Plotting the Future of Education, Disabilities and the Workplace
Research tells us that workers with higher levels of education are less likely to report a work-limiting disability and are less likely to receive federal disability benefits. As the U.S. workforce becomes more educated, what should we expect for future trends in work-limiting conditions and the need for federal disability benefits? How will the relationship between education and employment for persons with disabilities evolve? The answers depend on why and how education, employment and disability are connected.
Education Can Facilitate Work…
Education can allow an individual to choose less-strenuous occupations, perhaps making them less likely to acquire a disability at work, or more able to continue in their job after the onset of an impairment. It may make it easier for workers to change jobs when needed–SSA implicitly assumes this is true, at least for older workers, when determining whether a worker can do a job that’s different from those previously held. Education can also affect health directly by providing individuals with the knowledge to better maintain their well-being.
If education makes work less strenuous or improves health, both impairments and benefits might decrease as cohorts become more educated. Similarly, if more education increases workers’ abilities to learn new skills and adapt to new employment situations, we would expect a general increase in education among those with disabilities to lessen their need for disability benefits, though not necessarily the prevalence of conditions. If correlations between education and disability are primarily driven by other causes, or if more educated workers simply get first pick of available occupations, a general increase in education might do little to change impairments or the need for benefits.
… However, Education Only Goes So Far.
Unfortunately, the earnings gaps between those with and without disabilities are larger at higher levels of education. If these gaps by education level persist as cohorts become more educated, we might see increasing employment and earnings for both those with and without disabilities, but also increasing disparities between the two groups. Without understanding what’s causing this disparity, we can’t know if it will grow fast enough to offset the financial gains that we would expect given the additional education.
Of course, impairments early in life can limit a student’s ability to absorb the full benefits of education. Special education, which offers instruction tailored to the individual needs of students with disabilities, is intended to mitigate such impediments. However, special education is far from perfect. Students with disabilities are much less likely to graduate than peers without disabilities, even though graduation rates have improved as special education has grown and evolved over time. And special education is not for everyone. I’ve found that, for some students, the detrimental effects of placement—be they discouragement, a different peer group, or loss of opportunities—overwhelm any benefit of special education, hurting achievement.
Asking the Right Questions
If we want to know what to expect for people with disabilities as the U.S. workforce becomes more educated–and how to effectively use education to improve the well-being of persons with disabilities – we need to know more. We need to know why income gaps increase with education. We need to know who benefits from special education and who does not, and how to design education and transition services that provide students with disabilities the knowledge, credentials and supports they need to adapt to job markets as they age. Finally, we need to know to what extent the association between education and disability is causal, or simply correlational.