disabilities to the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of 60,000 households that provides statistics on employment and unemployment in the United States.

Labor force measures from the CPS are tabulated for people aged 16 and older. Disability data from the UK comes out of the Labor Force Survey (LFS) published quarterly since 19921. Norway also uses a representative sample survey based on interviews by telephone2. The data presented in this paper is based on an ad hoc module of questions to the Labor Force Survey in the second quarter of 2006-2012 except for 2009, which was done in the fourth quarter. Norway defines ‘disability’ very broadly, as a long-term health problem that may limit everyday life. To keep my statistics somewhat uniform between Norway, UK, and the USA, I focused on the 16-64 age.   

A reliable and accurate statistic as stated in the 2011 UN ‘World Report on Disability’, that allows us to gain a better view of persons with disabilities in the labor market is calculating the percentage of the population that is employed, or the employment-population ratio. Since there is a larger percentage of persons with disabilities not in the labor market compared to persons without a disability, we want to look at the number of people with disabilities employed divided by the total population. Looking at the diagrams comparing the different characteristics for the respective countries, you can see that persons with a disability have a significantly lower employment rate than persons with no disability. Even looking at the employment rate annual averages for the years shown, the data stays pretty consistent. This is where it would be helpful to have available several years of data, as the years presented occur when the global economy has not been prosperous.

Since the employment rate for persons with disabilities is not as high when compared to persons with no disabilities, I wanted to look at where persons with disabilities are working and what type of employment they are more likely to work in. Part-time employment for persons with disabilities as a proportion of total employment among persons aged 15-66 in Norway and persons aged 16-64 in the USA, is almost double for persons with disabilities when compared to the total employed. One area of surprise, when looking at the US data, is in the area of self- employment. In 2012, the rate of self-employed individuals for persons with disabilities is almost double, 11.3% to just 6.5% of persons with no disability. Access to education and the fact that part-time employment for persons with disabilities is higher than for persons with no disabilities could be the reason why the rate of self-employed individuals with a disability is almost double.

Having a job to many people is our identity; it’s what gives us meaning in life. I realize that attending college or completing the traditional educational training curriculum is not feasible for everyone with a disability, but being aware of the data and the problem is why national statistics bureaus are important in our society. They provide us with the objective analysis that we need for public policy decisions that affect our country. I bet many probably knew that people with disabilities have significant disadvantages in society, but to enact change we need to be able to look at the data instead of speculating on it. I hope by writing on this topic, more countries will start gathering data, and we will be able to look at the issue in a wider context. There are countries that present disability statistics data every few years, but having the data available on a regular basis does allow us to look at it annually so we can see the variation and the effects it shows with the changes in our economic climate.



  • 1. Due to changes in the reporting behavior of the UK Labor Force Survey, respondents at the start of 2010 related to a change in the wording of the survey questionnaire, I am only reporting for years 2010-2012.
  • 2. Citizens in all Norwegian municipalities are randomly selected, on the basis of a register of family units. The sample consists of about 24,000 persons each quarter. Each family member aged 15-74 participates in the survey, answering questions about her/his situation during a specified reference week.

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